STARKVILLE, Miss.--As the African-American teens approached Little Rock Central High School in fall 1957, a mob protested the "Little Rock Nine" as they sought to defy segregation and become agents of change.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower commanded the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division to escort them, and Ernest Green was frightened. He told more than 500 at Mississippi State on Thursday [Feb. 27] that he knew then he was meant to be a leader, but becoming one wasn't easy.
During his "Lessons from Little Rock" talk, Green shared his ideas about how people today, especially college and high school students, can become agents of change.
Green recalled a person in his community who asked Green why he wanted to leave his all-black high school if he knew pushing for true integration would only create more troubles for his fellow African-Americans.
"But, he should have asked a bigger question: 'Why not?'" Green said. "Why not change things for the better? Why not challenge separate but equal? Why not prove that all men are truly created equal and deserve the same opportunities? I knew that I could meet the challenge because I thought of those who asked, 'Why not?'"
Creating change requires adaptability, he said. Because change is constant, adapting to the situation and remaining fluid are key to achieving goals.
He also emphasized the importance of willingness to go around problems instead of trying to go through them.
"Hate is strong, and sometimes it is backed up by soldiers with lethal weapons… Sometimes, it's about finding an alternate route, rather than forcing things to happen," Green said. "What resonates with me internally are the words my mother often quoted: 'God wouldn't bring you this far to leave you.'"
The principal at Central High advised Green not to attend graduation and receive his diploma by mail. Though Green received threats and was told he would be assassinated at the ceremony, he was undeterred and received his diploma to what he called "deafening silence."
He emphasized that, while race relations have come a long way in the state, the nation and the world, change must continue, as does the fight for equality among all races, religions, creeds and lifestyles.
"You have the opportunity to be someone who's accepting of other people; the agent of change really starts with each individual," Green said. "You have to be willing to step up personally and take responsibility for implementing the change."
After Green became the first African-American to graduate from Central High, he earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Michigan State University. Green received honorary doctorates from Michigan State, Tougaloo College and Central State University in Ohio.
During his MSU presentation, he maintained that education is key to creating more agents of change, and he encouraged the audience to be willing to become the leaders who are unafraid to challenge the status quo and "dream the dream of a better tomorrow."
Green is the managing director of public finance for Lehman Brothers in Washington, D.C. He also served as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employment and Training during former President Jimmy Carter's administration.
Learn more about MSU at www.msstate.edu.