Jefferson Alison Thomas, a civil rights legend who helped pave the way for school desegregation in 1957, died on 5 September, of pancreatic cancer.
Three years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated educational facilities were unconstitutional, Thomas and eight other black students integrated all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The students, known as the Little Rock Nine, initiated the first major showdown between segregationists and the federal government, whose job it was to implement the Brown decision.
Thomas, then 15 years old, lived a short distance from Central High and three miles from the all-black high school, when he volunteered to help integrate Central High. On the first day of school on 4 September 1957, Thomas and the others were denied entry when Governor Orval Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to block their path. More than two weeks later, the Little Rock Nine entered Central High after President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered the 101st Airborne Division to escort them into the school.
Thomas was born on 19 September 1942 in Little Rock and graduated from Central High in 1960. Following graduation, he served as a sergeant in the army and earned a B.A. from Los Angeles State College. In 1979, Thomas became a financial specialist with the U.S. Defense Finance and Accounting Service, where he remained until his retirement in 2004. In 1999 President Bill Clinton honored the Little Rock Nine with Congressional Gold Medals.