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She had confirmed to me news that Jefferson Thomas had died Sunday in Columbus, Ohio, shortly before his 68th birthday. Later, she mused, would the Little Rock Nine now be the Eight?
They will forever, of course, be the Little Rock Nine — memorialized in book, song, school lessons, a Congressional medal and even statuary on the state Capitol lawn. Small irony: The statues are but a few steps from a Capitol cafeteria once converted to a whites-only private club by a henchman of Gov. Orval Faubus, who had earlier sparked a constitutional crisis by barring the Nine's entry to the previously all-white Central High School. A Republican president, federal troops and the U.S. Supreme Court proved mightier than Dixie's dream of "interposition."
Thomas, younger and smaller than most of the Nine, endured more abuse, his friends remember. It didn't make him a bitter man. Testaments to his good humor abound. But UALR historian Johanna Miller Lewis, who interviewed Thomas in recent years for the oral history project at the Central High School National Historic Site, said he could invoke a dark emotion in recounting the anger and frustration he felt in the bad old days. No wonder. The Nine's challenge did not end with federal troop protection. The school hallways were dangerous places and retribution occurred elsewhere, too, such as the firing of Thomas' father from a good sales job because of his son's historic role. The torment continued as Thomas proceeded to graduation from Central in 1960. Less than six years later he joined the Army, where he saw combat as a squad leader in Vietnam. The federal government that stood by the Nine in 1957 would become his employer. He retired after 27 years as a Defense Department accountant. He was active in his church and child mentoring programs. He was, by all accounts, the kind of man we hope our children will grow up to be.
Fifty-three years is not so long ago. It is almost unbelievable today that a person like Jefferson Thomas — and all the other hand-picked members of the Nine — could be denied admission to a public school. That it would seem unbelievable is, I guess, a sign of progress.
A resegregating Little Rock School District, however, is not progress. The failure of Little Rock and the rest of the country to produce equal academic achievement among blacks and whites is not progress. The subliminal messages that too many receive from a majority black school enrollment — poverty, crime — are not progress. The rejection of affirmative action, a Supreme Court majority turning an indifferent eye to racial injustice, a growing sense of white victimization on the political right — all these, too, are descendants of the great struggle for civil rights and the sacrifices borne by Jefferson Thomas and his brothers and sisters.
They will always be the Nine, even when time has carried them all away. But Thomas' death is a good time for reflection. The angry Tea Party protestors of recent days would do well to give some thought to real sacrifice and real government oppression. Jefferson Thomas could teach them a thing or two.