“[Jefferson] Thomas was just a teenager when he became one of the first African-American students to enroll in Little Rock Central High School. Yet 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. And through this simple act of pursuing an equal education, he and his fellow members of the Little Rock Nine helped open the doors of opportunity for their generation and for those that followed. The searing images of soldiers guarding students from those days will forever serve as a testament to the progress we’ve made, the barriers that previous generations have torn down, and the power of ordinary men and women to help us build a more perfect union. Our nation owes Mr. Thomas a debt of gratitude[.]”
This is part of the statement issued by President Obama about Jefferson Thomas, who passed away on September 5th. In 1957, he and eight fellow Black students at Little Rock Central High School made history as they helped make our nation live up to the promise of Brown v. Board of Education, the end of legal segregation in public schools. As President Obama has said before, he himself was among the next generation of Americans who were able to step through those doors of opportunity the Little Rock Nine helped open. In reminding us that Thomas and his fellow students were just teenagers when they endured daily harassment and physical threats just to go to school each day, he raises another key point: our nation owes a debt of gratitude not just to the ordinary men and women who took a stand during the Civil Rights Movement, but to the extraordinary children and youths who were frontline soldiers in the war to end Jim Crow in American life.
Children and young people in the Movement taught us to be courageous and stand up against injustice and showed uncommon dignity, maturity, and grace that was often a direct contrast to the hate-filled adults around them. Dr. Robert Coles, in his children’s book The Story of Ruby Bridges, describes Ruby’s loving forgiveness and courage when faced with the ugly screaming White mobs who jeered and taunted her as she attended alone, only six years old, a previously all-White school in New Orleans boycotted by Whites. Ruby astonished her teacher when she asked Ruby why she had paused and talked to the crowd of White adults one day. “I wasn’t talking,” said Ruby. “I was praying. I was praying for them.”
Historians like Taylor Branch and David Halberstam recount the incredible courage and determination and grit of children and youths like Ruby Bridges, Thomas and his classmates at Little Rock Central High, and others who subjected themselves often to the violent resistance we witnessed in Little Rock and New Orleans to end discrimination in the American South. Their names were not just in the court papers filed by their brave parents in dozens of school desegregation cases. Children were the shock troops who parted the milling, jeering, and threatening crowds and weathered daily the hateful isolation and ugly epithets encouraged or ignored by some White adults who taught their children to spurn and insult Black children. Children faced fierce police dogs and fire hoses and filled the jails in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama when most adults hesitated to respond to Dr. King’s call for fear of their jobs or personal safety. Children withstood arrests and tough treatment in Jackson, Mississippi and harsh treatment in Southern jails where they were detained. They were sometimes beaten by police for standing up for freedom. High school and college youths sat down until lunch counters across the South were desegregated. And four little girls had to die as a sacrifice in Birmingham before the nation assured Black citizens the right to vote.
As Taylor Branch said at a Children’s Defense Fund/Black Community Crusade for Children forum, “There is no precedent that I know of in recorded history for the power balance of a great nation turning on the moral witness of schoolchildren…A movement that rode through in history on the spirit of children now looks to how we treat our children [decades] later. Now we have adults who, in effect, need to pay back children.” How will we do that? When will we do that? Giving children fair treatment, leadership, and protection today is our nation’s chance to honor the debt we owe young people like Jefferson Thomas whose life made such a difference to us all.