I rewatched The Ernest Green Story, a factually-based Disney Channel Premiere Film. In 1957, Ernest Green (portrayed by Morris Chestnut) was one of the first Black students to attend Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas.
As depicted in the film, Ernest Green and his colleagues (known as the Little Rock Nine) who transfer want the best education possible, but many white people actively fight against integration. Before they change schools, the transfer students have a meeting with journalist and Arkansas NAACP President Daisy Bates as well as officials from Central High School. The school principal forbids Black students from participating in any extracurricular activities, including athletics, musical activities, student government, and school dances. As Ms. Bates puts it, the students go ahead with the transfer and put up with these “onerous” conditions.
The first day the Black students arrive at Central, racists crowd them, shouting slurs and holding up atrocious signs. The governor has called in the National Guard to block any Black students from entering. This is in direct defiance of the Supreme Court’s ruling that segregation is unconstitutional. While most Black students were driven to the school for safety, one student, Elizabeth Eckford, is alone after taking the bus (her family does not have a telephone, so she didn’t know about the cars) and the surrounding racists target her with both verbal and physical harassment. In real life, a woman spat on Eckford during this outrage.
It’s a horrendous battle just for these teenagers to attend school, and it takes President Eisenhower delivering federal troops for them to finally go to class somewhat safely. When the paratroopers are removed, everything gets worse, and white students are even more violent toward their Black classmates. Two white boys push Elizabeth down the stairs. Ernest Green’s physics teacher tries to get him expelled. Another student, Minnijean, actually is expelled after being mistreated by white students. Racism permeates the school hallways, and the faculty members encourage it.
Ernest Green is the only senior in the group of Black students, and he graduates, pausing with his diploma for his proud grandfather to take a photo. In real life, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. attended Green’s graduation ceremony. While in graduate school at Michigan State University (he had earned a scholarship to study there for his bachelor’s previously), Green walked in the March on Washington. He has been awarded many honors, including the Congressional Gold Medal. Green has likened his year at Little Rock Central High School to a war. If you watch the film, you will see why.
It is infuriating to read that in 1958, following Green’s graduation, the governor had all Little Rock high schools closed down for one year to prevent integration. The fact that people like the racists in this movie still exist… it’s sickening.
Unfortunately, this movie is not on Disney+. I watched it on YouTube. Another film I’d recommend, that is on Disney+, is Ruby Bridges, based on the true story of the first Black student to attend an all-white Louisiana elementary school.
My final thought here is that Disney Channel Premiere Films are largely different from DCOMs, particularly in tone and subject matter. I am glad that both exist, but I wonder if kids ever see movies like this one anymore. I believe there’s a place for movie musicals, run-of-the-mill tween movies, and more serious stories. The Ernest Green Story is worth seeing.
Note: You can listen to Elizabeth Eckford’s story here. Includes audio of her experience on the first day, trying to get past picketers to attend school.