SALEM — There's a lot more work to be done.
That was the clear message at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Celebration at Salem State University yesterday.
"The heroes of the civil rights movement are not the leaders. They are the thousands who went to the meetings, attended the demonstrations, did the regular work and their homework," keynote speaker Ernest Green told the standing-room-only crowd of students, teachers and community members inside the campus center. "You can't have a revolution unless everyone takes part. ... While we're not all remembered in history, we can all do something more important. We can change history."
Green's story is one you will find in American history textbooks around the world and even in two made-for-TV movies. As part of the Little Rock Nine, he and eight other black teenagers courageously integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957. Backed by the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which banned segregation in schools, the first wave of black students endured hateful mobs, a bigot of a governor, the full force of the Arkansas National Guard, death threats, constant harassment from classmates and thousands of people rooting for their failure.
Arkansas was a scary place in the 1950s and '60s. Green grew up in an environment where he could be killed for drinking from the wrong fountain. He lived in a place where the state university sent his mother a congratulatory letter for earning a master's degree — and in the same letter informed her that, as a black woman, she was not allowed at the graduation ceremony. She crumpled up the letter and threw it in the trash.
One summer evening, Green and his family decided to go to a public park where a free concert was scheduled. A police officer stopped them: No blacks allowed.
So when an official from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People asked Green's family if he wanted to be the one to break the color barrier, he felt there was no choice.
"I was scared. We all were. But how could we say no when people all over the South are fighting for justice?" he said yesterday. "The community, the parents all had a vision about what it meant for us to climb those (school) steps. For black people, it was one step closer to freedom."
Before the first day of school, Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to block the school entrance in defiance. President Dwight D. Eisenhower eventually had to send in the U.S. Army to enforce the court decision.
Green said that he remembers being surrounded by jeeps loaded with soldiers as he rode in a station wagon on the way to school. He turned to one of his classmates who was riding along and said, "I guess we're going to get into school today."
Once they did get in, however, the real work began. Every day, mobs gathered at the steps of the school to shout, spit at and threaten the black students.
"There was not a morning we'd wake up and we weren't scared," Green said.
People hurled rocks through the school windows; one had a note attached: "It's a rock this time, dynamite the next."
Inside, every day was a gauntlet of harassment from white students, but the nine were told to not retaliate. They weren't there to fight; they were there to learn, to be students. Their success was imperative.
"Most people in Little Rock did not want to see us hurt; they wanted to see us fail," Green said. "I didn't want them to be able to say, 'Ernie Green does not understand algebra.' We wouldn't let that happen, our families wouldn't let that happen, and the (black) community wouldn't let that happen."
On the day that Green became the first black student to graduate from Central High, Martin Luther King Jr. sat beside Green's family.
"People stood and applauded as each student walked across the stage to receive their diploma," Green said. "When I walked across the stage, not one person clapped for me except my family. Not one."
Society has come a long way since then, Green said, but inequality still exists. That point was made best by two Salem students, who during the ceremony read their winning essays in a university-sponsored contest.
"Racism and bullying are seen as two different things, but they are very similar," said Jordan Cooper, a Horace Mann student. "Isn't bullying a form of segregation? Making people feel alone is truly an injustice."
Cuthrie Scrimgeour, a student at Collins Middle School, wrote about the lack of equality for gay men and women in America.
"I've see firsthand the effect homophobia has on children," he said yesterday. "For many kids, the word 'gay' just means stupid. I see homophobic slurs thrown around, and people don't even know what they're saying."
Remembering that these injustices still exist and working for change is critical, Green said. Education is the key, and Green knows that as well as anyone.
"The events we experienced were one step on the ladder," he said. "What we see today makes moving up the next step even more urgent. We need you students to stay in school and become great students. ... It's your turn now."