Jefferson Thomas, one of the Little Rock Nine, died Sunday. In 1957 he and eight other black teenagers in Little Rock, Arkansas, risked their lives to go to the high school they were entitled to in order to prove the greatest declaration of American idealism had meaning.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
For most of American history before and after those words were written at the Constitutional Convention, most of white America refused to acknowledge such ideals applied to black Americans.
To change that injustice, to transform America into a democracy where such ideals would be an expression of, not hypocrisy, but honor, was part of the mission Jefferson Thomas and the others of the Little Rock Nine undertook in the face of a relentless ostracism, and constant petty acts of violence and threats of violence.
For them, that mission was wrapped up in the pursuit of the best education available to them, and that educational quality was available at Little Rock’s hitherto segregated Central High School.
One of Thomas’s siblings, Alma Hildreth, told CNN.com Monday that her brother wanted to go to Central because of its superior laboratory facilities. “In his old (segregated) school,” she said, “they would go to biology class and dissect a frog, but they had only one frog that all the students would dissect with the teacher. But he heard at Central, all the students had their own frog to dissect, and he wanted to go to Central because he would be in a class where each student had their own frog.”
In his recent memoir about the crisis at Central High School, Terrence Roberts, another of the Little Rock Nine, wrote this about Jefferson Thomas:
You have to understand this about Jabbo: He is ever more ready to live with you in peace, but he has the heart of a lion. Keenly aware of his ability to wreak havoc on your being, he restrains himself in the name of mutual harmony and domestic tranquility. It was a combination of these traits and his grounding in the tenets of Christianity that enabled him to embrace the principles of nonviolence as we entered the battle zone of Central High School in 1957.
A half-century ago, Jefferson Thomas got to dissect his own frog in the biology lab at Central High School. His perseverance of that pursuit helped make America’s future as a democracy possible.