Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Race Consciousness: Personal Experiences

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.

BOND: Yeah.

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.