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Biographical Details of Leadership
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BOND: Justice Thomas, thank you for being with us on Explorations in Black Leadership.
THOMAS: Well, thank you.
BOND: I want to begin a question about Brown v. Board. I know it was decided the year before you entered elementary school, but did you have some sense that this was a big deal?
THOMAS: Well, not at the time. No. The big deal was learning the multiplication table and how to add, those sorts of things, but as the years went on, particularly ’56, ’57, you got a sense of it because there was quite a bit of talk about it. My grandfather was very involved with the NAACP, for example, so you heard that. You also heard, as I mentioned and when I wrote my memoirs, that we saw the Impeach Earl Warren signs along Highway 17 going to Liberty County. And I always wondered who this Earl Warren was and later on, of course, I would’ve figured it out that it was the Chief Justice of the United States and he was in trouble in part because of Brown.
BOND: I guess there’s no way I could say, did you ever think that you’d be sitting in the building where Earl Warren worked?
THOMAS: Well, not only didn’t I think of that, I didn’t think that I would ever see the building where he worked.
BOND: Now, as you found out what it meant, as you grow older, did you have some idea of what it might mean, what it could mean as opposed to what it may have turned out to mean?
THOMAS: You know, my grandfather was an interesting man. He, of course, dominated our lives. And he felt that as these rights were vindicated that we had an obligation to measure up, to use them. I’ll give you a separate example. When the Savannah Public Library finally desegregated and we were allowed to go to the main library, his point was that we were obligated to use it. That is, we had to show up no matter what and we had to read books because we finally had a right to do so. So when it came to education, as the rights became available, we had an obligation to use them properly, so he would say to me in 1964 when I went to seminary, which was previously all white, he said, “Don’t shame me and don’t shame the race.” In other words, you have to perform.
BOND: Do you think that the Brown decision had something to do with opening the doors in the seminary that you attended?
THOMAS: Oh, I think the seminary — I think it had an impact in lots of ways, absolutely. That was 1964. That was ten years later, and things were changing slowly, but absolutely. I think it got the ball rolling, I think it changed attitudes. It changed the legal arrangements. People like Phyllis Kravitch who’s on the 11th Circuit now, she was on the Board of Education in Savannah and started moving things in that direction back then. And she’s just an — and so, in talking with her and people like W.W. Law in Savannah and previously before that, Sol C. Johnson who ran The Informer in Savannah, absolutely, and so there was a combination of things that moved us in that direction so, yes, it did have an impact.
BOND: But yet at the same time you’ve been critical of the jurisprudence that created Brown.
THOMAS: Oh, I think the — not critical in that sense. It could’ve been stronger in the sense that, I mean, we all when we do opinions, you look at another opinion and you say, "Well I don’t agree with this approach or that," but no, not with the bottom line, obviously.
BOND: So, what do you think it has turned out to mean, the Brown decision, all these years later?
THOMAS: Oh, I think it really did something that was — could’ve been done back when Plessy was decided in the 1890s, and that is to affirm something that’s clear in the 14th Amendment, and that is that all citizens have the same rights, all citizens of the United States. And made it possible, if just in a practical way, for us all to have or to at least have a possibility to have the same education. I mean, it's — if you look, for example, I happen to be a big sports fan and when I grew up, games like Georgia-Florida meant nothing. It meant nothing because those schools were segregated. Now, if you had Savannah State playing South Carolina State, that meant something. Or Florida A&M came into town, that meant something, because we had some connection with them, but now when you watch the Georgia-Florida game or you watch the Alabama game, you have such a large number of black athletes involved so you can see that even there, just from a perception or just a sports or entertainment standpoint, it’s quite different. And, similarly, now when you visit the campuses — I go to the University of Georgia. That’s a campus that was not open to me and so I think it’s changed quite a bit.
BOND: And you can trace all these to Brown, you think?
THOMAS: Oh, obviously. Oh, I think that the — that’s the beginning. And that’s something that could’ve been done years before.
BOND: I’ve read, I think, that you think that Brown is sort of a precursor of affirmative action, that it opened the door.
THOMAS: No, not really.
THOMAS: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think I’ve ever said that.
BOND: No, no. I’m not quoting you as having said that, but just that Brown happened and then the enforcement of Brown or the carrying out of Brown opened the door for a kind of racial spoils system.
THOMAS: No, not really. I think that — you know, that's — you could debate that, but that’s sort of the structural injunction sort of that where you— the remedy is something where you set up a broad system rather than deal with the case before you. But that’s — no, I don’t think that’s accurate.
BOND: Okay, I stand corrected. Now, how do you think Brown impacted your life? You talked about these private schools which are not touched by Brown, that were open to you because of Brown. What other ways do you think Brown affected your life?
THOMAS: Oh, I think — I think just sitting here, just the fact that we’re here. I mean, just think about it. To the extent that people have sentiments that were inconsistent with the Constitution that were somehow enforceable, either by custom or by law, Brown was one of the major pieces that began the erosion of those customs and those attitudes. Whether it’s in parks, the public facilities, whether it’s in public accommodations later on — but it changed. I mean, and I was right there at the — in the late ‘60s as it was just beginning to change. It wasn’t changed yet. But just think of something as simple as being able to go have a burger at one of the Big Boys in Savannah. You couldn’t do it, so, yes, I mean, it’s changed tremendously. I think you can’t over-estimate the significance of it.
BOND: Who were the people who’ve been most significant in helping you develop your talents? I know the influence your grandfather had, but are there other people besides him?
THOMAS: You know, I’d have to really stay close to home with that because, you know, as the years have passed and I think about the people I’ve learned about or the people who have participated in my education, etc., it all goes back to the most crucial parts of my life and those would be people like my neighbors, my cousins. These were uneducated people in Liberty County. You’ve been there.
THOMAS: You’ve been around Bryan County. You’ve been out in the rural parts of Chatham County. And those people had more of a direct influence on me. Now, in the educational arena, I have to start with the nuns, because the thing that they never bought into was the sense that somehow we were different and we were to be treated separately. Their expectations were that we were going to parochial schools and we would learn the parochial school curriculum. And there were no excuses. So they had an influence, but then it goes on from there and it gets a little bit easier once you start there, but I would have to start with [those people].
BOND: Now, one picked out for special mention is Sister Mary Virgilius.
THOMAS: That’s right.
BOND: Tell me about her.
THOMAS: She is still alive. She is in her mid-nineties. She is an Irish immigrant. She went in the convent in 1931. She was originally, as far our diocese was concerned, she was at Augustan at Immaculate Conception and then she came to Savannah. Remember, those — Immaculate Conception and St. Benedict’s in Savannah have been orphanages and they eventually got rid of the orphanages and became grammar schools. But she was unyielding in her attitude that you would do well. It was consistent with my grandfather’s attitude because — I mean, as a kid, I’m twelve, thirteen years old. I want to do what twelve- and thirteen-year-olds do. I want to have fun and my grandfather’s view, and hers, was that we did not have the luxury in the ‘50s to have fun, that we had an obligation to perform and to do well.
BOND: And a moment ago you mentioned neighbors. What about neighbors? What did neighbors do you for you?
THOMAS: That’s a really good question. It’s fascinating. Nobody’s ever asked me that. What they do is they reinforce. The people around you reinforce. I think, for example, if you’re learning piano or an instrument or sports, it’s called take repetitions, repeating it over and over and over and over. Well, neighbors tended to reinforce what you were getting at home, what you were getting at school, what you were getting at your church, the positive things, what you got at the Carnegie Library in Savannah. It was all the same message. And so my cousin Hattie or Miss Mariah or Miss Beck, Miss Gertrude, Miss Gladys next door — it was all the same message.
BOND: Are these people sort of like surrogate parents? I mean, in addition to your grandmother and grandfather, they’re helping reinforce what they’re telling you?
THOMAS: Yes, it’s all — it was consistent. They were my neighbors and, you know, and in the South, of course, when anybody could tell you what to do. You know, anybody could tell you to go to the store to buy some snuff, some Honey Bee Snuff or whatever they wanted at the time, some Stanback or some Anacin that they took quite frequently, but the — and then they could — I remember one day, I was on East Broad and Henry Street just down a few blocks from our house, and we were cautioned never to cross the street against the light. And, of course, I’m a kid, so we crossed against the light, you know, there was no traffic so we ran across, and out of the back window of the bus, you heard this voice — “I’m going to tell Teenie on you.” That was the worst voice ever to hear. That was Miss Gertrude. And before we got home — I don’t know how she got the message to my grandmother — but before we got home, she’d informed her that we’d crossed the street against the light whereupon we were informed that "Your granddaddy will deal with you when he comes home." And that was — or he said, "Your daddy will — Daddy’ll deal with you when you get home." And that’s the worst threat you could ever have.
BOND: Do these people feel free to discipline as you as well?
THOMAS: Oh, yeah.
BOND: If they couldn’t wait for Daddy?
THOMAS: They didn’t even have the need because they could — they knew the fear of my grandfather was more than enough to discipline us, but if they had to, yes, and then we would get a second one from my grandfather.
BOND: Oh, boy.
BOND: Do you remember a specific event, historical or personal, that you view as critical to your understanding of American society and history? Events from the civil rights movement? Events in your neighborhood? Events in Savannah? Something that let you know where you were, who you were, what was expected of you or not expected of you?
THOMAS: You know, I — that would be hard. I don’t think it’s more a specific event. I think it was a daily event. And it occurred, I mean, with the neighbors or with teachers. It’s a small world. We lived a short walk from our school, our grammar school, an even shorter walk from St. Pius X High School. The farm was out in Liberty County. It was a forty-five-minute drive even in that traffic on Highway 17, and it was all the same, the same attitudes, the same culture, so I don’t think of anything as one sporadic event occurring that shaped me. It was a continuum or a continuity of events, a series of events in our lives, our daily lives, that had the greatest influence.
BOND: You write about your grandfather being called "boy" by a white woman and struggling to restrain himself from stabbing a white man after another assault. What effect did these have on you?
THOMAS: Oh, I — you know, I don’t know as a kid. I think it had a great effect on my grandfather which in turn had a great effect on me. He was an independent man as a result of things that happened in his life. He was a man who thought that, you know, when you talk of freedom, he talked of independence — that is, the ability to do for yourself, the ability to grow your food. And he was a very active member in the NAACP. We went to meetings. We went there to four o'clock meetings on Sunday. He would take us along so we had — because we had to learn. He thought that we should learn how to read so that we weren’t like him where he had to work with his hands. He wanted us to learn how to work with our minds and be a part of it, but I think it had an influence on him because both — it wasn’t that he had an assault from the man on his ice truck. It was that he confronted him and said some unpleasant things to him, and my grandfather’s reaction was intensely passionate, that he wanted to — he felt like he was going to harm that man.
The “boy” incident was different because we were there. The first one we were not there. That was just an account that he gave us. We were there as little kids, and to watch him first look at us and then look back at her, then look at us again — and then know, it’s almost as though he made a decision that "I have to got to raise my boys." That discipline — to imagine, knowing him, the discipline it took for him to do the right thing and the responsible thing.
BOND: Do you think he looked at you to test what your reaction would be to this insult he’d received or to see whether or not you had noticed it and absorbed it in any particular way?
THOMAS: I think it was a blow and I think that he noticed us as we noticed him and as little kids, you know, I think you think, "Now what are you going to do and how’re you going to deal with it? You’re the greatest man we know." And some people seem, you know, they seem emboldened by those sorts of things and take off in the wrong direction and do something that can ultimately be self-destructive. He did the hard thing — to hold his discipline. And it’s a lesson to me, to my brother, that even when you might feel strongly about something or feel justified in doing something that could be self-destructive, that you must do something that’s more prudent and certainly beneficial and constructive in the long run.
BOND: So maybe you’re putting too much into this sort of an exercise in self-control.
THOMAS: That’s right.
BOND: "Look at how I’m reacting to this. This is the lesson for you."
THOMAS: Remember what he said. That’s precisely the point that I’m making. Remember, as I said earlier in my memoirs, he always said to us that "I will never tell you to do as I say. I will always tell you to do as I do." That is a hard burden to put on yourself.
THOMAS: Because we did indeed watch him. We were kids. We were always around him. It isn’t like today where parents are hauling kids around to soccer and to all — it’s like the parents are working for the kids now. It was the other way around when we were kids. We were like the little ducklings following the leader.
BOND: Were there any incidents in the news when you were growing up in Savannah that let you know who you were and what some people thought about you or how you ought to think about yourself?
THOMAS: Oh, you know, I can remember being herded into our little den — that's where the Motorola TV was. And the news was a big deal in those days and we all had to watch what was going on in Little Rock and being horrified. And later on we’d see the hosings and we’d watch what happened in Birmingham and the fire hoses, the dogs, things like that, and it really — oh, absolutely, it had a tremendous impact on all of us.
BOND: I’m the same age as the Little Rock Nine and they had a big influence on me because they were my age. And I saw people like me in Birmingham I’m guessing in ’63 —
THOMAS: I was in the eighth grade.
BOND: So these are children roughly your age. Did the fact that these young people were doing this speak to you more profoundly than it might’ve done had they been older people?
THOMAS: Well, first, yes, I was in the ninth grade when that happened. In ninth grade as a young kid, you begin to feel your oats a little bit.
THOMAS: And you begin to have this sense that we should be doing something and I can remember my grandfather distinctly telling us, "No way. You’re not old enough." That your job is to go to school, your job is to learn. That’s what all of this was about and so, yes, I mean, you saw it all. You saw other parts of the country and you also read about what was happening in Savannah — the lunch counters, the kids from Savannah State with the sit-ins. My grandfather in hush-hush conversations to use his property for bail working with the NAACP. And it can’t but have an effect on you.
BOND: A few minutes ago you mentioned Wesley Law who was a long-time president of the NAACP in Savannah, a man whom I knew fleetingly but an impressive guy. Other people who sat in this chair have said, "Well, there was a man in my town who was a leader in race matters, civil rights things, and he was pointed out to me as somebody not that I ought to imitate but just somebody doing things for the race." Was Mr. Law — ?
THOMAS: He was revered, I mean, in our household — I mean, W.W. Law, we called him. He was a mailman and he was very active. He was a leader. He was someone who was very supportive and, you know, we disagreed on things, some matters years later, but those disagreements didn’t change things with me and how I looked at him. But he was just a man who stood up when it looked like it was dangerous to stand up. You know, he was one who said, "This is wrong and I’m going to work to make changes." The other people that I didn’t know who were revered in our household, again, Phyllis and Aaron — Aaron Kravitch was a local lawyer in Savannah who happened to be Jewish and allowed black lawyers to use his law library and things like that and his daughter Phyllis Kravitch who’s now on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. They were revered in our house. And there were any number of others who would fight back or who would actually show up to the meetings, and that’s what my grandfather would talk about — who showed up and who didn’t show up, who had property to use for bail money and who refused to allow their property to be used. There was another gentleman in our area, Sam Williams, who was a friend of my grandfather and who was also involved.
BOND: So these people are held up to you as exemplars?
BOND: They’re doing things and not necessarily that you have to do these things, but they’re doing things that are admirable and setting an example for others. And the ones who don’t do these things are, in effect, letting the community down.
THOMAS: It was different then because they didn’t always agree on what it was they should be doing.
THOMAS: And as you remember, years later, when some of us became very radical, we actually were critical of these sort of go-slow approach or people working within the system, but my grandfather’s attitude was that you should do something. You should not just sit and do nothing and you didn’t have to always agree on what that something was, but you don’t just accept the status quo because you’re lazy or you’re fearful. And they were put up — they were shown as examples of people who actually took the risks and made the effort to do something.
BOND: Even if it was something that you didn’t necessarily agree with, they were doing something.
THOMAS: They were doing something.
BOND: As opposed to those who did nothing at all.
THOMAS: That’s exactly right.
BOND: Let me take you back to the time when you’re at Immaculate Conception Seminary and you hear the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination and a white seminarian gloats, “This S.O.B. is finally dead.” And you describe that as the final straw in an interview you did with the San Diego Tribune in 1998. What did that do to — it seems to have you set off the path to the priesthood?
THOMAS: Well, that was my fourth year in the seminary and I was always a little bit — you know, not always, but that year I was beginning to be a little shaky about it, but actually what he said, “That’s good. I hope the SOB dies.” And that wasn’t so much that I was following every move of Dr. King, because there were others at the time — you know, this would be an era when you were beginning to get this sort of beginning of the black power thing, Malcolm X had been around and there’d been some more dissention than people talk about today, but there was as you know some dissention. And — but that wasn’t it. It was more — it was deeper than that, that this was a man of God who was, again, whether you agreed or disagreed, was doing something right. And he was doing something for good. Why would a fellow seminarian wish him dead? And that was the end of it. And I had already been having some difficulties with my vocation, and this was the end.
And at the same time something else was happening — this sort of racial awareness, the fact that as you got older and you thought more deeply, and I’d been talking with a fellow seminarian who was also black and quite a bit older, and the more I thought about it, I thought that the church should’ve been doing more to point out that this is morally wrong and objectionable. And, of course, that was not the case at least as I saw it. It probably was, but I was looking at it from my very limited perspective at that time. So, yes, it was the end of my vocation.
BOND: Then you write later, or talk later, about an experience at Holy Cross when you joined a protest at Harvard Square in 1970 and then began to ask yourself, again, according to this interview in the San Diego Union Tribune, "Why was I doing this rather than using my intellect?" Explain these circumstances.
THOMAS: Well, that goes back to my grandfather. He said that there're gifts that you have, there're opportunities that you're given to elevate, to become more informed, to become better educated. And there was more available and so we had an obligation to do more with it, not to be in the streets — to be actually learning, to think these things through, not just reacting on this kind of visceral level and I couldn’t figure out why I was there and I was very upset and if you were on a lot of these college campuses then and you're like nineteen, twenty years old, a lot of us were upset. But there was more to it.
Let’s go back. Let’s hearken back to the point I made about him — the lady insulting my grandfather in front of us. He had to make some decisions. He had to react in a different way, in a way that he felt was constructive. And again, that example is there — what would he do, what would he expect of me? And I think he expected much more of me than what I was doing.
BOND: And did you have a sense that what he expected of you — what that was as opposed to what you were doing? You were protesting something in Harvard Square and you said to yourself, "My grandfather would’ve wanted me to do something else." What was that something else?
THOMAS: He wanted me to go to school. He did not have great confidence in me at this point because I’d become quite radicalized and he did not understand that. But he would want me to go to school. And he would want me to learn because he never had that chance, and a gift that I did have was the capacity, the ability to do well in school and to learn very rapidly.
BOND: So even though he may not have known that you were in Harvard Square marching up and down, he wanted you to be in the library and the classroom paying attention to what you were at school for — get some benefit out of being there.
THOMAS: You know, we all have kids and they go off and we still have expectations of them and I know I always dragged around what I thought his expectations were of me, and I think I referred to them in my memoirs as a brooding omnipresence. And so he’s always there, even to this day. Yesterday was the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death, as is this week is the fortieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King. And it's — it's just, it's — there's some things that always are there, just that date is always there and very poignant. The events of 1968, April of '68, are always there. They're poignant. The assassination of Bobby Kennedy is always there in 1968. The assassination of John F. Kennedy is always there. There’re some of these big events — like the death of my grandparents and the ones that I’ve mentioned that are always there, and there’s some others. But you never kind of forget them as reference points so the person of my grandfather, even to this day, never evaporates. It’s always there. That’s why when you asked me earlier about the early influences, I go right back to that source because I, you know, you read Kant, you read Nietzsche, you read Thomas Aquinas, you listen to your philosophy professors, you meet people over the years. You read all sorts of books. And what I’ve found is that I have no sort of intimacy with them. I’d see the words. I see the written words. I see the thoughts, the ideas, but the person who’s touched the whole person is back home. It’s my grandparents, really.
BOND: So, in spite of the reading and the education you’ve had at college, at Yale, I’m guessing, that this is an ever-present influence on you.
THOMAS: And the most dominant.
BOND: Despite the fact that he’s passed away twenty-five years ago, still the most dominant?
BOND: That’s a remarkable tribute to him.
THOMAS: Well, I think that, you know, the — as I say in my book, that he was the greatest man I’ve ever known. I really — you know, he did the right thing when it was easy to do the wrong thing. And I think that it’s easy today to vent, to be upset, but is that always the right thing? I mean, if you and I saw a couple of guys we knew in a bar and they had a legitimate beef with each other, we wouldn’t say, "Go and have it out." We’d tried to figure out a way, how do you all deal with this in a constructive way. If your kids or your grandkids are having a little disagreement, you’d pull them apart and say, "Now, what’s the right way to deal with this?" And I think that’s what he was trying to show us with his own life because there’re lots of things, lots of insults and slights and injustices and unfairness that just sort of nipped away at him, just pecked at him the entirety of his life, and yet he showed us how to deal with all of that and continue on in a positive and constructive way. So, yes, I think he sits there as that great model for me.
BOND: So he found a way not to be dragged down by these things but to push on and to hold himself —
THOMAS: That’s right. To hold himself erect and proud and to achieve and to accomplish in spite of it all, and to figure out a way to get his boys to do the same thing.
BOND: Let me shift gears a little bit. How did you choose your career?
THOMAS: You know, I was in the seminary and I had in — and then in law school I spent a lot of time, I’d always felt that those of us to whom much is given of him much is expected. And we’d always, whether we had corn or beans or peas, we always took it to those who needed extra or needed something. And so it came natural, and as is someone who’s going to become a priest, it was a calling that you would help other people. Why else? I mean, how do you show love but to reach out to those who are less fortunate and so you started tutoring. I worked in community programs, even in college and law school, mental hospitals. We did the free breakfast program and that’s in more radical days, and so when I got to law school, I worked. In those days we talked about being in the community —
BOND: What was the decision to go to law school? Again, is it tied to helping others?
THOMAS: Yes. It’s going back to Savannah —
BOND: This is a helping profession?
THOMAS: That's the point I was going to get to, it was a part of the vocation, you know, when you ceased being a priest, how do you now help? What was going on in Savannah in 1967, ’68, ’69? What was happening? You know that the society was changing. There was resistance. There was still unfairness. And another name you may remember from Savannah, from Georgia, is Bobby Hill.
BOND: I was just thinking of Bobby Hill.
THOMAS: That was my hero. That was my model and I didn’t know him that well because there were, you know, of course, there were other problems, but from a distance, that was the model to go back and be a part on that, he and Fletcher Farrington, Bill Jones and Farrington.
THOMAS: That was my goal was to go work for him.
BOND: Really? That was a path-breaking integrated law firm.
THOMAS: That’s right. And I was in that firm. There was Clarence Martin was in that firm. He’s since passed away. Fletcher was there. Bill [William T.] Coleman, Jr. [IV], was there.
BOND: Oh, I didn’t know that.
THOMAS: Yeah, for one year and I was there that summer and it was just — Roy Allen [II], who’s since passed away, he was also there. So — Carlton Stewart who’s in Georgia, he was there.
BOND: Yeah, I served with Roy in the legislature.
THOMAS: Yes. My point is simply that my specific goal — I’ve never worked for a law firm other than that law firm. My specific goal was to go back and be a part of that firm.
BOND: And how did that not happen?
THOMAS: Well, I worked there in the summer of 1973 and reached the conclusion that it was not the right place. And it was heartbreaking and it also caused further distance between my grandfather and me because it was clear then that I would not be returning to Savannah at that time.
BOND: I wondered, was there another opportunity for you legally in Savannah besides the Hill law firm? Were there other firms that might have — did you approach them?
THOMAS: I tried in different ways. I wrote letters and, you know, called around. The answer’s no, nor were there any opportunities in Atlanta. That’s why I didn’t wind up in Atlanta. I just — as I’ve said, I received a series of rejections from Atlanta and that is why I wound up in Jefferson City, Missouri.
BOND: You know, when Maynard Jackson stopped being mayor after two terms, no law firm in Atlanta made him an offer. He had to go to Chicago. Anyway, so you end up in Jefferson City, Missouri and you’re doing, as I understand it, mostly tax work and other kinds of things.
THOMAS: I started out with criminal appellate work.
BOND: Oh really?
THOMAS: I did — we — that was the beginning. It was really interesting because you show up. Of course, you have to pass the bar exam. I lived with Margaret Bush — Mrs. Margaret Bush Wilson that summer which was great. It was a great learning experience in many ways. And on September 14, I became a member of the Bar of Missouri and September 17 I argued my first case before the Supreme Court of Missouri, and so you can imagine what that was like.
BOND: Yes, sure.
THOMAS: I was twenty-six years old, but the job was great. I mean, there was an enormous amount of work to do and this was purely — it’s one of these swim or sink situations. There was very little supervision because people didn’t have time. The great part about it was that the work came to you in an indiscriminate manner. There was so much it that just poured in and you just did it as it came in. It was a wonderful experience.
The other great part of it was that I worked for a person who was a good man, so even today I advise my law clerks or any kids who ask me for advice to work for the person, not the job. Because again, it’s sort of like learning from my grandfather — you can learn so much by observing a good person and having a good person supervise you.
BOND: And that good person was John Danforth?
THOMAS: Jack Danforth. Yes, he was just a wonderful man, and one thing — I’ll just be brief here — that he did, that he showed me, is he never mixed the politics of his job with the function of the office, so we were never confused and we never had to change things because it might be in his political interest.
BOND: You know, he strikes me as an unusual person, not necessarily in Missouri, but an unusual person generally speaking. He’s deeply religious and he seems to me to be a person who works his religion, uses, lives his religion in ways that other people who say "I’m a Christian" really don’t.
THOMAS: He is a deeply religious man and he did not wear that, though, on his sleeves when we worked for him. And we knew he was a minister but we never saw it. And it was only years later that I saw that. But he is just a good man.
BOND: Now, is there a point in your life, and I want to take you back to school days, where you think to yourself and maybe not articulated in this way, you say to yourself, "I am a leader, other people follow me, other kids follow me"? Is there a moment or a time or a place or an occasion where that strikes you?
BOND: Never at all?
BOND: Not in grade school?
BOND: Not in high school?
THOMAS: I was never a leader in that sense. I didn’t run for office. I wasn’t a vocal kid. I was just like I am at the Court. I was just quiet and I didn’t ask any questions throughout my years in school. I wouldn’t be one that I would point out that led anybody to do anything.
BOND: Well, in college, aren’t you active in forming the black student group?
THOMAS: That’s because I could type. I had my typewriter. I had my Smith Corona.
BOND: Like the woman who becomes the secretary.
THOMAS: Yes. That’s why I became the secretary because I had a typewriter and I could type and I could edit.
BOND: Well, surely it had to be more than that. I mean, there must be some reason that people looked to you for this.
THOMAS: You know, when I first arrived on campus, the head of the Black Student Union was a wonderful young man named Arthur Martin and he heard that I could type and I was a transfer student. I hadn’t been there the year before, and so he brought over the proposed constitution and told me the changes they wanted to make, and it was a handwritten portion and he said, "Would you type it up?" And I said, "Oh, fine." So I sat at my Smith Corona and typed it up and made the edits and that was it. I was reliable, let’s put it that way. And this is something, again, that came from my grandfather. He would send us off. He said, "Take the tractor and go back to the field and plow," and he would go back and inspect it later on. You have to be reliable without supervision, so I was reliable in that way. But, no, I would never — you know, my classmates to this day, I was probably one of the least likely people to see leading anything. I just wasn’t — I didn’t see myself that way.
BOND: So there was never a time when you said, "I can lead people to do something"? "I have the ability within myself to get others to follow me," and I don’t mean follow you blindly, but to follow you?
BOND: Never at all?
THOMAS: No. I was more independent. I was — I would think things through and make my own decisions. I probably wasn’t a great follower either. If anything, I would say I was just independent, more like my grandfather. I would participate, that I was a part of lots of things. I was a part of the Black Student Union. I was a part of some other organizations. I was a part of the school newspaper — so I did all sorts of things, but I would not have pegged me — the only thing I can say about the leadership part of it was that I thought for myself. I liked to think things through and I loved the idea of talking and persuading. I think we’ve kind of gotten away from that in this society.
BOND: No, but that’s a little bit of what I mean — talking and persuading. So here’s — you have an idea and a way of thinking and here’s another fellow or classmate or student who thinks differently or doesn’t think quite the same way, and you can convince that person.
THOMAS: I tried.
BOND: Or you can try.
BOND: Isn’t that some aspect of leadership?
THOMAS: Well, if you define it that way, yes. I loved that. I think that’s a part of being educated. I think that is a part of the discipline of education. I think it is most wonderful thing, and to open up the mind and to really think that, "Look, you don’t have to agree with me, but let’s talk about this. Let’s talk about whether it’s philosophy or history or art. Let’s just talk about it." Or it could be politics. It could be the Constitution, because the way that we’ve kind of gotten now is that it’s almost like we have — it’s become a religious thing, that there’s a religiosity to this, sort of the opinions that we have, that then it was like you can go. I remember in law school, we would go over and there’d be a dollar-a-pitcher beer. That was back in the days when I enjoyed beer, and we’d talk and the ideas were free-flowing. I found those to be wonderful, like the old coffee shops, you know. So if you define it as willing to exchange and debate ideas, then, yeah, that’s a part of leadership.
BOND: Do you think — or I was about to say, don’t you think — that people said, "Oh, Clarence Thomas thinks this ways about that. He’s interesting. You need to talk to him about this."
THOMAS: You know, it’s interesting. I think they didn’t say it that politely and they didn’t call me Clarence then, but they — they’d say go talk to him because he’s got some ideas. I was interested in everything. If someone had a good argument, I was interested in looking at that argument and take the time. I think that’s fascinating and it’s a fascinating part about leading people because they might come from a different part of the country, they have a different sort of education, they think a different way, and it made education exciting. And I think when someone comes in and they already have all the answers, that’s a boring person, because now they’re just sort of preaching to you, whereas I was more interested in just processing it all and thinking it through. So, yeah, I think there’d be times — people wouldn’t say that generously, "He had some good ideas," but they’d say, "Oh, he thinks differently, you might want to go over and say something to him."
BOND: I bet some people said it.
BOND: When you get to the EEOC, you’re leading an agency of three thousand people and clearly, just by nature of the job, you’re a leader. Did you think of yourself in that way there? I know you’re a modest guy, but —
THOMAS: No, realistic.
BOND: Didn’t you think that I’m in charge of this? I run this?
THOMAS: Actually, it started at the Department of Education in 1981, about this time in 1981 and all of a sudden you show up, you’re in your — I was, what, thirty-two years old? And there’re about eight or nine hundred people in this organization. There’s some contentiousness and I said, "Oh, my goodness, what am I going to do now?" So you’re sort of selected and you’re put in charge and, again, it is sink or swim. And then I go to EEOC within a year, less than a year, and it’s really — it’s spread-out organization with any number of problems and now you must lead and what you borrow from are the people that you respect. I mean, I respected and admired the way Senator Way, Senator [John] Danforth did things. So I didn’t have these sort of litmus tests about people. I didn’t put people in boxes. You allow people to do their jobs, and there’re some people that didn’t perform and you dealt with them as individuals, but you didn’t put people in boxes. So, yes, that was a point when you were thrust into a leadership position and you are required when you are in these positions to do the job the best you can and you must become a leader.
BOND: It seems to me there’re two steps here. One is you said you’re selected, and you’re selected for some reason because people say, "He can do it, he can do the job." And then you have the job and you have to demonstrate that you can do the job so you weren’t just picked willy nilly, someone said, "Oh, get that guy." I mean, you weren’t just picked willy-nilly. Somebody saw in you some quality of leadership.
THOMAS: Yeah, I don’t know. You know, I’d like to think so but I just don’t know. I’d been around Washington long enough not to be presumptuous enough to think that somebody saw something particular about me.
BOND: But nobody’s going to say, "Give him that job, he’ll mess it up." Nobody’s saying that.
THOMAS: Well, I think it’s — you know, maybe, I don’t know. But once I’m there, then I think you’re obligated to perform. My view is fairly simple about these jobs and that is that you are required to when you’re put in a position to do the job as best you can and a part of leading is leading by example, so if you expect other people to put the hours in, you put the hours in. If you expect other people to be fair to each other, you have to be fair. If you expect other people to be disciplined in decision-making, you have to be disciplined in decision-making.
I had a rule, for example, just a simple rule. One of the hardest things to do in these jobs is to terminate people. You can ask any executive — to bring a person in and terminate people. Over the years, whether I was at Monsanto or at the Department of Education, on the Hill, wherever I was, it always bothered me when someone had to work themselves into a frenzy to terminate a person, to imagine that they’re angry with a person, almost like a pep talk, before a football game or something. I always thought you had to do what you had to do and you could do it in as pleasant a manner as you possibly could, leaving that person some measure of dignity. And that’s a simple thing, but I always thought it was very, very important. But, yes, I was put in these positions and once in those positions, I think you have to learn how to lead or you should just simply leave.
BOND: Let me ask you what you see as the difference between vision, philosophy, and style. How do these interact for you — vision, philosophy, style?
THOMAS: Wow. How would you define vision?
BOND: How would you define vision?
THOMAS: You know, I guess for me — I’m not that creative. I had a — say, let’s just take the EEOC when I was leaving there. I had the sense that an organization should — no matter where it was going, some people might have different policies — but the machinery of it should work, that processes should work. That you get in your car and you might decide that you want to drive over to northwest, but you wanted to work to get to northwest. I might decide I want to go to northeast. Now, we may go different directions, but in both cases, our expectation is that machinery of our vehicle works. That’s what I thought about EEOC. First of all, let’s just make it work. And so my view was to have an organization that worked and that the people who were integral to it — it was not me, I was a political appointee — the people who were integral were the career people. So wherever I was, whatever I was doing, the career people have to buy into it. It was their organization. It was their careers there. Some of them had grown up there. So if there was a vision, it was more that, and also to make sure — we had tens of thousands of cases coming through it. How do we process these? Now, there’s going to be a tiny fraction that we disagree about, but the overwhelming bulk of it we all agree on, that these people need to have their rights vindicated. And, of course, there’re glitches along the way, but if there was a vision, it was to have the machinery work, to have it work consistent with the statute, and to have the people who were there as career people to be the major players in that.
BOND: Okay. And then philosophy.
THOMAS: You know, I don’t know if I had a management philosophy other than that a job worth doing is worth doing well and that everyone should be treated fairly. I was not one of these people — I’m not real tolerant of people who don’t do their work. I’m not going to tell you — I’m not going to sit here and tell you that. I’m not tolerant of me not doing my work, and my view is more like my grandfather’s. You are here to do a job and you’ll do it. If you’re not going to do it, you’re not going to be here. On the other hand, if you do your job and do it well, I am your best friend, so my best managers always had incomes that exceeded mine and I always — I would send them off to Harvard to enhance their careers in different ways.
I also had these wonderful programs. When you run a fairly decent-sized organization, you have some latitude. You put, say, women or minorities in programs that would enhance their careers. And these weren’t like giving preferences. It was getting that pool ready, expanding it to move into upper management, whether it was at EEOC or other agencies, and the good news about that is that in the long run, it actually worked, that they went off and they did other things and people were taking them away from us. I felt that you had to — my philosophy was I treated people the way I wanted to be treated and I treated the organization in a way that I would want a manager to treat an organization of mine if I had one.
BOND: And what about style?
THOMAS: My style is pretty much low key. I’m a meat and potatoes guy. I don’t mean that dietary-wise. I’d be bloated if I did that, but the — I just — I’m straightforward. You know, some people tend to be flamboyant. I’m not that kind of person and I don’t pretend to be that kind of person. What you see is what you get. I’m going to tell you exactly what I think. I’m not going to play games with you. And I do believe that it is critical as a manager, for credibility, for the organization, for yourself, to level with people. That if you want to be positive, if you tell them in a measured way exactly what you think in a positive way. If you have to bring unpleasant news, there is a decent way to do it without destroying another human being.
The other thing that — you know, we had a very — we had the most diverse, population-wise, organization probably in the government. So one of the things that you have to be clear about is that we start on a very human level. We are dealing with human beings. Everybody’s a human being here. I don’t pigeonhole people. You don’t treat blacks a certain way, Hispanics another way, mixed race another way, Native Americans another way, people who’re disabled, people with disabilities another way. You don’t do that. A human being is a human being is a human being and what I found, yes, people have particular problems because of certain attributes, but that doesn’t identify them. They are human beings and I’ve found that that worked far better than putting people in different pigeonholes and then treating them accordingly.
BOND: Now, some people categorize the making of leaders in three ways — A, great people cause great events, B, movements make leaders, or C, the confluence of unpredictable events creates leaders appropriate for the times. Does one of these fit you? We’ve established you’re a leader.
THOMAS: Oh, I don’t know. I think I’d just have to take that as we’ll assume that I am, but I — you know, I think that at times, things are demanded of you and you can either say no. I mean, you think about your life. There were things that were demanded of you at a certain time. I remember when, and I relate this in my book, when I got here, I spoke with Justice [Thurgood] Marshall and I said, "Boy, you know, I’m sitting here talking to Justice Marshall and I’m like a kid, you know, wow." Two-and-a-half hours later in what was supposed to be a ten-minute meeting — you know, during that two-and-a-half hours, I said to him that if I’d had the courage when he was going around the South arguing these separate but equal cases and eventually leading up to Brown that I wish I could’ve been there with him, but I don’t know if I would’ve had the courage. And he just sort of leaned up on his desk and he just said, “I had to do in my time what I had to do. And you have to do in your time what you have to do.” And I think it might come down to that — that for leaders that we're called on to do certain things at a certain time. And I do see it as a calling more than ambition or anything else and I can’t say it’s planned. I don’t know which of those definitions fit. I think that they all might be right to a certain extent. I think it might be an uncertain calculus that leads us where we are.
BOND: Do you see your legitimacy as a leader grounded in your ability to persuade people to follow your vision or in your ability to articulate the agenda of a movement?
THOMAS: Well, for us, it’s different here at the Court. When I was at EEOC, it was leading people in a direction. And one of the most gratifying things is when I was leaving EEOC to have people who were somewhat reluctant and reticent when I arrived to be so supportive and to just [be] endearing and loving, because we had gone in the right direction. And whether no one else knew it, they knew it. And that’s all that mattered.
Now, up here, this is different. This is more monastic. It’s quiet. It’s just like this room. We were work alone. We have law clerks. I work at home. It’s more contemplative. That is different, and you just think of this — one of the greatest opinions that I think in the U.S. Reports is the dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson. Quiet, alone — but it stood there all this time like a monument to what is right and then one day, what? It changes.
THOMAS: Everything changes, so leadership becomes more like what my grandfather — it becomes a pillar, a rock. You think it through. You make sure it’s right and you leave it there. And maybe one day it’ll become a touchstone for some movement as, say, the dissent in Plessy became.
BOND: But don’t you believe that in Plessy, in that dissent and in your work today, that part of what you do here is to try to convince your colleagues that what you think is the correct way to go as opposed to what they may think [is] something different, that you try to achieve through this collegial conversations that you have and through the writings of your opinions that they should join you, they should sign on with you. I mean, there has to be a lot of that going on here.
THOMAS: It happens in specific cases and it also happens over a common tenure that we have. Justice White said when I got here that what matters now is what happens, what you do here. This is sort of — this is an intramural institution in that sense. The members of the Court, in a sort of professional way, live with each other. It’s a family. There’s a sense of knowledge of each other, an intimacy with each other that is unusual in organizations. We’re not fighting for promotion or the corner office or anything. It’s all about the work. So the relationships do matter, and up here, one of the things that really matters is your credibility with your colleagues, your honesty with them, how you treat them, how they respect you and you respect them. And I remember I got a note once from one of my colleagues — I’m not going to give the name, but it’s not Justice [Antonin] Scalia — saying that “you’re a wonderful colleague.” I understood what that meant and that might — the feelings were mutual, and we don’t often agree, but it has to do with respecting. It’s called mutual respect. I respect my colleagues’ right to disagree with me at any time and they in turn respect mine. And you earn that from them, so it’s the credibility that then becomes the engine to be able to persuade them because they know that you’re not playing games, you’re not twisting or shading, that it is about the integrity of the body of your work and your thinking that’s important. And there are times — again, it’s purely intramural — when that changes minds, when they know they can read what you have written and they know that that’s precisely what you think. There’s no ulterior motive, no distant agenda. It’s about these cases. So, yes, it does matter but I don’t think it’s like a tactical writing of an opinion. It’s a body of work and a body of the way you conduct yourself up here.
BOND: A case comes before the Court and involves some issue that you feel strongly on, and you want to take X approach and you find that your colleague Y wants to take the other approach, and there has to be some back and forth between you where he’s trying to bring you to his side or her side and you’re trying to bring them to yours. That must occur.
THOMAS: Well, and not probably as much as you think. We’ve been here a long time.
BOND: Right. But I’m not going to say — if I were here, and I’ll never be here, I’m not going to say, "Clarence Thomas won’t go for this." I’m going to say, "I can to bring Clarence Thomas over here."
THOMAS: You could bring — I could bring you along a little and you could bring me along. There’ll be some common ground, but at some point, if you have an approach that’s fundamentally different from my approach —
THOMAS: — we’re not going to coincide. If you decide to drive northeast and I decide to drive north, yes, we’re both driving north, but we’re not driving together toward each other, so I mean — but you learn how to live with that, but what happens over time is that sometimes we see, well, maybe you have a point, not in this specific case, but over a body of cases and you tug each a little, so we’re sort of not necessarily heading in the same direction but we’re heading closer, in a closer direction. Does that make sense to you?
THOMAS: And the — but I think what’s crucial up here is there’re no gimmicks, there’s no marketing, there’s no self-promotion. We know each other. We sit in the conferences. We hear each other. We look at the drafts. We talk to each other and so it always — you put all your cards on the table face up. For example, if I’m drafting an opinion and I send that — that draft goes around to all eight of the other members of the Court. It doesn’t just go to one or two. If I disagree about something, the way it happens is that I write a letter. For example, “Dear Ruth” — that’s to Justice Ginsburg — “I don’t agree with your reasoning in this opinion for these reasons.” And Justice White used to end his opinion, his letters, by saying, “Cheers, Byron,” but it’s always warm, friendly, cordial, like that, and then she might say, “I’ll make some adjustments to accommodate your point of view,” but so it’s all constant back and forth and over time —we’ve been together now fifteen years — so over that time, we have to learn how to respect and work with each other.
BOND: And in their individual ways, each of these, your colleagues, is exhibiting some kind of leadership, trying to steer these, maybe these parallel courses to become closer and closer and you and all of them engage in this I would guess fairly routinely.
THOMAS: Every day and every case but, see, what’s — the thing that’s really interesting up here and this goes back to the process of education, to the truth-seeking effort — it’s really hard. I’ve often said this job is only easy for people who already have the answer before they start or for people who only have one point of view or no authority to make any decisions. For the rest of us, it’s really hard, because what you’re trying to do is to find the right answer that is not right just because you feel it’s right. It’s not just your personal opinion. That’s easy. The hard part is what is the right answer under this document or this statute? And that’s a little harder. And I think my colleagues — Justice [Lewis F.] Powell said when I first arrived here, he said that “when you reach a point when you think you belong here, it’s time for you to leave.” So, the process counsels some humility that is a lot harder than looking at a bottom line and saying, "I agree or disagree."
BOND: In your years here, and I know you probably don’t like to talk about individual cases, but has your search for truth in a case taken you to a place that surprised you?
THOMAS: Yes, many cases. It takes me in places that are not necessarily consistent with my personal opinions as a reaction to things. What I do with my clerks — you saw one young man come in here a minute ago. He’s one of my current clerks. I tell them up front what my initial reaction is, what my instincts, what my feelings are, and tell them to watch me the way we watched my grandmother, grandfather, when that lady came up. “You watch me and you make sure that I do not put that in that opinion. Do not allow me to do that.” And there’s a discipline just like he had to have a discipline, I have to have a discipline, because the interesting thing is that these opinions have a long life, shelf life, and just like Plessy had a long and unfortunate shelf life. That opinion did not have to be written that way, and it could’ve been written in the right way so easily. So — but at any rate, I try to not allow my personal views to drift into the opinions, except in the appropriate way with respect to jurisprudence.
BOND: Do you have a general philosophy that guides you through life, and if you do, how has it sustained you through moments of challenge or moments of alienation? A general philosophy.
THOMAS: I think that, you know, I’m religious. Even when I thought I wasn’t religious, I was religious, and faith has been just a central part. It’s what’s allowed me to survive in lots of ways, I mean, even in my memoirs, I mentioned whenever there were slights, I went to the chapel. And over the years, even when I wasn’t going to church, I would make visitations. As far as the way I deal with other people, I believe very strongly that you do unto others as you’d have them do unto you, that I treat people the way I want to be treated. I don’t care who it is. The person could be picking up trash or arguing before the Court or whatever. I think that these — that people deserve the same respect that I think I would deserve if I were in that position. So beyond that, I mean, there are other things that I could get into, but those are central to me.
BOND: How does race consciousness affect your work? Do you see yourself as a leader who advances issues of races or issues of society or both? And is there a distinction? Is there such a thing as a race-transcending leader?
THOMAS: Wow, that's really interesting.
BOND: Many, many questions —
THOMAS: Let’s just take the race transcendence.
BOND: All right. Race transcending.
THOMAS: I think that there are some things that are common to us all, and when I found myself in the seminary as the only black kid in Savannah in the late ’60s that I had to find things that we all had in common. And obviously, we knew we could look at me and see that I was different, but that’s been true throughout my life. My grandfathers used to say when people were quick to dismiss somebody, you know, he’d tell you, "Well, you could find good in everybody. There’re exceptions to that rule, but you could find good in everybody," or as Lincoln is said to have said, “I don’t like that fellow. That means I have to get to know him.” I think you can find something that we all have in common. You asked a few minutes ago about management style at EEOC. I looked in every person I came in contact with — what do we have in common and we worked from here. We established that foundation.
Now, with respect to race consciousness, there is — we’re race conscious. We’re a race conscious society. We look at each other in different ways. We segment the population, we fragment the population, and there’s, of course, as a member of our race, there’s been a treatment. You know, I went back recently and found the plantation that I’m from. And it was there, just a few miles from where we farmed, not even a few miles, but I’d never been allowed to go on it, and it was a little eerie. So that’s a history that obvious that’s there. Now, how do you deal with that? You can deal with that by focusing exclusively on that and put yourself right back to where you came from, to limit yourself. How do you get broader than that? And I like to start, as I said, by thinking about what we — and focusing on what we have in common, what transcends race, recognizing that race will always be a conscious part of the way we live.
BOND: Following that, do you have a different leadership style when you deal with groups that are all black, mixed race, or all white?
BOND: The same with groups falling into each category?
THOMAS: I mean, you — if I'm in — when I was at EEOC, I had my standard civil rights EEO speech that — and I remember getting up at a conference in Hawaii and looking out and saying, "Oh, my goodness, this is a totally different population than my standard speech addresses." You know, you had Hawaiians, you had Japanese, you had Samoans, etc. I said, "This is really — the speech doesn’t match the audience." So, obviously, there’s some tailoring that you do, but I think there’s a core message that is the same and I stay consistent. Even with my law clerks, I don’t change. If a law clerk’s black or a female or Asian, you know, they’re human beings and I try to deal with people on that level.
BOND: In a book called Challenging the Civil Rights Establishment, the authors quote William Allen. He writes of a danger in continually “thinking in terms of race or gender. Until we learn once again to use the language of American freedom in an appropriate way that embraces all of us, we’re going to continue to harm this country.” Is there a danger of further divisiveness when we focus on the concept of black leadership?
THOMAS: Oh, I don’t know. That might be going — I know Bill Allen, and I think he was probably thinking at a much more global or higher level than the specificity required for, say, black leadership. I think that’s more — Bill’s a very erudite and brilliant political theorist and philosopher, but I think that you have to recognize that there are race-specific problems and there’re specific problems to, say, Native Americans or whites or elderly people. But I think that we can fragment ourselves that way. I mean, if you look at the 14th Amendment, it doesn’t break those groups. I mean, let’s just take the amendment that does the hard work in the area of race. It gives us rights as citizens. It speaks of persons and what we were arguing for is that we were actually being denied the fullness of the benefits of that amendment, whether it’s in Brown or in any of the other cases. And so, the — I think that the Constitution gives us rights as citizens and we should make the argument or have the discussion on that level, but you have to always recognize that there are specific problems with members of different groups. I understand that, but I think as a matter of constitutional rights, it’s on a higher plane.
BOND: Do you feel that black leaders have an obligation to help other African Americans? Is there a point at which that obligation ends and one can pursue his or her own ambitions?
THOMAS: You know, first of all, let me just say I haven’t had those ambitions. I know this sounds odd, but my life has been one of just doing what I was supposed to do and doing the best job I could and the rest just happened, but let’s go to this point. I think we are obligated to help people and certainly those who are less fortunate. And I can be even more specific. Kids who look like me, who come from my neighborhood, I have a special affinity for. But my view is that I help anybody who is trying, who is less fortunate. You know, we have this week this wonderful organization that I’ve been a part of since I’ve been on the Court — Horatio Alger, and it’s underprivileged kids. These kids have been abused. These kids have come from difficult circumstances and it’s a way to help kids who were — who are in the circumstances I was in at their age and some a lot worse off, so I think it’s not just black. It’s not just women. It’s not just Hispanic or mixed race. It’s everybody. We are obligated to help others.
BOND: You’ve written about the destructiveness of slavery, segregation, talked about the damage done. Can the playing field be leveled by — and if — and can government level the playing field, and can it do so without breeding the kind of dependency that you’ve also talked about?
THOMAS: Boy, that’s the hard one. And, you know, that’s the one that has you pacing at two in the morning and worrying about it and certainly when I was in a policy-making role, I always worried about that endlessly — how far can you go without your solution becoming as harmful as what you thought the problem was? And my grandfather — isn’t it fascinating? He used to go off in the woods early in the morning and come back later and he never had anything. He didn’t kill anything. You know, he had his gun across his shoulder and he’d just come back and then he’d go and have breakfast and he said he was just thinking. And these were the same problems he was thinking about — how do you help without hurting? But I do think — I think we sometimes ask the wrong questions. There’s a lot of harm that, you know, whether it’s a broken family, it’s crime, it’s habits, it’s just negative influences that are devastating, and I remember trying to talk quite a bit about this when I was at EEOC. I don’t talk as much about it now, but I do think that when you create these headwinds that prevent people based on race from accomplishing things that government has to cease that, that you have to rectify that, you have to remedy that. And we attempted to do it in specific areas when I was at EEOC. I don’t know far you can go and how global you can make that without running into constitutional limitations. And I also don’t know how far you can go doing that without creating or causing additional harms.
Let me give an example. I can remember when I was at the Department of Education — I write about this in the book — that the effort when we were in-was to certainly desegregate the universities in the South, but one of the other efforts as sort of a corollary to that was to basically desegregate the black colleges and if not, there was sort of this subliminal or this implicit argument that they had to be eliminated, like Savannah State or — not — Langston University, for example, the smaller ones. And I thought, "Why would you do that to rectify a problem?"
A further example of that is my high school — St. Pius X High School in Savannah which churned out all these wonderful kids. The first 98th and 99th percentiles I ever saw on the PSATs, for example, were there in an all-black high school. Well, that was closed in 1973 because of what the experts said, in part, "the social situation," that is, it was all black. To me, the remedy became worse than — first of all, I saw nothing wrong with this, but that’s sort of an absurd application of a remedy. But I don’t know. I don’t know how far you go. The Constitution has very strict limits, in my opinion, on the use of race and sex categories. It says citizenship and person, and I think we have to be very careful that we’re not locking in precedents that in the long run will do greater harm.
BOND: A justice, and I can’t remember who, said years ago, “If you want to get beyond race, you have to go to race.”
THOMAS: That was Justice [Harry] Blackmun.
THOMAS: I don’t know what that means.
BOND: I think it means that you can’t talk about remedies to race, unless those remedies have some race consciousness in them.
THOMAS: Yeah, I don't know still. You know, I’ve read that and read it and re-read it and I don’t know. I mean, that’s — how do you get wet? In order to be dry, you must be wet. I don’t know that. I don’t understand that. I don’t know how you can have — that's just — but at any rate —
BOND: Well, there was a great case which I know a little bit about, Paradise v. Alabama, a state trooper case involving the exclusion of blacks from the state trooper ranks and the case went through several, several rulings in which courts ordered Alabama to do this and Alabama just wouldn’t do it every time, and finally, after I think three higher court decisions said to Alabama, "You will hire one black state trooper for every white state trooper you hire."
THOMAS: Imposed a quota.
BOND: Imposed a quota which is anathema to many people. So I think that’s what it means, and here’s an instance where in order to get beyond race, you had to go to race as a remedy.
THOMAS: Well, I think sometimes when you have a specific case, you have a class action, for example, and I assume that was a class action.
BOND: Yes, I think it was.
THOMAS: The remedy, I mean, the courts have imposed specific remedies for that. Now, you or I might disagree with the remedy, but if somebody’s foot-dragging, sometimes the remedy has to be very firm and clear-cut. Now, that’s not global. That’s in this specific case.
BOND: Right, just this case.
THOMAS: Yeah, and it’s just saying this — because, now let’s say they had been cooperative and gone on and done what they were supposed to do. It might be that — that may have been inappropriate. Now, I don’t have the answers for all these cases. I tend to be very reticent to having lived in a race-conscious environment where we were actually excluded because of race to now say somehow I’m comfortable that counting by race. Now, I think that that’s — I think that we can build into that Constitution certain exclusions that will come back to haunt us.
BOND: What do you see as your greatest contribution as an African American leader? Remember, you can’t deny that you’re a leader.
THOMAS: Oh, goodness, I — you know, I don’t think in those terms. I really don’t. I just, you know, I think that when you are called upon to do a job, you do it the best you can and then when it’s over, you go away and you just be grateful for the opportunity that you had a chance to do it. That’s it. I don’t look back and wonder about legacy or whether or not — how I’m going to be treated in books or anything like that. I think that that’s just thinking too highly of yourself. I think it’s about the job and the cases that you sit on, that you try to just make sure you do it right. That’s it.
And, you know, my grandfather, as I said to you, that when I went in the seminary, that he said, “Boy, don’t shame me. And don’t shame the race.” And to do just your job, just do it competently. I don’t do any more or any less. I don’t play games. I don’t do things to be flamboyant or draw attention. I just do my job. The proof of the pudding on all the talk about style and this and that’s done, when we’re long gone, the proof is in the U.S. Reports. We don’t have a clue what [Justice John Marshall] Harlan’s style was, you or me. What we do know about him is that dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson.
Now, neither you nor I have any clue what the circumstances are going to be in this country fifty or a hundred years from now. We don’t know which cases are going to jump out of those U.S. Reports and be the determinative case. I live with the comfort that these principles have a much longer shelf life than these sort of quick, flash-in-the-pan sort of fads that come on, whether it’s jurisprudentially, socially or otherwise or politically. It is critical — all I want to do is to do this job in a way that when I look at that bust of my grandfather overlooking me, know that he would say it’s a job well done. That’s it. No more.
BOND: And so when you’re writing an opinion, are you conscious of those fifty years that have yet to come?
THOMAS: I’m conscious that this is going to be here a long time. And I don’t know to what use it will be put, but that you might be — that’s a very good question, by the way. I tell my law clerks that we’re not writing current events, we’re writing for a much longer period. Again, look at Plessy. I’m not saying that anything that I have written rivals the dissent in Plessy, but I will say that these opinions have an enormously long shelf life, so it is critical that they not be based on shifting sands of fads and what’s popular but rather principles that are locked down and that will be here when the tides turn or the winds blows in a different direction fifty years from now to deal with that.
BOND: In his book Race Matters, Cornel West writes, “The crisis of leadership is the symptom of black distance from a vibrant tradition of resistance, from a vital community bonded by ethical ideas and from a credible sense of political struggle.” Do you see a crisis of leadership in black communities today? And if you do, what makes this happen? What contributes to it?
THOMAS: You know, I don’t know. I just see leaders. I mean, if you look, I mean, my goodness, we have a gentleman with some, you know, who's mixed race who’s got a great chance to be president of the United States. You’ve got — maybe it’s different. I think the current governor of New York is black. The current governor of Massachusetts. We've had the governor of Virginia, you know, yeah, there’s been problems, but, you know, you — I think — see, I’m more optimistic. I think the problems are — I mean, they’re just — they’re heartbreaking.
I go back to Savannah. It just breaks my heart, but it’s been breaking my heart for most of my life, you know, that you can’t persuade, that you can’t — even with people that are close to you, just say, "Look," like my grandfather said, "the library is open now, you can go." But I don’t know. I’m not going to condemn leadership I don’t know that well. I think that if you say that often enough the young kids who could be the leaders might not want to be or might feel that it’s too steep a hill to climb, but I see the young kids I see on these university campuses, in the law schools — I see them not feeling that there’s a crisis. There might be a gap or there might be not a great leader in this particular locale, but I see another generation of leaders coming up and well trained and ready to go. And so I don’t know. He might have a point that I’m missing, but I don’t feel that negative toward leadership.
BOND: What kind of leaders does contemporary society demand and how will future problems demand different leadership types? I know we can’t predict the future, but who do we need now? What kinds of leaders do we need now and what kinds might we need in the future?
THOMAS: I sometimes think that — and this is just my perception, I have no particular skill or a certain knowledge to even comment on it, but my own personal concern sometimes is that people find out through polls or through fingers to the wind where people are going and then they jump in front of them and call themselves leaders. I don’t think that’s what a leader is. And I go back to my grandfather. I think you’ve got to have some principles that you believe in, that are important to you. In order to, as you say, persuade people, I think you have certainly some needs — the ability to communicate to them, but, you know, above all, when it’s not looking real good, you need some courage.
You know, I remember this wonderful quote that I won’t get right but Churchill after his wilderness years and his political career is supposed to be over and he’s going to be named Prime Minister, he’s going to Buckingham Palace, he’s quoted as having said something to the effect that "it was a though my whole life was but a mere preparation for this moment." You know, I don’t know. I just, you know, I think that things that you do need in these jobs is courage. I think you need to hold, even when you’re being tempted by praise, you need to remain firm and principled. When you’re being beaten by criticism, you need to be principled.
There’re things — when you were in Liberty County, you were not safe. You know it and I know it. What propelled you? What was important to you? Why was it worth the risk? What called on you to pull that courage up to go in a rural area where if you got isolated back up in those woods, it was going to be difficult for you? What is it that gave my grandfather the courage to strike out on his own? I don’t know. Or when he went to get his business license. So I think there’s something that was in you that said, "No matter what, I’m going to stand up." And I think that leadership perhaps first and foremost requires fortitude.
BOND: Do you think for your grandfather and others like him that that something was conviction — the conviction that he stood for something that was right and just?
BOND: And therefore had a responsibility to demonstrate it to others?
THOMAS: I think so. And I think it was even beyond that, that — I think right and just may cover it, because right and just includes raising his boys right. It includes showing how you can live as an independent black man in the segregated South, showing how, as he used to say, a motherless and fatherless child could survive. Yeah, I think that it was worth it to him and for me — and I borrow this from that movie Saving Private Ryan, where Captain Miller’s asking Sergeant Ryan right at the end of it when all these guys have died to save Private Ryan, he asked him these words or told him, “Earn it. Earn this.” And with my grandfather, what I’ve got to do and what I’ve got to do because of you and other people who risked it, you’ve got to earn it. You know, you do it not to in a sense that you are mimicking or you’re being controlled or we agree, but there is — just like the library, when people fight for us to be in the library, how do you earn it? How do you say to them, "thank you"? Do you go and say "thank you" or do you go to the library and use it? And so, in a sense, that it was for him that he was doing the right thing and for us that we earned the right to benefit from the right thing.
BOND: Are the values that you talk about teachable? We know that they’re teachable on an individual basis, your grandfather to you and your brother, but are they teachable on a larger basis in a classroom to older children? Can you transmit this?
THOMAS: You know, I’ve traveled all over this country and I’ve been in all sorts of environments and some pretty depressed, and I think that when kids look you in the eye and you sit down and you talk with them and you explain to them — you don’t have an agenda, you just care about them — they can sense it.
I remember sitting in a room with black law students at the University of Georgia. And after a couple of hours of just talking, they understand that what you’re saying — but, see, what you almost have to cut through or peel away are the layers of negativism and the cynicism and mistrust and calumnies. That’s the unfortunate part, but as soon as you connect on a sincere level and you tell them, "This is not about you agreeing with me, this isn’t about you having a particular point of view. This is about you thinking about your lives and the fact that now, the mere fact that you’re in law school, you’re the leaders, you’re it." They do get it. Do you go to these little schools — my little kids, I see them all over the place — they believe. They want to believe. But you’ve got to give them something to believe.
I quote a janitor just across the street when I was in the Senate one morning when I was coming in all down in the mouth and despondent, and he said — made it clear to me — “You cannot give what you do not have.” So you go to these kids and you don’t have anything constructive. You have nothing positive. You’re worried about your own sort of self-interest. They sense it. You’ve got to have it to give it to them and the bottom line answer is yes, you can influence them. Will you influence 100 percent? No. But you can influence the 20 percent, the 30 percent, the 50 percent, the kids who will be the leaders and you can do it by example, of course, but you can also do it by showing them how much you care about them and how sincere you are about your ideas and the fact that you are not requiring them to agree with you on the bottom line, but to be independent and have their own thoughts.
BOND: Justice Thomas, thank you for being with us. We appreciate it.
THOMAS: Thank you very much.
BOND: Thank you.