CHAMPAIGN — A member of the Little Rock Nine, a group of students who helped define the civil rights movement in the late 1950s, challenged area residents to be agents of change in the local community Friday afternoon.
“We cannot all be president, but we all can be agents of change,” Ernest G. Green said. “An agent of change is a singular individual with a dream of a better tomorrow.”
Green was the keynote speaker for the 12th annual Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Countywide Celebration on Friday afternoon at the Hilton Garden Inn in Champaign.
Back in September 1957, Green was one of nine students who risked their lives to attend Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. The students’ actions tested the strength of the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. the Board of Education, which struck down segregation in public schools.
Green said that back then, he loved science and was interested in possibly becoming a physicist.
In spite of a law at the time promoting “separate but equal” schools, Green said, the facilities used by blacks were not equal to those used by whites.
“I asked myself why we had the hand-me-down books, why we had the older equipment ... compared to the renovated Central High School, which had a national reputation for excellence.”
Green said Central High School had the “equipment I needed to make my dreams come true.”
When the students arrived at Central High School, they were confronted by a hostile crowd. The students were escorted into the school by the Screaming Eagles of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division.
“Those same paratroopers who helped liberate Europe, the Screaming Eagles, helped us to get into high school,” he said.
Green became Central High School’s first black graduate in 1958.
“I adapted to the situation that allowed me to stay above the noise and continue toward my goal of a high school diploma,” he said.
After going on to graduate from Michigan State University, Green later served as an assistant secretary under President Jimmy Carter, and he was invited to sit on the steps of the Capitol for the first inauguration of President Barack Obama.
As Green watched Obama take the oath of office, he remembered taking part in the 1963 March on Washington to hear King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
“I listened hanging on every eloquent and poignant word dripping from Dr. King’s mouth,” he said. “I soaked it up like a sponge, absorbing every drop of change in his speech.”
Green currently serves as a managing partner and vice president for the Lehman Brothers office in Washington. Lehman Brothers was acquired by Barclays PLC in 2008.
Green encouraged all those inspired by his words to use social networking to spread his message.
“I want you to take out your phones, put them on vibrate, and I want you to Facebook, Tweet, post, take Instagram photos and share this speech with your social networks,” he said. “As an agent of change, I want you to inspire your network of friends when you are inspired or moved by anything that happens today.”
Two residents and one organization received honors at Friday’s celebration for their contributions to the community.
Tori Exum-Johnson of Urbana received the Doris Hoskins Prestigious Community Service Award for her work as a Sunday school teacher, foster parent, CASA advocate, Cub Scout Pack Cubmaster, work with the Girl Scouts, election judge, basketball coach and other activities.
Crisis Line received the James R. Burgess Jr.-Susan Freiburg Humanitarian Award for the support and encouragement it has given to more than 4,500 callers annually.
Dr. Francis Ihejirika received the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Outstanding Achievement Award for his work as director of the Physician Assisted Student Success Program in Champaign.