Racial tension among students: Has it changed?
|By L. Edward Street|
Michigan State alum Ernie Green reacts to recent MSU racial issuesMonday, Oct. 17 — Nearly 30 years after it was built, Little Rock Central High School unexpectedly became the centerpiece of the 1957 Little Rock Integration Crisis. Nine African-American students known as the Little Rock Nine were denied entrance to the school in defiance of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling ordering integration of public learning facilities. Sixteen-year-old student Ernie Green was one of those nine students. Green will return to Lansing for the semi-centennial anniversary homecoming celebration of his MSU fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, this Saturday at the Causeway Bay Hotel. The event is for fraternity members and their families only. For information about the event, contact the Causeway Bay Hotel. Green is a founding member of the MSU Sigma chapter of Omega Psi Phi. He was interviewed by telephone by Eddie Street, an MSU student intern at City Pulse.
What was it like being a part of the Little Rock Nine?
Green: It was a very important honor, and I’m proud to have been a part of such a group. One of the things about being a teenager at that time was that you wanted to try to make conditions better for African Americans who had come before me, and for those coming after me, and I believe that somehow I could do that. It was a period when things were changing, and the bus boycotts along with everything else made an impact on me. I knew that if I had an education I could make changes.
Were you ever afraid for your life at any moment during the integration crisis?
Green: Well I wasn’t afraid for my life because we had the support of ministers and we also had the roll of Mrs. Daisy Baits of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), plus a number of other organizations. But, I was mostly worried about the governor preventing me from actually graduating that year, and that somehow in 1958 I wouldn’t be able to finish.
What was it like coming face-to-face with the National Guard?
Green: Well the National Guard was there to keep us out, and they most certainly had riffles. I’m not certain if they really had live bullets in their guns, but they were strictly there to prevent us from entering the school. But then President Eisenhower sent in the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army and 1000 paratroopers to escort us.
How did you and the other students prepare for the forced integration of Central High School? How were you treated by the white students?
Green: We had meetings before we tried to enter the school. We also had a number of peer sessions on non-violence, and we had the help and support of our families. But nothing had fully prepared us for that day because no one before had used state militia to keep us out of school. All of this was new territory for everyone
Students who were already inside the school when we got in were generally supportive. But the majority of other students were boycotting the classes. When the boycotting stopped, and students came back to class, that’s when they began setting the tempo for the harassment, spitting, and name-calling.
After you graduated from high school and came to Michigan State, how were you treated?
Green: The treatment I received from MSU was very supportive. I had a great roommate and kept in contact with him for quite a bit of time. I found that my initial MSU experience was one of open arms, and I came there on a scholarship and found out many years later that my benefactor was John Hannah. That’s not to say that there weren’t racial incidents when I was there, but for the most part MSU was a university that was open to change. I can remember working with student life and faculty to create a university that we could be proud of.
Recently there have been a number of incidences that the president of MSU has labeled as racial intimidation. Black dolls were hung by nooses in certain classrooms and the “N” word was written on the doors of a few students who were the only African Americans on the floor of their dorms. What kind of reaction do you have toward something like that?
Green: Well my reaction is that that’s pretty stupid behavior. MSU has a reputation of being an international university and anyone who would revert to that type of action is making themselves very cheap. We’re in a world where people need to adjust to the 21st century. We’re in a multi racial society, and the better people realize that, the better people can make it work for them. The people who are doing these things are small minded and bigoted, but they have room to grow.
Is there a connection between your own struggles with facing racial discrimination and the importance of the upcoming Omega Psi Phi semi-centennial?
Green: I have found that over the past 50 years the relationship among the (Omega) members have helped expand my horizon and create great contacts and terrific networking. It has been an opportunity to find a group of African American men that were achievers and who wished to make their mark on society. This is what I wanted to do with the Little Rock Nine. I wanted to have as many broad opportunities in life as I could.