We lost a part of American history this weekend. Jefferson Thomas, who was among the first group of nine black students to desegregate Little Rock Central High School in 1957, passed away on September 5. Thomas was 67.
As a high school freshman Thomas agreed to leave Dunbar Junior High to enter Little Rock Central High School as a sophomore and enforce Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court order to end racial segregation in public schools. It sparked the historic standoff between Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus and President Dwight Eisenhower; Faubus called in the National Guard to stop the black students from entering the schoolhouse on September 4, 1957, and Eisenhower responded by ordering the Army’s 101st Airborne Division to escort Thomas and his classmates inside.
The 101st Airborne Division only stayed for two weeks though, and once they were gone Thomas and his black classmates endured daily taunts and beatings from their white classmates. Tacks and broken glass and acid were favorite tools of their aggressors. Faubus would later close all Little Rock high schools for a year in a panicked attempt to stave off desegregation. Thomas stayed in school and when he left Central High in 1960 he was just one of the three original Little Rock Nine to graduate from that school.
After graduation, Thomas got involved with the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP and was active in the Progressive Baptist Youth Convention before he joined the military and served as an infrantry squad leader in Vietnam. He returned to Los Angeles, graduated from college and maintained a family business for much of his life while working for Mobil Oil and went on to work with the Department of Defense.
His classmates remembered him for his upbeat personality and sense of humor—like when Thomas publicly poked fun at himself for accidentally cheering for his classmates during a school pep rally. It turned out the white flag they were flying was not the school flag but the Confederate one, and they were singing “Dixie.”
Decades after Brown v. Board of Education and Thomas’ heroism, the fight to desegregate the nation’s schools continues. This April the Department of Justice ordered a Mississippi county to stop allowing residents to contribute to the re-segregation of the county’s high schools.
Thomas is the first of the Little Rock Nine to pass away. All nine received Congressional Medals of Honor in 1999 during the Clinton administration, and were invited to the White House again during President Obama’s inauguration in 2009. Thomas passed away from complications related to pancreatic cancer, and is survived by his wife and a son from his first marriage.