Robert Green reached into his pocket and pulled out the most important object there is in the fight for civil justice and equality.
“This, he said, “changes everything.”
The object was his cell phone, and the reason it’s so important is because it records video. A thing that we all take for granted when we post footage of our cats on YouTube for the world to enjoy is, for Green, leverage. When he was in college, the word of a black man might not have weighed much against the word of a white person. Today, anyone with the technology can create video evidence.
It's been half a century since civil rights activists like Green and his close personal friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ‒‒ Green worked for King as the education director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from 1965 to 1967 ‒‒ were shunted to the back of a restaurant or beaten because they wanted to vote or go to school. Green visited Texas A&M University-Commerce Thursday night to talk about where race and social relations are and how far we’ve come as a nation. Green’s visit was the kickoff of A&M-Commerce’s 2016 Sam Rayburn Speaker Series.
KETR spoke with Green before his standing-room-only talk at the Sam Rayburn Student Center. The 82-year-old Green drew a crowd of more than 300, an encouraging mix of teacher and student, young and not-so-young, male and female, black and white. He also signed copies of his memoir, “At the Crossroads of Fear and Freedom,” in which he writes about his experiences at the center of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
So how far have we come?
“I get that question a lot,” Green said. “Especially from young people. My 26-year-old granddaughter called me recently and asked, ‘Grandpa, do you think things are better?’ I have to say yes. But they’re not where we want them to be.”
From the prism of history, it would be easy to believe that the struggles of men like Green and King were triumphant ‒‒ the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the end of Jim Crow laws, the integration of schools and so on. But look around at the racial boiling pot in America today, where movements like Black Lives Matter (BLM) are met with fear and anger and accusations of extremism and racism.
Green is such a pacifist that when one of his three sons, Kevin Green, started working with the U.S. military and intelligence community, Green made him promise that he would not contribute to anything that was designed to take human life. So far as he knows, he said, Kevin has kept to his word.
But this champion of nonviolent action and activism is every inch a supporter of BLM.
“People ask me all the time, ‘Do you support Black Lives Matter?’” he said. “Yes I do, and I’ll tell you why ‒‒ these kids have raised an issue that needs to be addressed.”
What about the accusations that BLM is an extremist, anti-American group of radicals?
“The same things were said about us,” he said. In fact, back in the 60s, when Green was dean of the College of Urban Development at Michigan State University, he wanted to buy a house in East Lansing. Trouble was, black people didn’t buy houses in East Lansing, they were to buy them in West Lansing.
“The landlord accused me of being a radical,” he said. “He told me I was inciting violence. I said, ‘All I want to do is buy a house from you.’”
Green, incidentally, sued a group of real estate agents there for discrimination and won. But know, he was also arrested as a radical and rabble rouser in Washington, D.C. While he was president of the University of the District of Columbia.
So he’s not impressed with the language people use against the civil rights activists of today. To him, the objections are old news to and old fight that still, regrettably, needs to be waged.
The way to wage the fight is through peace and education, he said. Conversation and talking can go a long way, but urban poor children, black or otherwise, need to be given access to better teachers and schools because “education is the answer.”
Green earned his pedigree of pacifism through his father, who as a boy watched a good friend get lynched and left to hang in a tree. Green didn’t know about the incident until he was 45, and when his father told him, he asked why he’d never mentioned it before.
“He said, ‘I didn’t want you growing up hating white people,’” he said. Green’s “more militant” mother did indeed believe white people were evil and would be punished by God. But his father believed in peaceful resistance and action built on gray matter, not through violence.
The fight, of course, continues. In addition to the issues raised by BLM, there are lingering problems one might have thought already solved, like voting. The Supreme Court just this year ruled against voting ID requirements in North Carolina and right here in Texas. This, Green said, means the fight is far from over.
For some in attendance, Green’s message of peace and hard work is what brought them out.
“In our era, we can only hear about [the Civil Rights movement],” said A&M-Commerce junior Faith Moultria. “This is someone who was hands on … who can share his experiences. He can teach us more on the peace side; give us tips on how to deal with [these issues] in a peaceful manner.”
A&M-Commerce senior Jaleea Yelverton said she wanted to hear the story of the fight, good and bad.
“Some people only think of the negative,” she said. “But Dr. Green and Dr. King had some good times too. We should hear about both.”
Ultimately, the lesson someone like Green can teach the young, Yelverton said, is “that you shouldn’t give up; you should always fight for what you believe in.”
Not long before Green spoke, he addressed a crowd of faculty and staff and offered the kind of hope Yelverton is so moved by.
“I’m glad to see so many young people here,” Green said. “I love young people. You have so much to give.”