Aviation’s Jackie Robinson

It took a Supreme Court decision, but in 1963 Marlon Green finally broke into the majors.

Continentals Boeing 707s
Marlon Green in the cockpit of one of Continental's Boeing 707s. Courtesy Green Family

Marlon Green wasn’t a crusader. Even though he became a civil rights hero of sorts, and was standing at the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963 for Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Green’s six-year legal battle to become the first black pilot hired by a major U.S. airline was more personal than political. He was qualified for the job, and he saw no reason why he should be turned down. “I want to live a life of equality,” says the 77-year old Green, who retired in 1978 and now lives in Florida. “I want to do whatever appeals to me.”

In 1957, 28-year old Marlon D. Green, who’d flown B-26s in the Air Force, applied to Continental Air Lines to be a pilot. He was encouraged by a newspaper article he’d read about a pledge by 18 U.S. airlines to practice non-discrimination in hiring. Airline jobs paid a lot more than flying for the Air Force, and if the color barrier truly was coming down, Green wanted in.

Once he began applying, though, he found that the pledge didn’t mean much. He filled out applications to United, Pan American, Eastern, Western, and others, and got nowhere. Then in June 1957, he was invited to interview with Continental, but only after leaving the box for “race” unchecked on his application. He made it to the final round of six applicants, all of whom were white except Green. He was one of two not hired, even though the successful candidates all had less than 1,000 hours in multi-engine aircraft, compared to Green’s nearly 3,000.

He complained to an anti-discrimination commission in Continental’s home state of Colorado, which that year had passed a law against discrimination in hiring. After an investigation, the commission determined that the only reason Green was denied a job was his race, and ordered Continental to enroll him in its next pilot training class. The airline refused, branded Green a troublemaker, and dug in for a long legal fight that wasn’t finally decided until April 1963, when the U.S. Supreme Court found in Green’s favor (the case hinged more on the legality of restricting interstate commerce than on racial discrimination).

Before then, the cockpits of major U.S. airlines were strictly whites-only. Perry Young, who’d been an instructor with the Tuskegee Airmen, had been hired by New York Airways to fly passenger helicopters in 1957, while another black pilot, August “Augie” Martin, was a captain for El Al in Israel. But that was pretty much it until Marlon Green. “He broke it open,” says Ben Thomas, a former naval aviator and Eastern pilot who formed the Organization of Black Airline Pilots in 1976. By then the number of black airline pilots had grown to about 80. Today there are hundreds—still a small percentage of the tens of thousands of pilots flying for airlines.

Green’s struggle for civil rights was a mostly solitary one, and, he recalls, “it took a lot of life out of me and my family.” Between court appeals, he took flying jobs when he could find them (U.S. Bureau of Reclamation commissioner Floyd Dominy hired him briefly as his private pilot), and non-flying jobs when he couldn’t.

What pulled him through was a strong belief in the right to live his own life—he was married at the time to a white woman, itself a declaration of independence in the 1950s—and the fact that “I didn’t have another skill to fall back on. Some people were willing to be baggage handlers. Some people were skilled enough to be doctors or lawyers. I didn’t have any other thing that I thought I could make a living with to pursue as a fallback. I had nothing as an occupational ambition except to be a pilot.”

Their hand forced by the court, Continental offered Green a job in November 1964, and he reported for duty the following January. His first flight as a co-pilot was in March 1965. He can’t remember the route, but figures it was probably from Denver to Colorado Springs, or maybe Kansas City.

Looking back, he marvels at his own persistence and wonders if he would do it again knowing what he knows now. Of the airlines’ resistance to integration, he says “I don’t think it had to be that way….It was so much hell getting to where we are now.”

He calls his story “Jackie Robinson-esque," but then quickly backs off, uncomfortable with the analogy. “I never contemplated being on a Wheaties box,” he laughs.

And unlike Robinson, he was never spat at or jeered. One of the airlines’ biggest fears was that passengers would refuse to fly with a black pilot, particularly in the South. But it never happened, says Green, not with passengers and not with his fellow pilots. In fact, he can’t recall a single incident “dramatic enough to be memorable.”

Marlon Green in the cockpit of one of Continental's Boeing 707s. Courtesy Green Family

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