Friday, September 10, 2010

An accidental pioneer:
Jefferson Thomas (1942-2010)

When you heard he’d passed, this accidental pioneer of American history, you couldn’t help but notice his name, its word-order inversion of the name of another American groundbreaker. But Jefferson Thomas, 67, who died Sept. 5 of pancreatic cancer at a care facility in Ohio, lived the nation’s ideals at a dangerous and uncharitable time in the national life.

Thomas was one of the celebrated Little Rock Nine, the students who integrated Little Rock Central High School, with soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division guarding them as they walked into the building.

The students who made history on Sept. 25, 1957 — Thomas, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown Trickey, Elizabeth Eckford, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed Wair, Terrence Roberts, Melba Pattillo Beals and Ernest Green — proved that courage under fire doesn’t always require an army or a gun. They walked into Central High amid a mob of cursing, spitting, rock-throwing white students bent on preserving the status quo of segregation.

Of the nine who enrolled, only three (Thomas and two others graduated from the school).

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Imagine if you can the terror they felt, the bone-deep fear they had surrounded by hordes of antagonists determined to stop them from getting nothing more controversial than an education. The nerve-ending electricity of hate. The N word loose in the air everywhere.

Thomas, just turned 15 years old, was faced with turning the proverbial other cheek. “Mentally, what would hurt was when little puny guys came up and slapped you in the face. You couldn't hit back,” he told the Los Angeles Times years later.

But it took their innocent courage to bust a cap in Jim Crow; the high-minded principles of freedom, all the lofty language this country’s based on, came down to them having the nerve to call on this nation to walk the walk. It came down to Jefferson Thomas quietly demanding this country deliver on the promise of equality enshrined by one Thomas Jefferson.

In his 1998 book “Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-1965,” the historian Taylor Branch observed that “never before was a country transformed, arguably redeemed, by the active moral witness of schoolchildren.”

Branch was speaking of the sacrifice made by civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham, Ala., that other later cauldron of segregationist poison. That place where four schoolgirls died in an act of terrorism as absolute and as nationally transformative as that which went down on 9/11.

But he may just as well have been talking about the Little Rock Nine. He may as well have been describing Jefferson Thomas, the self-described “skinny little guy” whose outsized courage we should hit our knees for, in gratitude, today.

Image credits: Jefferson Thomas, Sept. 1997: AP/James A. Finley. Jefferson Thomas, 1957: AP file.

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