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.
Mr. Thomas said he tried whenever possible to avoid drawing attention.
“I would get out of the way,” he told the Times. “I was a skinny little guy. I’d been on the track team in junior high. I could run fast. I looked at it this way: If I’d been in an all-black school and a 6-foot-1, 200-pound guy pushed me around, I wouldn’t go flying into his chest. Mentally what would hurt was when little puny guys came up and slapped you in the face. You couldn’t hit back.
“We got better experienced at getting out of the way as the year went on. You’d laugh at the fact that they ran into the wall while they were going after you.”
Jefferson Allison Thomas, the youngest of seven children, was born Sept. 19, 1942, in Little Rock.
He said his role in the integration of Central High “destroyed the family base,” noting that his father was fired from a sales job with International Harvester because of the controversy. The elder Thomas scraped by as a handyman and, the day after his son’s graduation, moved to the family out of the state.
Jefferson Thomas later recalled his family’s journey to California as a scene of misery from the pages of John Steinbeck’s Depression-era novel “The Grapes of Wrath” — “everything on top of the car and you move off.”
He received a degree in business administration from what became California State University at Los Angeles and then served in the Army in Vietnam. He later worked in accounting for Mobil Oil and the Defense Department, from which he retired several years ago.
In 1964, he narrated “Nine From Little Rock,” the Academy Award-winning documentary short directed by Charles Guggenheim that explored the incident through Mr. Thomas’s eyes.
His first marriage, to Fatima Thomas, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife, Mary Branch Thomas of Groveport, Ohio, whom he married in 1998; a son from his first marriage, Jefferson Thomas Jr. of Los Angeles; two stepchildren, Frank Harper of Pittsburgh and Marilyn Carter of Columbus; three brothers; three sisters; a granddaughter; and a great-granddaughter.
On the 40th anniversary of their enrollment, members of the Little Rock Nine received Congressional Gold Medals, the highest award bestowed by Congress. They were presented by President Bill Clinton in a White House ceremony.
It took a lot of bravery for those kids to integrate that school — something many people take for granted today. Segregation still hasn’t happened successfully in many areas of America, but our society should always show gratitude toward Jefferson Thomas and the other members of the “Little Rock Nine”
Rest In Peace
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