*Jefferson Thomas, one of nine black students to integrate Arkansas’ Central High School in 1957, died Sunday at an extended-care living facility in Columbus, Ohio, of pancreatic cancer. He was 67.
The integration fight was a first real test of the federal government’s resolve to enforce a 1954 Supreme Court order outlawing racial segregation in the nation’s public schools. After Gov. Orval Faubus sent National Guard troops to block Thomas, LaNier and the seven others from entering the school, President Dwight Eisenhower ordered in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division.
Soldiers stood in the school halls and escorted the students as they went from classroom to classroom.
Each of the Little Rock Nine received Congressional Gold Medals shortly after the 40th anniversary of their enrollment. President Bill Clinton presented the medals in 1999 to Thomas, LaNier, Melba Patillo Beals, Minnijean Brown Trickey, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Terrence Roberts and Thelma Mothershed Wair.
Clinton issued a statement Monday, calling Thomas “a true hero, a fine public servant, and profoundly good man.”
“Jefferson and I had a long visit when he came to my Presidential Center for the 50th anniversary in 2007, and I was struck again by his quiet dignity and kindness. America is a stronger, more diverse, and more tolerant nation because of the life he lived and the sacrifices he made,” Clinton said.
In 2008, then President-elect Barack Obama sent Thomas and other members of the Little Rock Nine special invitations to his inauguration as the nation’s first black president. During his campaign, he had said the Little Rock Nine’s courage in desegregating Central High helped make the opportunities in his life possible.
“Even at such a young age, he had the courage to risk his own safety, to defy a governor and a mob, and to walk proudly into that school even though it would have been far easier to give up and turn back,” Obama said in a statement Monday. “Our nation owes Mr. Thomas a debt of gratitude for the stand he took half a century ago, and the leadership he showed in the decades since.”
Below: A clip documenting the climate surrounding the first day of school for the Little Rock 9.