|Jefferson A. Thomas|
September 19, 1942|
Little Rock, Arkansas, U.S.
|Died||September 5, 2010
Columbus, Ohio, U.S.
|African-American Civil Rights Movement|
|Awards||Congressional Gold Medal
Jefferson Alison Thomas (September 19, 1942 – September 5, 2010) was one of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African-American students who, in 1957, were the first black students ever to attend classes at Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. In 1999, Thomas and the other students of the Little Rock Nine were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President Bill Clinton.
Early life and education
Jefferson Thomas, the youngest of seven children, was born in Little Rock to Mr. and Mrs. Ellis Thomas. His parents named him after Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States. Thomas first attended Horace Mann High School, a segregated all-black school, where he was a track athlete. In 1957, he chose to volunteer to integrate all-white Little Rock Central High School for the 1957–58 school year as a sophomore.
On September 4, 1957, Thomas and the rest of the Little Rock Nine made an unsuccessful attempt to enter Central High School, which had been segregated. Despite the presence of the National Guard, an angry mob of about 400 surrounded the school and prevented them from going in. The National Guard were removed with the protection of the students left to the local police. On September 23, 1957, a mob of about 1000 people surrounded the school again as the students attempted to enter. The following day, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent U.S. Army troops to accompany the students to school for protection. The troops were stationed at the school for the entirety of the school year, although they were unable to prevent incidents of violence against the group inside.
Despite the harassment, Thomas graduated from Central High School in May 1960, and entered Wayne State University, Detroit. In mid-1961, he relocated to Los Angeles, California. He served as Treasurer of the NAACP Youth Council and State President of the Progressive Baptist Youth Convention. He also attended Los Angeles State College, joined the Student Government, and was elected President of the Associated Engineers. He obtained a Bachelor Degree in Business Administration. Thomas also served as an Infantry Squad Leader during the Vietnam War in 1967.
Thomas narrated the United States Information Agency's 1964 film Nine from Little Rock. In the film Thomas said, "If Little Rock taught us nothing more, it taught us that problems can make us better. Much better." The goal of this government propaganda film, in the context of the Cold War, was to show, to countries concerned about American racism, the progress the United States had made with respect to civil rights. It achieved this goal at least in part as the film received wide acclaim (including an Academy Award) and was distributed to 97 countries.
Thomas resided in Columbus, Ohio with his wife, Mary, and a granddaughter, Amber. He served as a volunteer mentor in the Village to Child Program co-sponsored by Ohio Dominican University, where he received his Honorary Degree, “Doctor of Humane Letters”, on May 13, 2001, for his lifelong efforts in human rights and equality advancement.
Thomas was a frequent speaker at numerous high schools, colleges and universities throughout the country. He was the recipient of numerous awards from local and federal governmental agencies which include the Congressional Gold Medal awarded to the Little Rock Nine by President Bill Clinton in 1999. Also, in 1999, he and the other members of the Little Rock Nine received the NAACP’s prestigious Spingarn Award "for their bravery and heroism throughout Central High's first year of integration". In August 2005, the State of Arkansas honored the Little Rock Nine with statues of their likeness on the Capitol grounds.
After more than 27 years as a civil servant, Thomas retired on September 30, 2004, from the Defense Finance and Accounting Service in Columbus, Ohio. In his later years, he served on the Board of Directors for the City of Refuge Learning Academy at the First Church of God.
Thomas died from pancreatic cancer in Columbus, Ohio, two weeks before his 68th birthday. He was the first of the Little Rock Nine to pass away. After a funeral in Columbus, he was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.
- Dudziak, Mary L., Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy, Princeton University Press, 2000, pp. 218–19.
- Fifty Years of Integration at Central High, Arkansas Globecoming.
- "'Little Rock Nine' member Jefferson Thomas dead at 67". CNN. Retrieved September 6, 2010.
- Brown, Robbie (September 6, 2010). "Jefferson Thomas, Who Helped Integrate Little Rock School, Dies at 67". New York Times. Retrieved September 7, 2010.
- "'Little Rock Nine' member Jefferson Thomas dead at 67". Columbus Dispatch. September 12, 2010. Retrieved September 13, 2010.
- Congressional Gold Medal, USA.