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Martin Luther King Jr. associate found home at Las Vegas school

In a well-fitting gray suit and polka-dot tie, the tall and lean Robert L. Green strode past motivational artwork along white-tiled walls at Matt Kelly Elementary School, hardly slowed by a slight limp as he kept alert for familiar young faces and voices.

Many students here know Green, 86, who worked closely with Martin Luther King, Jr., and he often recognizes them. Even as he regularly travels the country lecturing school-aged children and consulting for public educational professionals, the Las Vegas resident holds a particular admiration for Matt Kelly Elementary, which has become something of a second home.

There are two reasons why the school, located in the city’s Historic Westside neighborhood, is special to Green: He said he respects the school’s leadership and, he diplomatically noted, the area “is not a very wealthy side of town.”

“My philosophy has always been to look out for the least of these,” he said, using a biblical term to refer to the disadvantaged. “And (to) use your training and skills and that’s how I feel when I go to Matt Kelly.”

The idea that education can break down socioeconomic barriers has been a driving force in Green’s life, he said, having first drawn him to work for King and later informing his enthusiasm for assisting the Las Vegas school.

It was a belief instilled in him by his father, a Ford Motor Co. worker, according to Green, and it is reflective in the generational successes of his extended family, whom he said have attained 80 educational degrees among them.

Connections to King

Working within the intersection of education and social equity appears comfortable for Green, who in his lifetime has amassed an impressive resume of professional achievements: former president of the University of the District of Columbia, former dean of the College of Urban Development at Michigan State University, and author of books on education and poverty and race, to name a few.

But of all his accolades, Green’s role over a two-year span in the mid-1960s as education director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization led by King, has often commanded the most attention.

“(King) was a believer in education,” Green said. “And he loved young people and, most important of all, he was not selfish.”

Green was a close associate to King until his assassination in 1968, having first met him briefly more than a decade earlier after Green, then a taxicab driver, watched the pastor deliver a speech in San Francisco. By 1965, when Green started to work for King, they were regularly organizing, traveling and in staff meetings together.

Much publicity has been given to their relationship, and it remains the centerpiece of the dialogue when Green volunteers time to speak to students, like he did last week in Atlanta and a few days later inside a library at Matt Kelly.

Students are hungry for anecdotes about King as a person, not merely a larger-than-life figure, and whether Green ever found himself in harm’s path as an activist in the hostile Deep South.

Green recalled King as perennially hopeful and supportive of people, emotional but in control, and also more funny and athletic than most might believe.

King had advised to never take anything for granted, including a “halfway-decent life” where one has an education, three meals a day and a place to sleep at night, according to Green.

“There’s a lot of money in Las Vegas but there are people in Las Vegas … who struggle on a day-to-day basis,” Green said.

He added that he spends much of his free time, when he isn’t traveling as a consultant, writing about his personal and professional experiences, believing there are lessons to be learned from both.

“There are those of us who — a few of us who — worked for Martin Luther King, Jr. and we don’t put things down (on paper),” he said. “And we need to leave information for young people.”

‘How do you get so brave?’

Jerrell Hall, 40, a first-year principal at Matt Kelly, said she agreed with Green about the transformative nature of education, viewing herself as a prime example.

“I am so passionate about these children because I am one of them,” Hall said.

Like Green, who was one of nine children, Hall also was raised in a crowded home. The Las Vegas native is the oldest of six and got her first job at 15 to support her younger siblings — recalling how she would eat less food to leave more behind — before she pursued higher education and earned teaching credentials from UNLV.

“And I see a lot of that in these children too, where I see them as the ones that are taking care of their younger siblings or bringing them back and forth to school and taking care of them,” she said.

Hall escorted Green to the library during his most recent visit on mid-afternoon Friday, where Green delivered a message about staying in school and overcoming bullies to roughly 25 students between 6 and 7 years old. Many children sought answers about whether Green was ever thrown in jail, beat up or spat on. A young girl who introduced herself as Alexia — her hair in a neat bun and her waist wrapped by a pink sweatshirt — posed a different question.

“How do you get so brave?” she asked in barely more than a whisper.

“There’s no reason for me to fear anyone,” Green responded. “Because Martin Luther King Jr. taught us don’t be afraid to fight for freedom and justice.”

Leaving Las Vegas

The friendship between Green and students and staff began several years ago, sometime after Green and his wife, Lettie, 85, left the Midwest to settle down in Las Vegas in 2003. She was tired of the ice and snow, Green said.

While he has been active in mentoring students in other Las Vegas Valley schools too, Matt Kelly is by far where he has spent the most time.

But now Green and his wife are preparing to move by the end of the school year — their Summerlin home is on the market — to live in Virginia with one of their three sons.

“I think I’ll miss the sun and weather here,” Lettie Green said. “I really enjoyed it.”

With only months left until they leave Las Vegas, Robert Green said he promised former Nevada Assemblyman Wendell Williams, organizer of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Parade in the city, that he had cleared his typically busy schedule around this period in order to attend the celebration for the first time Monday.

Both Robert and Lettie Green said they plan to return to visit the city in the future.

“The diversity of Vegas is very appealing,” Robert Green said. “Our concern is to make sure that the least of these have a fair shot in America. King would say, ‘Never lose hope, never lose hope and continue to fight for social justice.”

For Robert Green, on the front line for decades, that battle has always extended into the schools. And on Friday, he found and warmly greeted one young boy who he recalled as having faced a “few challenges.”

“But every time I come here, I make sure I speak to him, let him know that, one — the school loves you, the principal loves you, your parents love you,” he said, “but most important of all, the consultant who comes in, I love you, too. Love you and want you to do well — that’s the key.”

Contact Shea Johnson at sjohnson@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @Shea_LVRJ on Twitter.

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