The Little Rock Nine Are Now Eight: The Ancestors Bring Home Jefferson Thomas
Jefferson Thomas, 68, one of the “Little Rock Nine,” the nine black students who chose to attend all-white Central High School in 1957, three years after the Supreme Court outlawed de jure segregation, has died of pancreatic cancer in Columbus, Ohio. The announcement was made by Carlotta Walls LaNier, president of the Little Rock Nine Foundation, an organization the Nine had created in 1999.
Thomas was fifteen, a sophomore, at the time he and his fellow high school pupils volunteered to enter newly desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. His photograph is at lower right.
A retired federal accountant for the Department of Defense, Thomas “had spent the last decade of his life doing community service, traveling to promote racial harmony and supporting young people in seeking higher education,” the foundation said. In 1999, he and the others received a Congressional Gold Medal from President Bill Clinton.
“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 53 years,” the statement said. The nine have remained close, and through their foundation they provided college scholarships and mentoring to students.
“I will miss his calculated sense of humor,” said LaNier, another member of the nine. “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. He was a Christian who sincerely promoted racial harmony and took his responsibilities seriously.”
“Jefferson has always been, to us, a brother,” said Melba Pattillo Beals, another one of the nine. “He’s funny and very strong, like when we would have a very difficult day, things were absolutely at their worst, he would say, ‘Smile, you’re on Candid Camera,’ or, you know, ‘Look at what you’re wearing!’ He was just really, really funny.”
She said Thomas sent other members of the group funny e-mails almost until the day of his death.
The Little Rock Nine Foundation website is here. It describes the mission of the organization, its history, and has bios and photos of all the Nine and what they have been accomplishing over the years.
(Jefferson Thomas, this past February, telling his story to Findlay High School students during Black History Month, 2010. In real life, Thomas was a soft-spoken man who loved to kid around with the Central High classmates who had made history with him.)
After Jefferson Thomas graduated from Central High, he briefly attended Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, but later transferred to Los Angeles State College when his family relocated to California. While at L.A. State, he became involved in student government, and was active in the NAACP Youth Council, becoming its treasurer. He also became state president of the Progressive Baptist Youth Convention. He was elected president of the Associated Engineers.
However, Thomas’ life was interrupted when he was inducted into the Army in 1966, and he was shipped to Vietnam, where he served as an infantry squad leader and saw action. Upon his return stateside in 1968, Thomas went back to school, received his B.A. in business administration from L.A. State, and joined the family business, Retail Sales Business. Thomas apparently didn’t stop there; he was employed by Mobil Oil in their credit card division while still operating the business with his father.
In 1978, however, Mobil Oil relocated its credit card division to Kansas City, but Thomas stayed to join the Department of Defense as an accounting clerk. Eleven years later, when the DoD transferred some of its accounting operations to the Midwest, Thomas decided to move as well, selling his business, and moving on to Columbus, OH, where he lived until his death.
In Columbus, Thomas was just as active in church affairs, community service, and in education as he was in Los Angeles. He had apparently converted from being Baptist to being Church of God, and served on the board of a church day care center, and for a local academy. For his efforts, he received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Ohio Dominican University “in recognition of his life-long efforts in human rights and equality.” Additionally, Thomas was a recipient of the NAACP’s Springarn Medal. According to the Foundation website, he was especially proud of the life sized statue of the Little Rock Nine located at the Arkansas State Capitol.
“Date and time are pending for a celebration of Thomas’ life in Columbus, Ohio, and Los Angeles, California,” the foundation said. Thomas is survived by his wife, Mary; a son, Jefferson Thomas Jr.; and two stepchildren, identified as Frank and Marilyn by the foundation.
“We volunteered to go to Central, not anticipating the opposition that we would face,” [Minnijean Brown] Trickey told CNN. It was only after Eisenhower sent in the 1,200 troops that the group was able to enter, she said.
“We stay in contact because we had that experience, and we grew up together in Little Rock,” she said. “… we cared so much about each other and felt that, that common experience bonded us in an amazing way.”
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.”
It doesn’t surprise me that someone like him from one of the charismatic churches would be attracted to the likes of “Huckajesus.” And Clinton’s husband had given him the Congressional Gold Medal, and the former president was also was a former governor of Arkansas. But I think that his actions were more important then, in 1957 until he graduated, despite all the pain he experienced, than they were in 2008.
A third memorial service may occur in Little Rock as well, but details are still being worked out.