- America has many unsung heroes, some we remember, others are forgotten. One of the latter died this week, a man who helped to try bring ‘change’ to America before it became ‘official policy’. -
By Robbie Brown in MyCatBirdSeat
Jefferson Thomas, one of the nine black students who integrated an all-white high school in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957 in a landmark confrontation of the civil rights movement, died Sunday in Columbus, Ohio. He was 67.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, according to a statement from Carlotta Walls LaNier, another of the students — known as the Little Rock Nine — who desegregated Central High School and the current president of the Little Rock Nine Foundation.
The Little Rock Nine presented the first major test of the federal government’s ability to enforce a 1954 Supreme Court ruling that outlawed racial segregation in public schools.
After Gov. Orval Faubus refused to integrate the school, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered federal troops to escort the students. Central High’s desegregation began the agonizing, decade-long process of integrating schools across the country.
The students faced protests and racial slurs as they went to class beside Army soldiers. In the classroom, Mr. Thomas, a 15-year-old sophomore and track athlete, was subjected to hostile stares and was once punched from behind by a white student.
“That’s natural that somebody is going to stare,” Mr. Thomas said in a 1959 interview with The New York Times. “It’s like kids going to a circus for the first time and seeing an elephant there. They stare.”
All nine students received Congressional Gold Medals from President Bill Clinton in 1999. The other seven are Melba Patillo Beals, Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Terrence Roberts and Thelma Mothershed Wair. Mr. Thomas is the first to die.
The Little Rock Nine Foundation Web site describes Mr. Thomas as “a quiet, soft-spoken, unique and special person.” After graduating from Central High, he served in the Army in Vietnam, leading field campaigns against enemy troops, the site says. He earned a business degree and spent his career as an accountant at private companies and the Department of Defense.
In 2008, he was invited to the inauguration of Barack Obama, along with the other Little Rock Nine members. He called his former classmate, Ms. LaNier, in delight after the Obama campaign carried Ohio, the swing state where he lived.
“I delivered my state,” he told Ms. LaNier, according to her memoir, “A Mighty Long Way.” “It’s all over now!”
In an interview with The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 1987, Mr. Thomas called his years at Central High one of two periods in his life, along with Vietnam, that were “very trying.” The students endured taunts and ridicule to demonstrate a principle, he said.
“If one of us had quit, that would have shown a weakness in our unity,” he said at the opening of a memorial visitors center in Little Rock in 1987.
In her memoir, Ms. LaNier wrote that Mr. Thomas’s father was laid off from his longtime job at a machinery company, probably as punishment for his son’s decision to attend a white school.
Mr. Thomas is survived by his wife, Mary; a son, Jefferson Jr.; a stepson, Frank; and a stepdaughter, Marilyn.
In 2007, Mr. Thomas told The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that prayer had helped him through the integration struggle. He said that one Sunday at church he heard the hymn “Lord, Don’t Move My Mountain, Just Give Me the Strength to Climb,” inspiring him to pray for strength, rather than for the acceptance of his classmates.
“It seemed that overnight, things stopped being so bad,” he said. “The same things were happening, but they didn’t hurt me as much. I didn’t feel like I was a failure. I felt victorious because I made it through the day.”
Enjoy this presentation from one that was there to help make the change…