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Meet the man who broke barriers alongside MLK at Michigan State

January 17, 2019

Robert L. Green keeps datebooks going all the way back to the 1950s. They are all stored in a safe place, but there is one that sits in his desk inside his Las Vegas home. It is marked April 4, 1968. 

The entry reads, “King dead. Martin shot in Memphis.”

Green received a call that afternoon from Jean Young, the wife of Andrew Young, the executive director of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and future Ambassador to the United Nations. Jean told him she was on her way to Martin and Coretta Scott King’s home after Coretta called her with the news that her husband was shot.

“She went to the house, I got a call, and she said, ‘Martin is dead.’ And my heart sank. I was very sad,” Green said. 

Green was then an assistant professor at Michigan State, with dual appointments to the School of Education and James Madison College. He had just gotten back from 14 months as the education director at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or SCLC, as one of King’s top lieutenants. But his interactions with King are only a small part of his story.

Growing up Green

Green was born in Detroit, into a family of nine brothers and sisters. His father was a pentecostal minister and truck driver who was denied the chance to pursue higher education in the early 20th Century because of racial segregation in Georgia, his home state.

From a young age, the message from his father was simple: Education was the key to freedom for him and his siblings. Of the five Green brothers, one became a doctor, another an engineer, another an Army lieutenant colonel. His sisters became registered nurses and schoolteachers. Academic success was always expected of Bob Green.

“My father would take nothing less. If I got a ‘C’ grade, my father, in his work coveralls, would come over to the high school,” Green said. “He only did it once, and he didn’t have to do it anymore.” 

Green was drafted into the Army after graduating from Detroit Northern High School in 1952, and was stationed in San Francisco. He worked nights at an Army hospital while earning his bachelor’s degree in general psychology from San Francisco State College, now known as San Francisco State University. It was there that Green met King.

It was June 27, 1956, and the NAACP was meeting at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium. King was six months into leading the Montgomery bus boycott, arranged after the famous arrest of Rosa Parks. King was a featured speaker, and Green was among those in attendance. 

“I told him I enjoyed his speech and I wanted to meet him and talk some more with him if I could,” Green said. “I was intrigued by how he was challenging that form of discrimination in Alabama.” 

They had breakfast in Berkeley soon after, and King told him that if he ever got his Ph.D, he should come work for him in Atlanta.

“It was really prophetic, I never knew that would happen,” Green said.


Challenging racism at MSU

After he got his Master’s in Educational Psychology from San Francisco State College in 1960, Green was faced with a difficult reality. Despite his impressive qualifications, he was unable to get a job as a school psychologist. The five largest school districts in the state —Oakland, San Francisco, Berkeley, Los Angeles and San Diego — would not hire him because of the color of his skin. 

He chose to head to his home state and pursue a Ph.D. at MSU, bringing his wife and two young sons. All of them had only known California sunshine when they moved to East Lansing. 

“Even though discrimination was bad, it pushed me to get a Ph.D.,” Green said. “Racism was an American issue, it was not a Berkeley, California problem, or a Detroit or East Lansing or Chicago problem. It was an American sickness.”

Green became the first black member of the James Madison College faculty, where he says he was treated well by his white colleagues. He had a chance encounter early in his time on campus with a “very powerful white man.”

Walking to the library one day to do research for his Ph.D., Green saw a man stop his car and walk toward him. The stranger asked what he was doing, and if he needed anything.

“He said, ‘If you ever need anything, come see me.’ I said, ‘Who are you, what is your name?’ He said, ‘My name is John Hannah, I’m president of Michigan State.’ That’s how I met him. That made a positive impact on me, that this man would stop me.” 

Hannah later became the first chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

While he had white allies in the JMC faculty and the president’s office, Green faced discrimination in everyday life in East Lansing. He became one of the first people to successfully sue for housing discrimination after the Fair Housing Act of 1968, as black people were informally barred from renting or buying houses north of Grand River Avenue. 

“A lot of it was unwritten, but real,” Green said.

Green became the faculty advisor to the MSU chapter of the NAACP. He credits the demonstrations of students in the NAACP chapter, as well as the Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, with minimizing the more direct forms of racism.

He taught a class called “Intergroup Relations,” the first social justice course in the history of James Madison College. Then-James Madison Dean Herbert Garfinkel was aggressive in recruiting Green to teach the class, believing it was important for the mostly white students to have their perspectives’ challenged.


Working with Dr. King

MSU founded the Student Tutorial Education Program, or STEP, in 1965. The program sent MSU students to Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi, to help students there in the fields of communication, math and writing. 

At first, there was trouble funding the program. Those in charge believed bringing an important speaker to campus could help fund the program. So Green called a woman whom he had met back at San Francisco State and who was working for the SCLC, and arranged for King to come to East Lansing.

On February 11, 1965, King spoke on campus.

“The old Auditorium was packed, overflowing,” Green said. “It was a very important event, and I felt good that we were able to bring him here.”

According to the MSU Archives, there were more than 4,000 people in attendance that day.

“His coming signaled a new day at Michigan State and East Lansing,” Green said. “People knew that not only would there be a set of local connections on discrimination, we now had a national connection in the form of Martin Luther King, Jr.”

After his speech, King repeated his request to Green, to come work for him at the SCLC in Atlanta. He received permission to take leave from John Hannah, and Green became the education director at the SCLC.

He functioned as a connection between King and scholars around the country, writing articles about education and social justice, and hosting monthly workshops for black southerners in South Carolina to focus on literacy. 

Often, when black people who had faced discrimination came to see King, and he was not in the office, they would be directed to Green to hear their cases and give them advice. He served in this capacity for a 14-month period between 1965 and 1967, before returning to his professorship at MSU.

Green maintained a close relationship with King, who he believes would be committed to all forms of social justice if he were alive today. 

“Economic justice, freedom of women, the #MeToo movement, (former NFL quarterback Colin) Kaepernick who took a knee,” Green said. “King would be concerned with any form of injustice and would want to do something about it.”

While King continued to speak out against discrimination, he and those around him knew a backlash was coming. He had survived an earlier assassination attempt, a near-fatal stabbing in Harlem in 1958, and was aware that another could be on the way.

“King always said, ‘There’s a bullet out there,’ and I used to call it the silver bullet,” Green said. “He said, ‘One day, that bullet is gonna find me and it could be any day.’”

When that day, April 4, 1968, came, and King was killed in Memphis, Tennessee, by a racist convict named James Earl Ray, Green knew he had a responsibility to carry on his legacy.

Many black students came to Green’s house at 221 Durand St. to express their grief. Green noticed that some had the intention of causing a disturbance, so he called the chief of police and organized a march for the next morning, to begin at 9 a.m. at the Union. 

Some students wanted the event to be all black, but believing in King’s message to bring all races together, Green decided the event would be free to any student wishing to vent their sadness.

“There was no time for me to be angry or upset. I had to do what Dr. King always taught us to do: be cool and calm under pressure, and use your head,” Green said. “And that’s what I did during that period of time. I didn’t advocate any violence then, and I don’t advocate it now.”

Green continued to work in various positions for the university for more than 25 years, including a time as dean of the College of Urban Development. He briefly served as the president of the University of the District of Columbia in Washington, from 1983-1985, before returning to MSU.

Though he has retired to Las Vegas, Green still continues his work for social justice and education. He has written several books on those topics, including his 2015 memoir, “At the Crossroads of Fear and Freedom: The Fight for Social and Educational Justice.”

Green will be speaking at James Madison College on Monday.


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