KAYSVILLE — Nearly 61 years ago, nine teenagers arrived for their first day of school only to be greeted by an angry mob and the Arkansas National Guard, sent by the state's governor to bar the teenagers' entry into Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.
The reason? The color of their skin.
"I remember ... seeing the angry faces screaming, spitting, cursing, banging on the car as they held us," said Ernest Green, the first black person to graduate from what had been an all-white school.
For students at Davis High School in Kaysville, the civil rights movement came to life Thursday as Green shared his experiences and gave advice during a school assembly.
When Green and eight other teenagers — who together became known as the Little Rock Nine — enrolled in an all-white school where racism was still pronounced, they knew the discrimination they would face.
But they went anyway.
"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter," Green said Thursday.
When they arrived at the school, Green recalls "thinking that the worst was over. But that was just the tip of the iceberg," he said.
Three years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional in the famous 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case. However, many states within the U.S hadn't caught up.
He attributes the opposition against black teenagers attending Central High to a general "fear of change."
When Green and the rest of the Little Rock Nine entered the school on that first day, the mob called for him, as the oldest of the group, to be hanged, he said.
He was then rushed into a car for safety, and "I could feel the hatred penetrating the car windows," he said.
"I had to reach down into my own heart and remember that all I needed was love and faith to get through that moment. It took all my strength to not allow the fear around me to smother that truth," he recalled.
After the first day, the teenagers waited for three weeks to go back to school while "legal wrangling" continued.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower then stepped in and sent federal troops to protect the teenagers as they entered the school.
These troops who came to the students' aid — the 101st Airborne Division, or the "Screaming Eagles" — were the same troops who "helped liberate Europe from the Nazis during WWII," Green said.
"(Eisenhower) had the courage to say no to injustice, to stand up regardless of what others thought and to uphold the law of the land," he added.
When he and the other students finally entered the school, he says he looked at the faces of those in the mob and saw fear.
"Compassion and love cannot coexist with fear. Fear is just like a virus, contaminating any mind it can weave its way into," he said.
As the school year went on, Green said every day felt like going to war for the Little Rock Nine.
Though it was just a small group who physically attacked the students during school, no one else came to their aid or spoke up, "which is just as bad," he said.
Kids who would be kind to the black students faced backlash from the community. Their parents and parents' businesses would also be targeted, Green said.
Despite obstacles, Green made it through the school year and was able to graduate. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. attended his graduation ceremony, sitting with Green's family.
At the end of his moving speech, Green advised the students of Davis High to "get out of your comfort zone and befriend those beyond your normal group," reminding them that they will need the help of others to live fearlessly.
The students seemed transfixed, leaving their cellphones untouched throughout the presentation.
"Usually in school, it's just learning about (history), but when you actually see the people who are affected by it, it really puts things into perspective, and it makes what you learn a lot more meaningful," said Jake Sims, 17.
Madison Meldrum, 17, agreed.
"They almost don't seem like actual people in the books, and so when you see them, it's really cool. They're actually really cool and really interesting to listen to," she said.
"He kind of showed that you can do anything if you try," London Meldrum, 16, added.
Michael Dannelly, 16, said he found Green's story inspiring.
"I feel like a lot of people just get complacent, and, kind of, just keep moving forward," Dannelly said. He summarized Green's message as, "Don't give up. Follow your dreams."4 comments on this story
Green told the Deseret News that, after the Little Rock Nine finished high school, they knew their work wasn't over and "that life was in front of us."
"For me, it was trying to build on what I started at Central and to go from there to try to bring it to fruition," he said.
He has since held several occupations helping young people. He cares about the younger generation "immensely," he said.
Through his own three children, he learned "the younger generation is a lot more focused than a lot of people give them credit for," Green added.