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Jefferson Thomas described himself as a "skinny little guy" (source) when he entered Central High School as a sophomore in 1957. He'd been a track star in junior high, but at Central Thomas kept his head down and tried to stay out of the way of the white students who harassed him daily.
It took time, he said, but he learned to not feel like a failure: "I felt victorious because I made it through the day" (source).
Thomas' family left Little Rock for Los Angeles soon after he graduated from Central in 1960; his father had lost his sales job at International Harvester for refusing to take his son out of the school. Thomas earned a degree in business administration from what is now Cal State, Los Angeles, then was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in Vietnam.
Other members of the Little Rock Nine remember Thomas as a quiet person who used humor to get through tough times. But he also had an inner strength.
"We survived and made it through on non-violence," Thomas said. "If we did it against those odds, it's possible for anyone to live today without violence" (source).
In 1999 Thomas was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President Bill Clinton.