By Alyce Burton
Published: February 27, 2007
On February 27, 2007, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention played host to one of the "Little Rock Nine." Jefferson Thomas, one of nine black students who helped end racial segregation in public schools in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957, was the featured speaker on CDC's main campus in Atlanta, Ga.
Thomas spoke before a standing-room-only audience of CDC employees and students from Booker T. Washington High School. The students attended the program at the special invitation of the CDC administration and are participants in the "Freedom Writers" program. They just completed studying about the "Little Rock Nine" in school and were also treated to a question and answer session with Thomas after the program.
On Sept. 25, 1957, Thomas and nine other black students entered Central High School in Little Rock under the protection of one thousand members of the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army. After that fateful day, Thomas and his fellow students would become known as the "Little Rock Nine."
Thomas didn't get involved by accident; he volunteered to help desegregate the then all-white Central High School. When asked by one of the Booker T. Washington students, what he thought about that first day he responded, "I didn't understand what the big deal was. I was taught to follow the rules and in Arkansas you were required to go to school until you were 18 years old. I was just following the rules."
A young man of 15 at the time, Thomas didn't realize he was making national and world history. One of 8 children, he was looking for a way to make his own personal history. At his previous school, everyone knew him because of his siblings. He wanted to make a new history with new teachers and his own friends. "I wanted to make a history for myself, instead of the one made for me by my siblings."
Things became clearer to him after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. paid a visit to Little Rock and the "Little Rock Nine." He wanted them to think of the big picture because no one had every done what they were attempting to do. When Thomas asked Dr. King what the picture looked like, Dr. King said he didn't know. That impressed Thomas. "I thought that was admirable because here was an adult who admitted he didn't know. He said we were the frame for that picture and that whatever that picture was going to look like we had to be nonviolent. It would be our legacy."
When asked if he had any regrets or ever wanted to quit. He said no. He did say that he was grateful that they didn't breakdown when trouble started. "We stayed in the school. As long as we stayed in the school, we won.
Thomas is a frequent speaker at high schools, colleges and universities throughout the country, and he is an eager mentor to young people. He is the recipient of numerous awards from federal and local government agencies. He was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999, the nation's highest expression of appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions.
Thomas graduated from Central High School in 1960 and went on to become an accountant with the Department of Defense. He retired in 2004, after 27 years of service with the federal government.
This program was the culmination of several programs planned and coordinated by the CDC Office of Dispute Resolution and Equal Employment Opportunity in recognition of African-American Heritage Month and included a performance by the Georgia Sea Island Singers.