Except for Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat for a white man sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the integration of Little Rock Central high school by nine black students in Arkansas may be the biggest moment in the civil rights era.
Sunday, Jefferson Thomas, a member of that selfless number who fearlessly withstood bodily harm, death threats and anarchic conditions to set a precedent so blacks could simply attend school with their white counter parts, died at the age of 67.
He succumbed to pancreatic cancer in Columbus, Ohio.
As a 15-year-old growing up in the segregated South, Thomas was one of the nine African Americans who integrated all-white Central High School in 1957 amid threats of racist mobs. The situation was so outrageous that U.S military had to assist.
Thomas attended the African-American Dunbar Junior High School in Little Rock when he volunteered to attend Central High as a sophomore. He would jokingly admit later that being able to dissect his own frog as opposed to sharing one with the entire class at Dunbar was one of the main reasons for him wanting to integrate Central. Little did he know that he would be the one almost dissected at his new school.
September 4, 1957, Thomas and eight other African American students hand picked to integrate Central high by Little Rock school system administrators for their excellent grades and records of good behavior, were met at the door with hateful resentment from protesters and onlookers. Despite the federal order to segregate all schools, Arkansas’ own Governor, Orval Faubus, called out the Arkansas National Guard to prevent them from entering.
It would take two weeks before they were allowed to enter the school and even then were sent home shortly after for fear that the angry mob hovering outside the school would not be able to be controlled. President Dwight D. Eisenhower then mobilized the Army’s 101st Airborne Division to escort the nine into the school and even then, harassment and beatings from white students were commonplace. The Little Rock event marked the first time a US president ordered the military to enforce a Supreme Court decision, after the high court ordered the desegregation of schools.
The following year, Faubus spitefully closed all the high schools in Little Rock high schools to avoid integration, according to reports. When the high schools reopened for the 1959-60 school year, against all odds, Thomas returned to Central High and graduated in May 1960.
Upon graduating from Central, Thomas went on to further his education entering Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan but joined his family after they relocated to Los Angeles in 1961. There he attended Los Angeles State College, where he was the president of the Associated Engineers and a member of the student government.
In 1966, he was inducted into the Army, and was given orders to South Vietnam with the 9th Infantry Division, where he reportedly served as an infantry squad leader dutied with directing numerous field campaigns. Upon finishing his military career in 1968, Thomas helped his father run the family business and went back to Los Angeles State College to acquire his bachelor’s degree. He then went to work as an accounting clerk and later a supervisor for Mobil Oil Corporation’s Los Angeles Credit Card Center while still moonlighting with the family business. In 1978 he went to work for the Defense Department. When the department relocated some of its Los Angeles operations in 1989, he sold the family business and moved to Columbus.
After retiring from the DOD, Thomas spent the last decade of his life doing community service, traveling to promote racial harmony and supporting young people in seeking higher education. He received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Ohio Dominican University and was a recipient of the NAACP’s Springarn Medal. He and the others received a Congressional Gold Medal from President Bill Clinton in 1999. The same year, the group formed the Little Rock Nine Foundation, which according to its website aims “to promote the ideals of justice and equality of opportunity for all.”
Clinton offered this statement on Thomas, calling the pioneer ‘a hero,’
“Jefferson and I had a long visit when he came to my Presidential Center for the 50th anniversary in 2007, and I was struck again by his quiet dignity and kindness. America is a stronger, more diverse, and more tolerant nation because of the life he lived and the sacrifices he made.”
In 2008, then President-elect Barack Obama sent Thomas and other members of the Little Rock Nine special invitations to his inauguration as the nation’s first black president. President Obama released a statement on Thomas hailing his bravery saying,
“Mr. Thomas was just a teenager when he became one of the first African-American students to enroll in Little Rock Central High School. Yet even at such a young age, he had the courage to risk his own safety, to defy a governor and a mob, and to walk proudly into that school even though it would have been far easier to give up and turn back. Their actions helped open the doors of opportunity for their generation and for those that followed. Our nation owes Mr Thomas a debt of gratitude for the stand he took half a century ago, and the leadership he showed in the decades since.”
In a statement made by the foundation, the eight surviving members of the group, “expressed their heartfelt sadness at the passing of the man they called their brother in a unique group for the past fifty-three years.”
Date and time for a celebration of Thomas’ life in Columbus, Ohio, and Los Angeles, California have yet to be announced.