Jefferson Thomas was fast and athletic and often played pickup basketball with white students while growing up in Little Rock in the 1950s.
But when Thomas became one of nine black students to integrate Arkansas' largest high school, many of his basketball buddies weren't happy to see him in their classes.
"One of them said, 'Well I don't mind playing basketball or football with you or anything. You guys are good at sports. Everybody knows that, but you're just not smart enough to sit next to me in the classroom,'" Thomas recalled years later.
The pioneer in school desegregation died Sunday at an extended-care living facility in Columbus, Ohio, of pancreatic cancer at age 67, according to Carlotta Walls LaNier, who also enrolled at Central High School in 1957 and is president of the Little Rock Nine Foundation.
The integration fight was a first real test of the federal government's resolve to enforce a 1954 Supreme Court order outlawing racial segregation in the nation's public schools. After Gov. Orval Faubus sent National Guard troops to block Thomas and eight other students from entering the school, President Dwight Eisenhower ordered in the Army's 101st Airborne Division.