Earlier today Jefferson Thomas, one of the members of the Little Rock Nine, died from pancreatic cancer at the age of 67. He and eight others were the first black students to desegregate a formerly all-white school in Little Rock, Arkansas.
The move to desegregate Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957 came after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision that made school segregation in public schools across the nation illegal. The sitting Arkansas governor sent members of the Arkansas National Guard to stop the nine students from attending class. President Dwight Eisenhower was then forced to order the 101st Airborne Division to escort the students to class.
In a few weeks it will be 53 years since the day when the Little Rock Nine, as they became known, those nine brave teenagers walked into history. Sadly, Jefferson Thomas did not live to see this anniversary.
TheGrio.com spoke with Minnijean Brown Trickey, another of the Little Rock Nine, about the passing of her dear friend, Jefferson Thomas.
There was one black high school, and one black middle school, and we all lived in the Central High district, so all the black people kind of knew each other. We had known each other all our lives, but we became a family through the experience of the desegregation crisis.
What was your first memory of him?
He had older brothers, and I remember the group of boys playing different sports together in the streets or in a vacant lot. But I got to know him and all his amazing qualities, during our experience at Central.
Tell me about some of those amazing qualities.
One of the things that everyone talks about is Jeff’s self-effacing, really hilarious sense of humor. I’ve gone back to look at pictures and in so many pictures of us coming out of school, we were always smiling. That was partly because of Jeff’s sense of humor.
In some ways you think humor can save your life, in that sense Jeff’s sense of humor helped to save our lives, or at least our sanity. But he was also a serious person, a serious student. He served in Vietnam. He was an accountant and a family man; a whole person I think you could say.
Do you think his sense of humor was how he was able to handle the pressures you all faced when you desegregated Central High School?
We all espoused non-violent traditions. Humor was a form of gentleness in very difficult situations. You find many ways of surviving horrific conditions and humor was one of our ways of surviving, and yes he was part of that. He was a very funny person. He wasn’t telling funny jokes, he told stories.
He was a track star at his previous high school, and you talked about him playing sports when he was younger, but he couldn’t play sports at Central. Do you think that affected him?
We couldn’t particulate in any extracurricular activities, but that was something we agreed to, but we didn’t think it would stick. It was a way built to try to discourage us, and it did discourage some students. It was designed to discourage us, and we began to feel that our talents would not be seen. So it affected all of us, and I know he had to be impacted by that. You know back then, playing in the band, or playing a sport could result in a scholarship, and we didn’t have those chances.
What’s one thing you think people don’t know about him?
He was the second black male graduate of Central, and I don’t think that gets enough play. Ernest Green was the first to graduate in 1958, and then the school closed for a year, and some of us went to different schools and moved away. But he and Carlotta Walls Lanier returned and were the second and third black graduates of Central, so he made history in that way.
How do you think Mr. Jefferson Thomas would most like to be remembered?
I think he would want to be remembered as well-rounded, and thoughtful, and concerned about social justice. We all speak to young people as part of the Little Rock Nine Foundation, and so I think he would want to be known as someone who was very much concerned about education, and young people, and about youth participation. That’s certainly how I would want to be remembered, so I imagine that’s how he’d like to be remembered.
I know the foundation is particularly active, how will you go on without his work?
We’re going to miss him terribly, we were this very tight unit of nine, and now we’re eight. The work will continue, his legacy will continue. He’s not going to be forgotten or diminished in any way by the Little Rock Nine, or the Little Rock Eight now. There’ll always be nine of us, whether there’s seven or eight or nine because of the unit, we were a unit.
Mrs. Brown-Trickey, tell me what you’ll miss most about your friend
I will just be missing him, and that quiet gentle presence that he had. He was quiet, and deep, and funny.