Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Reflections on Brown

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.