Jefferson Thomas’ death made national news last year. It also prompted me to dig out an old reporter’s notebook in which I wrote down his comments at a Kansas City forum.
It’s important during Black History Month to review the enduring civil rights work of Thomas and the eight other original members of the Little Rock Nine. They spoke at the Gem Theater five years ago.
The Brown Foundation reunited them to speak to area high school students. Thomas, 67, of Columbus, Ohio, was a retired federal worker and the first of the nine to die.
Thomas, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Melba Patillo Beals, Minnijean Brown Trickey, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Terrence Roberts and Thelma Mothershed Wair were no older than the teens in the audience when they made history.
Thomas said he was among the nine students picked from many who applied to be the first to integrate Central High School in Arkansas. He said he wanted the better books, instruction and opportunity that the school afforded whites compared with the inferior, segregated education at the school for black students.
“I thought this would be new territory for me,” Thomas said.
It was the first major test of the federal government’s resolve to enforce the 1954 Brown v. Topeka Board of Education ruling outlawing legal segregation.
Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus sent National Guard troops to block the Little Rock Nine from entering the school. That caused President Dwight Eisenhower to order in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division to escort the Nine to school.
The students daily faced white, yelling mobs. But Thomas and the others said that in their heads in 1957 were fresh images of Emmitt Till, who in the summer of 1955 as a teen was killed in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman. Jet magazine carried pictures of Till in an open casket to show how he had been mutilated.
The Little Rock Nine also carried to class the courage they drew from the mother of the civil rights movement, Rosa Parks. She refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Ala., bus and was arrested for it. The students also were steeled by the actions of everyday black people in the bus boycott, which led to the integration of the system.
They knew they were part of something great and shared how each civil rights success fueled their craving for more.
“The whole idea of stepping out was to do something, and it turns out to be bigger than you thought,” Brown Trickey said.
Walls LaNier added, “The lesson of the Little Rock Nine is you can’t take no for an answer.”
The Little Rock Nine bonded because of their shared, history-making experience of being hated at the school they knew they had to attend.
“I was in the school but not part of the school,” Eckford said. The students endured verbal and physical assaults when soldiers weren’t around and the cameras were off.
The Little Rock Nine walked fast through the school. Thomas said he also walked close to the lockers because when he was pushed into them, it wouldn’t hurt as much. A few teachers and the soldiers protected them. But they didn’t follow the students into the restrooms.
Brown Trickey was suspended for dumping a bowl of chili on a white student’s head. She had had enough of the racial slurs. “You didn’t know the times I got bowls of chili thrown at me,” she said.
“A day at Central was a day at a tough job, a day like going to war,” Eckford said. There were nine black students vs. 2,300 others. “You couldn’t punch everybody and survive it.”
The Little Rock Nine encouraged Kansas City area students to do what they could that would courageously push the status quo to inclusive excellence. “We were really much like you,” Green said.
“We’ve got to have people to do the kind of advocacy in the interest of children,” Walls LaNier said. Schools and state colleges are underfunded. “We’ve got to make real demands from our society.”
A good education then and now remains the only way to the American dream. Green said, “We all have to carry our load.”
What’s clear is the load is getting heavier, and no Little Rock Nine is stepping forward with federal troops to reverse today’s backward motion.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Lewis W. Diuguid is a member of The Kansas City Star’s editorial board. To reach him, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.