On September 25, 1957, Jefferson Thomas, a high school track star was among nine black students to integrate Central High School in Little Rock Arkansas. It was the nation’s first major battle over school segregation after the rendering of the 1954 landmark decision of Brown v. Board of Education. , has died. He was 68.
According to a statement from Carlotta Walls LaNier, Mr. Thomas died on Sunday September 5, 2010 at the age of 68 in Ohio of pancreatic cancer. Mrs. LaNier also enrolled at Central High School in 1957 and is president of the Little Rock Nine Foundation.
The integration fight was a first real test of the federal government’s resolve to enforce a 1954 Supreme Court order outlawing racial segregation in the nation’s public schools. Gov. Orval Faubus sent National Guard troops to block Thomas and eight other students from entering Central High.
In an extraordinary move, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent the renowned 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to escort the nine students to school and uphold the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision a few years earlier ordering the desegregation of schools. On Sept. 25, 1957, the nine students, under the protection of the U.S. military, marched up the steps of Little Rock Central High School and into the history books. It was the first time that a U.S. President had ordered the military to enforce a U.S. Supreme Court decision.
The next year, Faubus closed all Little Rock high schools to avoid integration. When Little Rock high schools reopened for the 1959-60 school year, Thomas and LaNier returned to Little Rock Central High School and both of them graduated in May 1960.
Thomas and the other members of the nine hold more than one hundred awards for their work in championing Civil Rights. For more than fifty years, all nine of them have worked to advance the principles of excellence in education for young people, especially students of color, and in 1999 they created the Little Rock Nine Foundation, a non-profit organization, to further their cause.
Each of the Little Rock Nine received Congressional Gold Medals shortly after the 40th anniversary of their enrollment. President Clinton, an Arkansas native presented the medals in 1999 to Thomas, LaNier, Melba Patillo Beals, Minnijean Trickey Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Terrence Roberts and Thelma Mothershed Wair.
In 2008, then President-elect Obama sent Thomas and other members of the Little Rock Nine special invitations to his inauguration as the nation’s first black president. During his campaign, he had said the Little Rock Nine’s courage in desegregating Central High helped make the opportunities in his life possible.
Thomas played a number of sports and was on the track team at Dunbar Junior High, but others had little to do with him once he entered Central, the state’s largest high school.
“I had played with some of the white kids from the neighborhood,” Thomas said. “I went up to Central High School after school and we played basketball and touch football together. I knew some of the kids.
“Eventually, I ran into them … and they were not at all happy to see me,” Thomas added. “One of them said, ‘Well I don’t mind playing basketball or football with you or anything. You guys are good at sports. Everybody knows that, but you’re just not smart enough to sit next to me in the classroom.”‘
Beals said Monday that Thomas was nicknamed “Roadrunner, because he was so fast. You could sometimes avoid danger by running fast.”
She said by phone from her home in California that Thomas always seemed to bring a light moment to the crisis.
“He was funny, he had a most extraordinary sense of humor. He did sustain an enormous amount of damage and pain during the Little Rock crisis, but no matter what, he always had something refreshing and funny to say,” she said. “It could be the most horrible day and he would say ‘Yes, but how are you dressed and are you smiling?”‘
Thomas also brought a bit of levity to the 2007 commemoration marking the 50th anniversary of the integration fight — letting the audience know how angry LaNier was with him when he stood up and cheered at a Central High Tigers pep rally.
Thomas thought the white students were carrying the school flag and yelling the school cheer. He said LaNier glared at him and later set him straight: It was the Confederate flag and the students were singing “Dixie.”
After graduation, Thomas served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam and later became an accounting clerk with the Department of Defense.
Following the 2008 election, Thomas said in an interview that he supported Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Ohio primary and he also liked former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who made a bid for the Republican nomination.
“It would have been a hard decision for me to make if Huckabee was running against Obama,” Thomas added.
Still, he said, he was overjoyed with Obama’s victory.
“This was really the nonviolent revolution,” Thomas said. “We went and cast our ballots and the ballots were counted this time. I’m thinking now we’ve got to do something. I don’t know what. But there are a lot of things Obama ran on, what he’s saying he wants to do.”
Jefferson Thomas Sr. is survived by his wife, Mary; a son Jefferson Jr.; and stepchildren, Frank and Marilyn.
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