Little Rock Central High School lives in American history as one of the landmark battlegrounds of the civil rights movement. President Dwight D. Eisenhower called in the national guard after the nine black students chosen to integrate Little Rock Central following the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education were initially barred from entering. LIFE’s coverage of their first day of school produced some of the most memorable photos in the history of the magazine.
That was in the fall of 1957. In May 1958, LIFE photographer Grey Villet came back to Arkansas when Ernest Green was set to become the first black student to graduate from Little Rock Central.
Villet’s photos capture a day that had some of the familiar elements of graduation—the gathering of friends and family and the pride of a moment of achievement. But other images mark it as a moment in history. Martin Luther King Jr. was there (he would sit with Green’s family during graduation and go largely unnoticed), and national guard troops were also on hand to safeguard the ceremony. Then there are Villet’s shots which show Green as the lone black face among crowds of white students, which hints at the reality Green and the rest of the Little Rock Nine faced on a daily basis.
“It’s been an interesting year. I’ve had a course in human relations firsthand.” That was Green’s brief comment in the story that ran in LIFE on his graduation.
That assessment was, obviously, an understatement, as Green and the other members of the Little Rock Nine endured harassment from white students throughout the school year. As an adult, Green gave a lengthy interview about Little Rock Central which is available at the American Archive of Public Broadcasting. In it he said “I think there is no question that the nine of us thought that the sacrifice we were doing was worth it, and if having to do it over again, I would do it the same way.”
He also detailed the drama of graduation day, from the down-to-the-wire question of whether he would pass physics to the anxiety he felt walking across the stage for his diploma:
I had been there nine months and had thought that all I needed to do was to graduate, just get out of there, and that it would be impossible for white people to say that nobody black had ever graduated from Central High School. So the graduation was in May. I was having difficulty with one course, it was a physics course, and almost up to the last minute didn’t know whether I was going to complete it successfully so that I would be able to, to get out of there, but as things were, I got a fairly decent grade out of it. And at the graduation ceremony, one of the guests was Martin Luther King. He was speaking in Pine Bluff, Arkansas AM&N, at the black college there, and came up to sit with my mother, and Mrs. Bates [Daisy Bates, the president of the Arkansas NAACP], and a couple of other friends in the audience. And all I could think of, there were six hundred and some odd students graduating that night, it was in the stadium, the place was packed, cameras, lights, to record this event, and I said, now, I can’t walk across this stage and stumble. [laughs] And all I figured that I had to do was to get up to the principal, take that diploma, and walk off the other end and it would be over. I would have done my duty and been able to have a relaxing summer. Because it really wasn’t, certainly wasn’t the way to go to go to school under that kind of pressure.
Green, a former Eagle Scout, did make it across that stage despite his nerves, and from there he continued his education at Michigan State, where he earned a bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He would go on to serve as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Labor under Jimmy Carter.
In 1993 Green’s life was dramatized in Disney’s made-for-TV movie The Ernest Green Story, in which he was portrayed by Morris Chestnut. That film, by the way, had its premiere at Little Rock Central High School.