Dr. King’s Lasting Impact on Me — and the World

By Johney Green, NREL Associate Laboratory Director

If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had not taken his courageous stand, I might have become a teacher. I don’t say that as if it’s a bad thing: both of my parents were teachers.

But I must be blunt. Without Dr. King opening the door for equality, I would not be an associate lab director at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). For a lot of African Americans with college degrees before Dr. King, the choices were to either go into the ministry or become an educator. That was the top. There were very few engineers. Maybe I could have been an engineer, but more than likely I would probably be a teacher.

And as much as I appreciate my alma mater, the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) where I earned a master’s degree and then a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering in 2000, the key to advancement for people of color was the equality Dr. King preached. A world lacking his profound presence would be much different.

My connections to Dr. King, like those of countless others, go even deeper than my career.

Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, where Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, I was constantly reminded of Dr. King’s accomplishments. It was part of the fabric of our community.

Additionally, I witnessed black history in my own household.

My father, Johney Green Sr., who grew up in Louisiana, attended Southern University, a historically black university in Baton Rouge, on scholarship. He later took the test required to get into the Memphis police academy at the request of a local civil rights leader. He was the only African American member among 11 graduates in his police academy class during a time when Memphis still had institutional racism — an era when a black officer was not allowed to arrest a white person. My mother was a first grade teacher who helped her son stay positive in a world where the playing field is not level.

For us, Dr. King’s example provided a backdrop of hope. For this, I’m extremely grateful for his vision, dedication, and commitment.

There is one other key linkage to Dr. King in my experience.

After excelling at the University of Memphis as an undergraduate, I was invited in 1992 by Georgia Tech to attend its first Focus Program. That immersive outreach to under-represented minorities took place over a Martin Luther King Day weekend. It changed the trajectory of my life and transformed it. I would say that the primary reason I attended graduate school was because I was fortunate enough to attend Focus.

The program (which continues today) exposed me to the benefits of graduate school, as well as fellowship opportunities such as the National GEM Consortium. Founded in 1976, the National GEM Consortium has a mission to increase the participation of underrepresented groups at the master’s and doctoral levels in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Since that time, GEM has awarded more than 4,000 African Americans, American Indians, and Hispanic Americans with fellowships, including an expanding number at NREL.

At Focus, I was able to see other minority graduate students and professors. I was able to visualize what the future might look like; to basically have a dream I didn’t even know that I had before I arrived there.

Soon after that watershed event, I signed up to take the graduate record examination though it was late in the game. I applied to graduate school and for a GEM Fellowship, was accepted by both, and began my studies the following fall. I’ve logged a number of milestones since: I was the first person in my family to obtain a Ph.D.; in 2008, I was the first African American director of a research division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory; and when I came to NREL in August 2016, I was the first African American associate laboratory director for a research directorate at NREL, helming the Mechanical and Thermal Engineering Sciences Directorate.

Clearly, this is not just about me. Yet the chance to share my story is vital — and also a way to continue the chain of mentorship, which links back to my own father and mother among others. You always want to pay it forward. It was Dr. King’s way. I don’t think anyone is 100% self-made or self-taught or pulls themselves up by their bootstraps.

The advancements of every generation depend on progress made by those who went before. That is why I believe it is fitting to focus on Dr. King within the context of Black History Month. As such, I recently participated at an MLK Day and Black History Month celebration at NREL, emphasizing the connections that bond us together.

Regarding my career, I can honestly say that I love it. I know Dr. King is one of the key figures that paved the way for me. I have a framed photograph of him in my NREL office. Quite simply, Dr. King was an inspiration as well as a liberator.

I know I would have had a good career in a valuable profession as a teacher. But I had other aspirations. And now, I’m living proof of Dr. King’s powerful impact.

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