Onward and upward from Little Rock

Living History

June 01, 2008|By Patricia Elam | Patricia Elam,Special to The Sun

On the coffee table in Ernest Green Jr.'s Washington corner office sits a gumball machine filled with gourmet jelly beans. The other surfaces display civil rights-era photos of Green, as well as more recent pictures of him with heavy-hitters such as former President Bill Clinton, former boxer Muhammad Ali, former Vice President Al Gore and U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta.

Then there is another large and compelling photo, on a wall by itself. It shows a bare-chested black man in shackles.

For Green, a black man, the display in his office is a window on his life, contrasting his climb up the American corporate ladder with his struggles in the segregated South as a member of the Little Rock Nine, who in 1957 integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Ark.

Fifty years ago last month, Green became the first member of this group of black students to graduate from Central High.

Today, Green, 66, is the managing director in the public finance group at Lehman Brothers, an investment banking firm.

Green's post-Little Rock education includes earning bachelor's and master's degrees in sociology from Michigan State University.

His career path has taken him from a position with the A. Philip Randolph Institute in New York training minorities for jobs as skilled laborers to assistant secretary of the Labor Department (1977-1981) during President Jimmy Carter's administration to owning his own consulting business to his current position at Lehman Brothers.

Using his own experiences, he has mentored others seeking to break barriers in professional and nonprofit organizations.

Recently, he talked about his Little Rock experience and a number of other topics:

Why he chose to be a part of the integration of Central High in 1957: "Lots of things influenced my decision. I didn't focus so much on Rosa Parks and [the Rev.] Martin Luther King, but rather the fact that ordinary citizens in Montgomery [Ala.] spent a whole year without bus transportation and finally made a change. ... I knew in the back of my head that if black people were going to change conditions, they had to be willing to step up and change them themselves."

Why he stayed at Central High school despite being tormented daily by white students: "I figured I could torment them better by staying [rather] than leaving."

About his climb up the corporate ladder: "I was eager ... and I made certain that I performed well. I knew I could do the work and that it all went back to my Central High experience, which made me expand my opportunities."

How his wife and three children (a student at a Florida University, a documentary filmmaker and a history professor) feel about his historic status: "They appreciated my accomplishments but they understood the need to develop their own identities, not premised on mine. My family keeps me grounded. My wife says it's great I'm this icon but she still wants me to take out the garbage."

Why he mentors professionals for Wall Street positions and youth through nonprofit organizations and serves on the boards at Fisk University and Clark Atlanta University: "I wanted black people to know that working on Wall Street could be a positive experience. ... There's an absence of adult leadership. We need to work with young people on how to leverage the opening that was made. ...The folks in the black community who have achieved should motivate lots of young people. We [the Little Rock Nine] saw education as a steppingstone to a better quality of life. I want to see young people use educational excellence as their steppingstone.

About the photo of the man in shackles in his office: "[It's] a reminder that there is a continuous struggle for freedom, even for someone with a corner office."

unisun@baltsun.com

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