The only one of the Little Rock Nine to graduate from the controversial high school in Arkansas
Published 12/09/2010 | 05:00
Jefferson Thomas, who died last Sunday aged 67, figured in one of American history's most infamous acts of racial politics when he became one of nine black students to test a new ruling outlawing racial segregation in schools.
In 1954, the US Supreme Court ruled segregation in American public schools was illegal. Many school districts in the South defied the ruling, leading to lawsuits and violent enforcement.
Three years later, in September 1957, the arrival of the so-called Little Rock Nine at the gates of the all-white Central High School, Little Rock, the biggest public high school in the state of Arkansas with 1,780 pupils, tested the federal government's resolve to enforce the order.
The showdown that followed shocked America. After the Governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, sent in the National Guard, armed with rifles and bayonets, to prevent Thomas and his eight fellow students from entering the school, President Dwight Eisenhower ordered up the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army.
The nine were caught in a mob of angry white protesters, spitting and throwing stones. Troops manned the school hallways to enforce the court ruling and escorted each of the nine black students -- two soldiers assigned to each -- as they made their way from classroom to classroom.
Americans watched events unfolding on live television in what one historian identified as the "first on-site news extravaganza of the modern television era". What they saw was a disturbing eruption of American race conflict.
Thomas, then 15, lived a mile from Central High and three miles from an all-black high school when he volunteered to help demolish the colour barrier at Central.
The nine volunteers turned up at the school on September 4, 1957, but the Arkansas National Guard blocked their path. They entered successfully on September 25, escorted by troops of the 101st Airborne.
In 1999, shortly after the 40th anniversary of their enrolment, each of the Little Rock Nine received Congressional Gold Medals from President Clinton.
Jefferson Allison Thomas, the youngest of seven children, was born on September 19, 1942, in Little Rock. He was keen to attend Central High because he wanted a better education.
When the crack troops of the 101st Airborne Division, known as the Screaming Eagles, withdrew from the school after a fortnight, Thomas and the other eight were subjected to daily violence. Tacks were left on his chair, broken glass on the floor. On one occasion, he was kicked unconscious. Other black students had acid thrown in their eyes and were beaten with tennis racquets.
Although Governor Faubus closed all the high schools in Little Rock a year later, in a last-ditch effort to prevent blacks and whites from attending school together, Thomas continued his education by taking correspondence courses and attending classes at a local black community college. After the so-called "lost year", Central reopened and Thomas resumed his studies there.
Of the Little Rock Nine, he was the only one to graduate from Central High, after which he served as a sergeant in the US Army in Vietnam (he always maintained that school had been scarier).
He earned a bachelor's degree in Business Administration from Los Angeles State College, opened a record store and worked in a credit bureau.
In 1979, he became a financial specialist with the US Defence Finance and Accounting Service in Los Angeles. In 1990 he transferred to Columbus, Ohio, retiring in 2004.
Thomas said his role in the integration of Central High "destroyed the family base", and recalled that his father had been sacked from his sales job because of the controversy. Callers threatened him, friends cut him dead and strangers threw missiles at his house.
Thomas senior scraped by as a handyman and, the day after his son's graduation, he moved the family to California.
Thomas's first marriage ended in divorce. His second wife, Mary, whom he married in 1998, survives him with a son from his first marriage.