Marlon D. Green fought and won the right to fly as a pilot for a major United States airline—a triumph during a time when segregation often kept Black people out of what were at the time all-white spaces—like the flight deck of commercial airliners. Green's successful lawsuit paved the way for David Harris to fly for American Airlines as well as Green's own hiring by Continental Airlines. Harris's flight marked the first time a Black American flew as a pilot for a major commercial carrier. While Black aviator Perry Young was hired as a pilot for New York Airways, a small intrastate passenger airline, years earlier in 1956, and August Martin piloted transports for cargo carrier Seaboard & Western Air after 1955, Green’s efforts knocked down a significant barrier. Despite his eventual success, Green’s path to employment took years, multiple battles in court, and as he explained to Smithsonian Magazine in 2007, “took a lot of life out of me and my family.” 

Marlon Green works on an aircraft during his time in the Air Force. (Courtesy of the Green Family Archive)

Born in 1929, in El Dorado, Arkansas, Green showed an early interest in aviation. “As a kid he’d fly paper airplanes and once had a cardboard instrument panel. No one else in the family could touch it,” his brother James Green told the Denver Post shortly after Marlon Green’s passing in 2009. Green joined the U.S. Air Force in February 1948, just a few months before President Truman desegregated the military in July.

Truman’s desegregation of the military was carried out on a federal level, which meant that the many discriminatory laws enacted by states across the country still applied. Green eventually became one of the few Black people accepted into basic pilot training school in 1950. Green and his wife Eleanor, who was white, weren’t allowed to live together in Louisiana where he was stationed, because of state laws restricting both interracial marriage and cohabitation.

After winning his wings, he flew various types of aircraft, such as the B-26, until 1957, when he was honorably discharged with nearly 3,000 hours of multi-engine aircraft flying time under his belt. 

In 1957, Marlon Green took the extensive flying experience he acquired from his time in the military and sought to apply it to a career in commercial aviation. Green had read a newspaper article about a pledge from 18 United States airlines to practice non-discrimination in hiring and began applying. Unfortunately, he made very little headway, until he was invited to an interview with Continental Airlines—but only after leaving the box that indicated his race unchecked. 

Green racked up nearly 3,000 hours of multi-engine flying time during his service in the Air Force. (Donated to the Denver Public Library by the Rocky Mountain News, RMN-024-6432)

Green made it to the final round of six applicants. In this final pool, he was the only Black applicant. Four of the six candidates were hired, and all had less than 1,000 flying hours in multi-engine aircraft compared to Green’s 3,000 hours. Clearly it could not have been Green’s qualifications that kept him out of the job, it had to be his race.

Continental Airlines’ headquarters were in Colorado, which had just passed a law against discrimination in hiring. Green filed a complaint with the anti-discrimination commission in Colorado. The commission in Colorado determined that the reason Green was not hired was because of his race, and they ordered Continental to hire him into the next class of pilots that were to report to training school. Continental refused, and the case was eventually brought to the United States Supreme Court after going through several lower courts.  

In 1963, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Continental had to hire Green. While this order was in Green’s favor, the actual case came down to whether Colorado had the authority to order Continental to hire Green, since it was an interstate carrier and therefore—according to Continental—was not subject to the state’s anti-discrimination law, and as a result, its ruling. The airline also argued that having a Black pilot onboard their aircraft would be burdensome as it might upset passengers, and that they would not be able to find hotels for Black pilots flying in the segregated parts of the United States. The Supreme Court ruled that there was no merit in Continental's argument, and therefore Colorado’s ruling was not unduly burdensome to interstate commerce.  

Marlon Green on the flight deck of one of Continental's Boeing 707s. (Courtesy of the Green Family Archive)

Continental offered Green a job in 1964 and he flew with them for 14 years before retiring in 1978. He never once experienced a passenger nor fellow pilot refusing to fly with him. He told Smithsonian Magazine that he could not remember a single incident “dramatic enough to be memorable.”  

Marlon Green passed away in 2009. In 2010, Continental Airlines named one of its new Boeing 737s after him. The suggestion came from fellow Black pilot Captain Ray-Sean Silvera, who was promoted to assistant chief pilot at the same ceremony in 2010. Silvera was the first Black person to hold the position in the company’s history. Of Continental’s 4,310 pilots in 2010, still only 6% were not white. Green’s brother responded to the naming: “He’s looking down from heaven and saying well done—a little late, but well done.” Continental Airlines ceased operations in 2012 after a merger with United Airlines.  

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