MOT Mourns the passing of Jefferson Thomas, one of the Little Rock Nine.




Pictured left to right, three of the Little Rock Nine, Dr. Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, Minijean Brown Trickey with John Mack, former President of the Los Angeles Urban League and current President of the Los Angeles Police Department Board
of Commissioners.

September 5, 2010

The Museum of Tolerance mourns the recent passing of Civil Rights pioneer and Vietnam veteran, Jefferson Thomas, who made history as one of the Little Rock Nine. In 1957, under the protection of the U.S. Army, Thomas and eight fellow students became the first African-Americans to integrate all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Despite being  treated with hostility by some of their white classmates, they remained stoic and never responded with violence--a lesson they learned from the Rev. James Lawson, their mentor.  In 1999, Mr. Thomas and the rest of the group were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President Bill Clinton.

Mr. Thomas visited the Museum in 2005 when he joined fellow Little Rock Nine members Minijean Brown Trickey and Dr. Terrence Roberts to speak with local high school students about their experiences in the Civil Rights movement. 

Below is a tribute by Dr. Terrence Roberts, a consultant for the Museum:


In Memory of A Great Warrior

A Tribute to Jefferson Thomas, one of the Little Rock Nine


Terrence J. Roberts, Ph.D.

It is easy enough to find the facts of the man, Jefferson Thomas.  Cyberspace is filled with data about him and the search engines are primed to lead you to the richest lodes.  You learn when he arrived in the universe, his place among his siblings, his school record, his marital and family particulars, his service in the military, and other assorted tidbits.  None of what you find, however, will give you a sense of who he was as he walked among us.  Jeff was more than anything a peace loving person who described his time at Central High and his stint as a foot soldier in Vietnam as the two worst episodes of his existence.  The violence that characterized both those places was outside the lines for Jeff; his chosen world would not have included either one.

I miss Jeff, and will miss him again and again as thoughts and memories flood my conscious awareness.  His gaze was never in violation of the sacred code governing human relationships.  He respected self and others too much to ever kill with looks or speak words with sharp edges designed to cut though to the heart, the bone, the very soul of his fellow beings.  When he sought to instruct, it was never from the vantage point of his superior knowledge given grudgingly to lesser humans, it was always a moment of sharing between friends, between peers.  We had pledged allegiance to principles of non-violence as we navigated the racist terrain of Central High and one day Jeff stopped me to say, Terry, when they said we should turn the other cheek, they didn’t say we had to stand right there and turn it!  We can run down to the end of the hall and turn it there. 

Humor was one of the very important tools Jeff used to make sense out of this irrational environment we live in.  We could always count on him to tell a story or make a comment that would have us in stitches in nanoseconds.  And this way of his helped us to find needed balance in the face of constant provocation and endless harassment.  I wrote the following words about him in another context: “He ropes you in with the promise of sober discourse and veers off to the inevitable punchline without so much as a warning turn signal.”  A friend read those words and the others that made up the entire text and said to me, “I don’t believe that what you wrote is true, he sounds too good to be human.”

Perhaps my friend was right in a way; of course, Jeff certainly never made any such claims, and Mary is well positioned to give us the whole truth about the man, but that is not the point here.  We are all imperfect, all have fallen short of the mark.  But the saving grace is that even in his state of imperfection Jeff sought always the more perfect way.  We learn from the model he displayed, we learn lessons of humility, forgiveness, tolerance, patience, and fortitude.  We witnessed one who carried the load thrust upon him without complaint, kept his head up in the face of antagonistic provocation, accepted all who chanced to come his way without reservation, and walked the pathway assigned to him with a steady gait.

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