Monday, September 6, 2010

Little Rock Nine's Jefferson Thomas dies

Posted By on Mon, Sep 6, 2010 at 8:53 AM

Jefferson Thomas, one of the nine black students who desegregated Little Rock Central High School in 1957, died Sunday in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. He was 67 (I originally wrote 68 based on the Sept. 1, 1942 birthdate listed in several sources, but other sources put the date at Sept. 19) and is the first to die among the nine students at the center of a historic constitutional confrontation between the federal government and Gov. Orval Faubus. With other members of the Nine, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President Clinton in 1999.

Another member of the Nine, Minniijean Brown Trickey, confirmed news of his death and said a formal announcement, including arrangements, is expected later today. A service at which other members of the Nine are expected to attend will likely be in about a week, she said.

Thomas, who was a student at Dunbar Junior High
when he volunteered to enter Central as a sophomore, graduated from the school in 1960. He earned a business degree and led an infantry squad in combat in Vietnam. Thomas narrated a US Information Agency film, "Nine from Little Rock," in 1964. It was intended to show racial progress in the U.S. during the Cold War.

He retired in Columbus after 27 years with the Defense Finance and Accounting Service.

Thomas lives on in filmed exhibits at the National Park Service's Central High School Historic site, across the street from the school at Park Street and Daisy Bates Drive. It is open today. Its website has a lot of good history, including some excerpts from interviews with Thomas.

THE NINE: Jefferson Thomas at left.
  • THE NINE: Jefferson Thomas at left.

UPDATE: President Obama and former President Clinton were among the political figures issuing statements of tribute. His release follows a statement on Thomas' death from Carlotta Walls LaNier, president of the Little Rock Nine Foundation:

Jefferson Thomas, one of the nine black high school students who braved segregationist mobs to integrate the all-white Little Rock Central High School in 1957 under the protection of military forces ordered by the president of the United States, died Sunday of pancreatic cancer. He was 67.

Thomas, a retired federal accountant, had spent the last decade of his life doing community service, traveling to promote racial harmony and supporting young people in seeking higher education. He, along with other members of the group who forever became known as the Little Rock Nine, was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal by President Bill Clinton.

Today, the eight who accompanied Jefferson to Central High all expressed their heartfelt sadness at the passing of the man they called their brother in a unique group for the past fifty-three years. The nine members have remained close, and in recent years they have provided college scholarships and mentoring to young people through their Little Rock Nine Foundation.

“I will miss his calculated sense of humor. He had a way of asking a question and ending it with a joke, probably to ease the pain during our teenage years at Central,” said Carlotta Walls LaNier, a member of the group and president of the Little Rock Nine Foundation. “He was a Christian who sincerely promoted racial harmony and took his responsibilities seriously.

Thomas was just 15 years old in 1957 when he signed up to become one of the first black students to integrate Little Rock Central High School, whose architectural beauty and academic reputation was known throughout the country. The nine students, chosen by Little Rock school system administrators for their excellent grades and records of good behavior, were stunned by the presence of hundreds of rioting segregationists and the Arkansas National Guard, which had been posted at the school under the orders of Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus to keep them out.

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.

Dates and time are pending for a celebration of Thomas’s life in Columbus, OH and Los Angeles, CA. He is survived by his wife, Mary; a son Jefferson Jr.; and stepchildren, Frank and Marilyn.

Statement by President Obama on the Passing of Jefferson Thomas

Michelle and I are saddened by the passing of Jefferson Thomas, who as one of the "Little Rock Nine," took a stand against segregation and helped open the eyes of our nation to the struggle for civil rights. 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. And through this simple act of pursuing an equal education, he and his fellow members of the Little Rock Nine helped open the doors of opportunity for their generation and for those that followed. The searing images of soldiers guarding students from those days will forever serve as a testament to the progress we've made, the barriers that previous generations have torn down, and the power of ordinary men and women to help us build a more perfect union. 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. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.

Statement by President Bill Clinton on the Passing of Jefferson Thomas of the Little Rock Nine

"I am deeply saddened at the passing of Jefferson Thomas, a true hero, a fine public servant, and profoundly good man, just fifty years after his graduation from Central High School. Along with his fellow Little Rock Nine, Jefferson paid the price for his courage to bring an end to racial segregation, and I always admired his humble nature and good humor despite all that he endured. I was proud to welcome Jefferson and the other members of Little Rock Nine to the Governor’s Mansion in Arkansas on the 30th anniversary of their courageous breakthrough, to appear with them on the 40th anniversary at Central High, and to award them each of them with the Congressional Gold Medal as President. 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. My thoughts and prayers are with his wife Mary and son Jefferson Jr.; the eight surviving Little Rock Nine, who have remained so close over the years; and his many friends around the country."

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