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Marlon Green’s Legal Battle to Break Aviation Barriers

In 1957, former Air Force B-26 pilot Marlon Green applied to multiple airlines without a response. Rather than accept his fate, he took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, and won.

During the golden age of air travel in the 1950s and 1960s, there was a nominal amount of equality in the skies. Due to federal antidiscrimination law, airplanes were not segregated spaces, although airports often were. A variety of factors led to discrimination, both in the cockpit and in the cabin. For instance, the cost of air travel was out of reach for a majority of people, regardless of race. And, while the Tuskegee Airmen and others broke the barriers of color for military pilots, military experience did not often translate into acceptance by commercial airlines.

In 1957, former Air Force pilot of B-26s Marlon Green applied to multiple airlines without response. On his application to Continental Airlines, he decided to leave the “race” box unchecked and did not supply a picture. He made it to the final round of interviews with four other pilots, all white, and all with only a third of his flight hours. Continental chose the four white pilots and rejected Green’s application.

At that point, Green decided that he had a choice. He could accept his fate, or he could fight. He filed a complaint with the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Commission. The commission ruled in his favor, but Colorado courts overturned them. After six years of appeals, the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Commission petitioned for a hearing in the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

On April 22, 1963, six years after he applied to Continental, the Supreme Court upheld the commission’s original decision in Green’s favor, and ordered Continental to enroll Green in a pilot training class to prepare him for company flights.

Marlon Green began his aviation career in the Air Force, where he earned his pilot’s wings and became a commissioned officer.

“Capt. Marlon Green” was the first African American pilot hired by a major airline in the U.S. and flew with Continental for 13 years before retiring. Boeing 737–800 N77518, was nicknamed in his honor and is now sporting United titles after the merger transition.