On Sept. 4, 1957, then-high school sophomore Jefferson Thomas walked a gauntlet of hate – a boiling-angry White mob spewing spit and jeers, taunts and threats of lynching and an impenetrable barricade of armed soldiers blocking his way into Little Rock, Ark.’s Central High School.

Inside the school’s walls – breached with the help of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, which provided protection to Thomas and eight other Black students – the persecution grew worse: daily insults, humiliation, destroyed property, beatings and attacks with knives, broken glass, dynamite and even acid.

Yet, Thomas and the other members of the “Little Rock Nine” – Minnijean Trickey Brown, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed Wair, Terrence Roberts and Melba Patillo Beals – bore it all and the heavy hopes of a nationwide community on their shoulders, taking the first courageous, though treacherous, steps on the road to desegregation. Their courage inspired a nation. And Thomas’ death on Sept. 5 – 53 years and a day after he made history – has inspired an outpouring of grief and remembered gratitude across the United States.

“ Michelle and I are saddened by the passing of Jefferson Thomas, who as one of the ‘Little Rock Nine,’ took a stand against segregation and helped open the eyes of our nation to the struggle for civil rights,” said President Barack Obama in a statement.

Arkansas Democrat and U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln said Thomas represented “the best of our state.”

“Jefferson bravely stood up for what he believed was right, at a time when it wasn’t easy or popular to break against convention,” she added. “His courage set an example for future generations, who learned that education and equality go hand in hand. His desire to follow his educational dreams inspired countless Arkansans and Americans, and we all suffer his loss.”

Barbara R. Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law, echoed those sentiments. “The Lawyers’ Committee joins the nation in mourning the loss of Jefferson Thomas, who, along with eight classmates courageously integrated Arkansas’s largest public high school, Central High School, in 1957,” she said in a statement. “We commend his outstanding sacrifice and example in testing the federal government’s resolve to enforce the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling rendering racial segregation in American public schools illegal.”

Previously a student at the all-Black Dunbar Junior High, Thomas joined the other Black students in volunteering as agents in the NAACP’s long-fought efforts to integrate schools – a plan that segregationists, including Arkansas’ then-Gov. Orval Faubus, fought tirelessly.

“We feel that they have done the almost impossible job of facing the camera, enduring thousands of questions from newsmen and holding on through some pretty terrifying days,” said the Little Rock NAACP’s then-field director Clarence Laws in an AFRO Oct. 5, 1957 article.

Thomas would often buoy the group’s spirits with laughter. “According to those who knew him best, Jefferson’s humor and light heart helped fellow members of the Little Rock Nine stay strong as they pursued their studies. Jefferson maintained that strong sense of humor even in his final days,” Lincoln stated.

In 1960 – though Faubus closed Little Rock high schools to stymie the steady march of integration – Thomas became one of the three original “Nine” to graduate from Central High.

He joined the military, serving as a staff sergeant and infantry squad leader in Vietnam and later became an accounting clerk with the Department of Defense.

This past weekend, Thomas, now 68, died from pancreatic cancer, Lanier told The Associated Press.

And while many mourn his death as a sign of the passing of an era, his place in the annals of history will not soon be forgotten. “America is an infinitely better place because of Jefferson Thomas and the other members of the Little Rock Nine,” said Congressional Black Caucus Chair Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif. “Mr. Thomas will be remembered for his courage, and his legacy is a reminder that we must remain vigilant in the fight against those eager to turn back the clock to a time when equal rights and justice were denied to many Americans.”