Jefferson Thomas, 67, member of Little Rock Nine, dies

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Jefferson Thomas, one of the "Little Rock Nine" who provoked a major civil rights battle when they integrated Arkansas' largest public high school in 1957 over the opposition of Gov. Orval E. Faubus, died Sept. 5 at a care facility in Columbus, Ohio.

Mr. Thomas, who was 67, had pancreatic cancer. His death was confirmed by Carlotta Walls LaNier, who also enrolled at Central High School in 1957 and is president of the Little Rock Nine Foundation.

Many school districts in the South defied the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that declared racial segregation unconstitutional, forcing lawsuits and violent methods of enforcement. One of the first and most shocking showdowns occurred in Little Rock, when Faubus ordered the state's National Guard to keep black students out of Central High in September 1957.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent the Army's 101st Airborne Division to carry out the court's mandate. Nine black students were caught in the middle -- corralled by a spitting and rock-throwing mob of white protesters.

Taylor Branch, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the civil rights movement, once described Central High's integration as the "first on-site news extravaganza of the modern television era," and the subsequent images of the confrontation shocked millions for their disturbing look at American race relations.

Mr. Thomas said decades later that he was stunned and traumatized by the violence. He said Little Rock neighborhoods had not been segregated, even if the schools were, and he often practiced football on weekends with white kids from Central High before the conflict over integration.

"I had no reason to think that the quiet, peaceful place where I grew up could change so drastically," he told the Los Angeles Times. "I used to go to Central on weekends and play ball with the kids there."

Mr. Thomas, who lived a mile from Central High and three miles from the all-black high school, was a 15-year-old sophomore and track standout when he volunteered to break the color barrier at Central.

More than 100 black students volunteered, but the list was pared down by school officials. Only nine showed up on Sept. 4, 1957, to go to school, but they were denied entry by the Arkansas National Guard. They entered successfully on Sept. 25, escorted by the 101st Airborne.

Besides LaNier, the others were Minnijean Brown Trickey, Elizabeth Eckford, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed Wair, Terrence Roberts, Melba Pattillo Beals and Ernest Green.

The superintendent of schools counseled the teenagers not to retaliate against white protesters as the war between federal and state authority was captured on television. Once attending school, many of the nine were harassed and intimidated for months and years to come.

Brown Trickey was expelled after dumping a bowl of chili over the head of a white student who had insulted her; Mr. Thomas, Green and LaNier were the only ones of the Nine to graduate from Central, although all of them went on to college and careers.

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