Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Grandfather’s Influence

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.