History Lessons: An Intergenerational Dialogue on Civil Rights
Above: Alex Hosey and Ernest Green
[Editor’s note: Alex Hosey’s essay “Why I Sit” moved the City of East Lansing to begin a series of dialogues about race in the community. For that reason, we asked ELi reporter and high school student Hosey to interview civil rights activist Ernest Green when Green was in East Lansing to serve as Grand Marshall for the 2018 MSU Homecoming Parade.]
A few weeks ago, before the MSU homecoming parade, I had the opportunity to spend the afternoon with Mr. Ernest Green, legendary activist and member of the Little Rock Nine. Green was invited back to East Lansing as the Grand Marshal of the 2018 Homecoming Parade.
Green attended MSU on an anonymous scholarship to MSU where he earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. Green said he later learned that former MSU President John Hannah was the anonymous donor.
We opened our discussion by discussing changes made by the Michigan Department of Education to the Social Studies curriculum over much of the past year. The department’s subcommittee has handed down recommendations to take out events that are being currently taught, including the March on Washington, formation of the NAACP, and The Little Rock Nine.
I asked Mr. Green about the proposed curriculum changes.
“I think they would make a serious flaw in their curriculum if they do that,” Green said, who seemed surprised to learn of the recommendations. “One of the things that I think Little Rock represents, I think Birmingham represents, and a number of other places is that it was a student-led change. The change factor.”
Green recounted many stories from his past. He talked about how – just because of the color of their skin – the Little Rock Nine were yelled at, spit upon, and blocked from entering school.
“The real question, at least when I was a student is, why does all this matter?” Green said. “How does it make me better? Why should I go to school? What’s going to occur? Am I going to be President of the United States? Maybe not, but maybe something else. So, I hope the State of Michigan leaves in enough references that become inducements for young people to see that there’s a reason that you want to stay in education.”
“Otherwise you could just sit in front of the screen of your computer and just absorb information,” Green continued. “The history is you have exchanges, be able to have a dialogue with other students, and to come to some conclusion that ‘this matters to me.’”
This year marks the 61st anniversary of the Little Rock Nine’s willingness to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, an action now widely viewed as courageous and history-changing.
In the ceremony to commemorate the Little Rock Nine’s bravery, former President Bill Clinton told them that they might have to come out of retirement.
“You taught us that in economics and in social policy and in politics, addition is better than subtraction, and multiplication is better than division,” Clinton said in his speech. “So, celebrate today. Put on your dancing shoes, but tomorrow … tomorrow, we need you again. Put on your marching boots.”
Many of the activists who fought with the Nine are no longer with us. I asked Mr. Green what he would say to encourage members of the younger generation, like me, to speak out and effect change.
“I think you are on a path that you have to stay focused on,” Green said. “That is, to keep challenging forces that want to restrict history. And if we don’t spend time looking at our history, we are likely to repeat whatever the issues were in the beginning. To me one of the important things is to get students to understand that only when they challenge ideas do they really get growth.”
He added: “And that you have to be more than willing to use your talents to both challenge ideas and offer up new ideas, and to be able to point out how this history is going to assist you in the future. So, my view is you never know where all of this is going to end up, but you have to be willing to push the idea, and if you’re willing to push it, write about it, leave some history of it. You will be surprised that maybe 60 years from now someone will examine our interview, as something that sparked them to make a change.”
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