Jefferson Thomas, a key figure in the anti-segregation civil rights movement in the United States, has died at the age of 67 in Columbus, Ohio. Mr. Thomas was most known for being a member of the so-called “Little Rock Nine” group of students, who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, back in 1957,
Mr. Thomas died of pancreatic cancer on Sunday, said Carlotta Walls LaNier, President of the Little Rock Nine Foundation.
The fight of the Little Rock Nine was a litmus test of the government’s intentions to implement a 1954 Supreme Court order that banned racial segregation in the country’s public schools. Many schools especially in the south refused to end segregation, entailing not only lawsuits but also violence.
In Arkansas the use of force became the order of the day, with the state Governor Orval Faubus sending National Guard troops to block Mr. Thomas and his friends from entering the school in September 1957.
The nine students African-American students were caught in the middle, “corralled by a spitting and rock-throwing mob of white protesters,” while soldiers occupied the school halls and controlled student movements within the school.
Remarking on Mr. Thomas’ passing, President Barack Obama said, “Michelle and I are saddened by the passing of Jefferson Thomas... He had the courage to risk his own safety, to defy a governor and a mob, and to walk proudly into his school even though it would have been “far easier to give up and turn back.”
For their far-reaching actions, President Bill Clinton presented the members of the Little Rock Nine with Congressional Gold Medals on the 40th anniversary of their enrolment in 1999. The others in the group were Ms. LaNier, Melba Patillo Beals, Minnijean Brown Trickey, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Terrence Roberts and Thelma Mothershed Wair.
Mr. Clinton said on Monday that Mr. Thomas was “a true hero, a fine public servant, and profoundly good man.” Mr. Obama noted that his act of civil disobedience in pursuit of an equal education had 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,” he said.