Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Role Models for Leadership

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?

THOMAS: Exactly.

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.

BOND: Sure.

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.