HOUSTON – “I am a son of the segregated south. I love my country. I salute the flag. I say the pledge of allegiance. However, the truth is that although I love my country, a good many of my countrymen haven’t always love me. As a son of the segregated south, I had rights that the Constitution recognized that my neighbors in the segregated south refused recognize. For example, the Constitution recognized my right to sit in any seat on the bus; however, my neighbors in the segregated south decided that I could only sit in the back of the bus. The Constitution recognized my right to sit anywhere in the movie theater; however, my neighbors in the segregated south concluded, that I could only sit in the balcony. The Constitution recognized my right to drink from any water fountain; however, my neighbors in the segregated south decided that I could only drink from the water fountain that was labeled, ‘Colored.’ The Constitution concluded that I would be able to go to the front door and order anything that I wanted to eat at a fast food restaurant; however, my neighbors in the segregated south concluded that I had to go to the back door, knock, and someone would eventually come, take my order, and hand my food to me at the back door. The Constitution indicated that I should be able to use any toilet facility; however, my neighbors in the segregated south decided that I had to go to a ‘Colored’ toilet facility. I was a son of the segregated south and experienced all of the invidious discriminations that other members of the African-American community, then called ‘Colored’ and sometimes ‘Negroes,’ experienced.”
This descriptive recitation was rendered by veteran civil rights advocate and the United States Representative for the 9th Congressional District of Texas, Al Green, during a recent dialogue with me. He graciously shared an excerpt of his history while reflecting upon his life experiences from poverty to the House of Representatives. Today, the esteemed Congressman has unceasingly championed causes related to fair housing and hiring practices, as well as equal rights and justice for all. For more than six terms, he has proudly served his constituents, adhering to the profundity of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”
The Birth: A Son of the Segregated South
Alexander “Al” Green was born to Alex and Peacola Yates-Green in New Orleans, Louisiana, shortly before his family moved to Fort Walton Beach, Florida. Prior to his birth into a racially-discriminatory system, his mother desired to accommodate him with a strong name – one that would have definition. Intuitively, she decided on “Alexander,” which means “helper of humankind.”
Although reared in an era wherein racial disparity prevailed against African-Americans, Green was blessed to be instructed by educators who took pride in nurturing and cultivating their pupils’ gifts and talents. As such, he experienced his first foray into politics during his primary education when one of his teachers noticed the distinct trait of leadership that he possessed. That realization manifested in an early grade-school class when he was elected class president, running on the campaign theme “Go With Green.”
As he grew up in Fort Walton Beach, there were no high schools for “Coloreds,” therefore, he had to be bused to a high school in Crestview, Florida. On the way to school, he would pass several “All-White” schools. It was from some of those schools that he and other African-Americans received second-hand books, buses, equipment, and supplies that their White peers no longer wanted or needed. Nevertheless, Green did not allow being treated as a second-class citizen to become a barrier to his education; instead, he chose to aspire to be the best he could be in a segregated society. As a result, while in high school, he again served as president of his class.
Green became a part of the integration effort in Fort Walton Beach as a senior in high school, along with a few other African-Americans. Reflectively, he stated “while there were some who were kind to me, there were many who weren’t.” In that final year of high school, he was never in a class with anyone who looked like him. In our interview, he shared an encounter that he experienced in the midst of engaging in a classroom exercise. All of the male peers were given an assignment to approach the young ladies in the class and ask for a dance. Notwithstanding the fact that he was the only African-American in his class, he heeded his teacher’s request. Upon doing so, the young lady immediately began screaming. He said, “I did not get angry with her, I just realized that she had never had the experience of an African-American approaching and asking her for something that was required by the class.” Green understood that he lived in a culture that “produced people who thought that they were better than other people because they had all the better and finer things, and because society told them that they were.” Ultimately, he would go on to graduate in a predominately white class of about 600.
The Making of: “Helper of Humankind”
After graduating high school in Fort Walton, he furthered his education at Florida A&M University. There, he served as class president during his freshman year. At that stage in his life, he noticed there was a developing trend as he was chosen and elected to serve as a leader on multiple occasions. To a certain extent, he said that “becoming class president resulted from other people encouraging me to do so, for reasons that they thought were appropriate; but, without that encouragement, I would not have pursued the opportunity.”
Initially, he had an interest in engineering and started on an educational path to matriculate at institutions of higher education with strong programs in that field. Consequently, he studied at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and later attended Tuskegee Institute of Technology in Tuskegee, Alabama. He eventually returned to Florida A&M University, where he became heavily involved in marching and protesting in the Civil Rights Movement and was in the process of running for student body president. While walking across the campus one day, a counselor at the university encouraged him to converse with a recruiter that was interviewing students for law school. Green proceeded to talk to Mr. Jethro Curry who was recruiting for Texas Southern University’s School of Law. Unbeknownst to him, the hour-long conversation he had with Mr. Curry served to spark the fulfillment of the definition of his birth name, “helper of humankind.”
Failure Was Not an Option
At a time when a person’s word was his bond and a handshake sufficed for contracts, Green journeyed to Houston on the promise made by Mr. Curry. Mr. Curry was an authoritative figure who could make and enforce decisions. He assured Green that he would be able to attend law school on a grant and have a job working with a professor. Undoubtedly, this influential character recognized something in Green that past instructors and educators noticed in earlier years. During that recruitment process, Green was the only student to be recruited for law school from Florida A&M University. Thus, once he reached the campus of TSU without an undergraduate degree, he was convinced that “failure was not an option” for him.
As a law student, he earned awards in the areas of Federal Procedure and Conflicts. Within a 28-month period, he earned his Juris Doctor degree in 1973 from Thurgood Marshall School of Law. Prior to fulfilling his requirements for law school, he took and passed the bar exam. In regards to his educational efforts at that time, he said, “I did all of these things, not because I was smart, but because I had a fear of failure. So, I had to succeed.”
Once Green attained his legal credentials, he began practicing law in Houston. While integration measures had taken place, the crippling and divisive impact that it left on African-Americans had yet to become a distant memory. Aware of the mentality that existed in some of those who operated within his profession, he chose to remain steadfast in his career goal of practicing law. This was evident when he gave little thought to being denied a position in the Harris County District Attorney’s office. Instead of being bitter, he united with some of his colleagues, and together they established the Houston law firm of Green, Wilson, Dewberry, and Fitch.
While co-managing Green, Wilson, Dewberry, and Fitch, he received a call from a dear friend who asked him to consider a municipal court judgeship. Coincidentally, another friend phoned him and asked him to consider a position as judge of a justice court. After taking both proposals into account and consulting with several members from the Black Organization for Leadership Development (BOLD), where he served as president, he left the law firm to pursue the justice court judgeship. In 1977, he was appointed Justice of the Peace, Precinct 7, Position 2, in Harris County.
Moreover, the Honorable Al Green served in the office of Justice of the Peace for 26 years until his retirement in 2004. His biography boasts, “Throughout his career, he has enjoyed the respect of his colleagues, as well as a wide cross-section of community leaders who have praised his legal skills, impeccable character, and ability to work with people of diverse backgrounds.” Additionally, he served as president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) – Houston Branch. Under his leadership, the branch saw a massive influx in its membership and expansion of staff.
As we continued in our interview, the Honorable Al Green synopsized his induction into the United States House of Representatives by revealing the following: “One night I went to bed in the 18th Congressional District and the next morning when I awakened, I was in the 9th Congressional District. I found out that the boundary lines for the 9th Congressional District aligned favorably with the boundaries of the justice court. After conversing with friends, a decision was made to run for Congress. I did and the rest is history.” Though the humbled Congressman used the term “history” lightly, truthfully, his election solidified for him a true place in American history. He is the first African-American to represent the people of the 9th Congressional District of Texas.
Since being elected, he has made significant political contributions to the American people. He serves on the Financial Services Committee and three subcommittees: Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit, Monetary Policy and Trade, as well as Oversight and Investigations where he holds the position of Ranking Member. Within the Democratic Party, he serves as the Assistant Whip. Furthermore, his congressional experience is extensive and extremely impressive, especially in his support of minorities and underserved communities.
A brief snippet of a few of his works and past/present memberships and affiliations are listed in the following: co-founder of the Black and Brown Coalition, creator of the Houston NAACP Fair Share Program, adamant supporter of SEIU Justice for Janitors campaign, member of the Congressional Black Caucus, member of the Executive Board of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, served on the Asian American Action Fund Honorary Board, and consistently served as a voice for the underserved and underrepresented groups of America.
Over the years, Congressman Green’s exemplary service and dedication to the community has afforded him the honor to become the recipient of numerous awards such as the Texas Association of REALTORS Legacy Award (2011), Texas Black Democrats’ Profiles of Courage Award (2007), the AFL-CIO MLK Drum Major Award for Service (2007), Ebony Magazine’s 100 Most Influential Black People (2006), and the NAACP Mickey Leland Humanitarian Award from both the Houston and Fort Bend branches. The City of Houston also named “Al Green Day” in his honor. In the past, he also taught trial simulation as an adjunct professor at Thurgood Marshall School of Law.
For the Record:
Congressman Green is grateful for the valued fundamentals instilled in him by his family. From an early age, he was taught the “importance of positive preparation through education and the need for righteous resistance to overcome persistent injustice.” As the oldest grandchild in his family, the majority of his relatives participated in his childhood development. In addition to his parents and grandparents, he recognizes his aunt who helped with rearing him.
When asked about challenges that he has encountered in his career, Congressman Green juxtaposed his former seat as judge and his current office in Congress. He explained, “As a judge, there are decisions that could be made rather quickly – if you made a decision that needed to be reversed, you could do it yourself. You could make a decision and change a decision.” On the contrary he expressed, “In Congress, you have to get 217 other people to agree with you, assuming that all of the seats are filled. So, it is different because you are working to obtain 218 votes to get things done. In Congress, it’s not unusual for a piece of legislation that passes to look like an overnight success, but in reality, it may have taken 20 years to develop. Much of what we see as legislation passing today has been in the works for years.”
He continued, “Persons who generate legislation don’t always pass it; hence, you have to have a long-term view of Congress when it comes to getting some things done, as opposed to being in court wherein it’s expected that you would make a ruling right away. So, that’s just one of the differences between being a judge and being a congressman.” Despite the differences, he has found that in both positions the most important element is that a person desires to do what he or she believes is right, notwithstanding the political consequences. “Sometimes doing the right thing is the most difficult thing because it’s not politically expedient, but you have to do that which is ‘neither safe, nor politic, nor popular’ – and if you do that, history will be kind to you. Many times when history judges you, the judgment may not come out immediately, but, eventually the truth will be known… And you will be vindicated.”
Congressman Al Green has demonstrated that he is willing to walk through raging political fires to confront injustice, racial discrimination, outright hatred, and bigotry. This stance became apparent as the confident Congressman recently introduced articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump. He fervently articulated the basis of the President’s impeachment and declared that would will be a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives before Christmas. By this demonstration, one can only conclude that the Congressman is remaining true to his character, name, and life-long mantra: “Taking a position to do that which is ‘neither safe, nor politic, nor popular,’ but… because conscience tells him it is right.”