Jefferson Thomas was a much larger personality than he probably ever intended on being; he has recently died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 68.
As reported by The Associated Press, Thomas was a member of the “Little Rock 9,” the first nine African-American students who were let into an Arkansas high school in 1957 after the Supreme Court handed down a 1954 decision outlawing racial segregation in the nation’s public schools. The story of the Little Rock 9 situation is a really bleak one, and something that’s not really taught in the schools I attended in the northeast.
Apparently these nine African American students wanted to attend this school in Little Rock and “…Gov. Orval Faubus sent National Guard troops to block Thomas and eight other students from entering Central High.” If that wasn’t fantastic enough, “…President Eisenhower ordered in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division…Soldiers stood in the school hallways and escorted each of the nine students as they went from classroom to classroom.”
As I said, I hadn’t even heard about this particular event probably until President Clinton honored the nine members with Congressional Gold Medals in 1999. As a former governor of Arkansas, President Clinton probably held this Little Rock 9 event as a big milestone in his own life. The support he’d gotten from many in the African-American community probably made this event even more important.
Obviously, Thomas’ passing reminds us all of how short a time ago it was that the nation was a far different place. Obviously we haven’t made all the progress we would all like to see, but we do have an African-American as President.
Members of the community who are involved in issues like this have begun to come out with their well wishes. According to CNN.com, Carlotta Walls LaNier, another member of the Little Rock 9 and present president of the Little Rock Nine Foundation, has said:
“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. He was a Christian who sincerely promoted racial harmony and took his responsibilities seriously.”
Another member of the nine, Melba Pattillo Beals, told CNN, “Jefferson has always been, to us, a brother. 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.”
Humor makes the trying times a little more bearable. Testimony like that from his peers is probably all the proof anyone needs that Thomas will be missed.