During a ceremony at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Continental Airlines officially named a Boeing 737-824 jet after African-American aviation pioneer Marlon DeWitt Green. This ceremony took place a little over six months following Green’s death in Denver at the age of 80 and nearly a half-century after his landmark legal battle against Continental for its racial discrimination in rejecting his bid to become a pilot for the airline.
Green was born in El Dorado, Arkansas, in 1929. He joined the U.S. Air Force and ended up serving as a captain and pilot with the 36th Air Rescue Squadron at Johnson Air Force Base (now Iruma Air Base) in Japan. Green logged more than 3,000 hours flying a variety of military aircraft, including the search-and-rescue SA-16 Albatross seaplane.
While on leave in 1957, Green applied for a job as a pilot with Continental. Green, who had not checked off anything in the racial-identity part of the application and also omitted including a photograph of himself, became one of six candidates (all of the others were white) to be invited for an interview for available pilot positions. Green was rejected by Continental while the other five applicants, despite having less experience and considerably fewer flying hours, were hired as pilots.
Green lodged a complaint with an anti-discrimination commission in Colorado, where Continental’s headquarters were located and also where a law against discrimination had recently been enacted. The commission looked into Green’s complaint and agreed that he had been turned down for pilot position because of his race. Continental still refused to hire Green, however, and a protracted legal fight going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court ensued.
While his case was making its way through the legal system, Green applied to at least 10 other airlines for pilot positions. As a key indication that racial discrimination was rampant throughout the industry and not just at Continental, all of those airlines likewise turned him down for employment
“I didn’t have any other thing that I thought I could make a living with to pursue as a fallback,” Green explained in an interview with the Smithsonian Institution’s Air & Space magazine in 2007. “I had nothing as an occupational ambition except to be a pilot.” While his fight against racial discrimination was a lot more personal than political, Green still earned nationwide attention as a civil rights champion.
In April 1963, the Supreme Court ruled in Green’s favor. He was subsequently hired as a pilot by Continental and flew for that airline until 1978. His legal victory broke down industry-wide barriers, with other major U.S. passenger airlines likewise hiring African-American pilots.
For more information on Marlon Green and his legacy, please check out the March 2007 Air & Space magazine article “Aviation’s Jackie Robinson” at https://www.airspacemag.com/history-of-flight/aviations-jackie-robinson-16161631/