Fifty-three years ago, Jefferson Thomas joined eight other black teenagers in integrating Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock Arkansas. The reaction against them was immediate, pervasive and frequently violent. White mobs spit and screamed at Thomas and the other Little Rock 9 when they showed up for school. The state's governor tried to use the Arkansas National Guard to keep the black students out, saying that following the federal mandate would only result in social disruption and that integration would have to wait until some unspecified time. And Thomas' father was laid off, probably as punishment for his son's decision.
Through it all, friends say, Thomas kept his sense of humor and used it to boost the spirits of the other Little Rock 9. He took his inspiration from a hymn, "Lord, Don't Move My Mountain, Just Give Me the Strength to Climb."
"It seemed that overnight, things stopped being so bad," he said. "The same things were happening, but they didn't hurt me as much. I didn't feel like I was a failure. I felt victorious because I made it through the day."
Thomas died last Sunday, from pancreatic cancer, at the age of 67. He is the first of the Little Rock 9 to pass away. Little Rock Central High School has since become a National Historic Site. The photo of Jefferson Thomas—along with classmates Minnijean Brown and Thelma Mothershed—is from their online archives, where you can also listen to oral history recordings, read about the lives of the Little Rock 9, and get a deeper understanding of the events surrounding public school integration. Personally, I like this shot because it shows Thomas and his classmates in a candid moment, looking like normal teenagers, rather than people from a history textbook. That reminder, that historic figures are people, is important to keeping their experiences—and the lessons we ought to be learning from those experiences—fresh and real. History isn't just facts for a quiz.
Friday, September 10, 2010