Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Reflections on Brown

BOND: General Theus, thank you for agreeing to do this interview, we're grateful that you came in such bad weather and appreciate your being here.

THEUS: Well, thank you very much for the invitation, I'm really honored and privileged to be here.

BOND: I want to begin when you're thirty-two years old and the Supreme Court, in 1954, announces that segregated schools have to come to an end. Can you remember what your initial thoughts were when you heard about this, I'm guessing, on the radio or read about it in the newspapers?

THEUS: My initial thought was simply that "This is great, we have finally won one," one of the major decisions that would move our society forward but together. And so I thought that at that point this was really good. I did not expect any immediate major adverse reactions, if you will, in the community. But this was soon put to an end because -- let me tell you a little bit about myself at that point.

BOND: Surely.

THEUS: At that point, I was working in the Pentagon, relatively new, new arrival there, very junior person, one of the minority and I use that in the sense of numbers rather than races. Very small number of us were there in the Pentagon. So my -- understandably, my entire unit was all white and I had a very -- I thought -- a very important job. In any case, the first thing that came to mind, "Well, we won this one. We'll move ahead peacefully to get the schools integrated. We will not have any problems with that whatsoever." When I came to work the next day, I was talking with one of my supervisors, who happened to have been white, and he said to me, "Well, what do you think of the Supreme Court decision, integrating the schools?" And I said to him, "Well, Jack, I think that it's really a good thing. It's something that's been long time coming and should have happened a long time ago." And he said, "Well, do you really think that we can legislate equal opportunity, equality of treatment, equality of education? Because if you think back, for many years we have had separate schools for people like you and people like me." And so we engaged in -- not a heated debate, we discussed the relative merits of this sort of thinking. The fact that the separate but equal doctrine certainly had not proven to be correct, that it was certainly added to the great disadvantage that minority people and so forth.

But he was a Southerner and he felt very strongly that this ruling should not have come down from the courts. He felt that the courts were intervening in an area where they should not be. And so I had to work very hard to put him straight on this one, to understand that really, this is something that all of us as American citizens were deserving and it should have come to pass a long time ago. Now, as for myself, as I mentioned and this at the risk of redundancy, I felt that this was fine and that it would move ahead swiftly, having become accustomed to things happening in the military. But, of course, you and I know that it didn't move smoothly at all. We know what happened afterwards. As these events started to place -- the resistance, use of military individuals to integrate the schools, the bussing doctrines and so forth -- it was pretty obvious that we were going to have to have strong leadership from the top. And I'm thinking now of our government, if we were going to make this law really mean anything to our nation.