Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Career: Law as a Helping Profession

BOND: Let me shift gears a little bit. How did you choose your career?

THOMAS: You know, I was in the seminary and I had in — and then in law school I spent a lot of time, I’d always felt that those of us to whom much is given of him much is expected. And we’d always, whether we had corn or beans or peas, we always took it to those who needed extra or needed something. And so it came natural, and as is someone who’s going to become a priest, it was a calling that you would help other people. Why else? I mean, how do you show love but to reach out to those who are less fortunate and so you started tutoring. I worked in community programs, even in college and law school, mental hospitals. We did the free breakfast program and that’s in more radical days, and so when I got to law school, I worked. In those days we talked about being in the community —

BOND: What was the decision to go to law school? Again, is it tied to helping others?

THOMAS: Yes. It’s going back to Savannah —

BOND: This is a helping profession?

THOMAS: That's the point I was going to get to, it was a part of the vocation, you know, when you ceased being a priest, how do you now help? What was going on in Savannah in 1967, ’68, ’69? What was happening? You know that the society was changing. There was resistance. There was still unfairness. And another name you may remember from Savannah, from Georgia, is Bobby Hill.

BOND: I was just thinking of Bobby Hill.

THOMAS: That was my hero. That was my model and I didn’t know him that well because there were, you know, of course, there were other problems, but from a distance, that was the model to go back and be a part on that, he and Fletcher Farrington, Bill Jones and Farrington.

BOND: Yeah.

THOMAS: That was my goal was to go work for him.

BOND: Really? That was a path-breaking integrated law firm.

THOMAS: That’s right. And I was in that firm. There was Clarence Martin was in that firm. He’s since passed away. Fletcher was there. Bill [William T.] Coleman, Jr. [IV], was there.

BOND: Oh, I didn’t know that.

THOMAS: Yeah, for one year and I was there that summer and it was just — Roy Allen [II], who’s since passed away, he was also there. So — Carlton Stewart who’s in Georgia, he was there.

BOND: Yeah, I served with Roy in the legislature.

THOMAS: Yes. My point is simply that my specific goal — I’ve never worked for a law firm other than that law firm. My specific goal was to go back and be a part of that firm.

BOND: And how did that not happen?

THOMAS: Well, I worked there in the summer of 1973 and reached the conclusion that it was not the right place. And it was heartbreaking and it also caused further distance between my grandfather and me because it was clear then that I would not be returning to Savannah at that time.

BOND: I wondered, was there another opportunity for you legally in Savannah besides the Hill law firm? Were there other firms that might have — did you approach them?

THOMAS: I tried in different ways. I wrote letters and, you know, called around. The answer’s no, nor were there any opportunities in Atlanta. That’s why I didn’t wind up in Atlanta. I just — as I’ve said, I received a series of rejections from Atlanta and that is why I wound up in Jefferson City, Missouri.

BOND: You know, when Maynard Jackson stopped being mayor after two terms, no law firm in Atlanta made him an offer. He had to go to Chicago. Anyway, so you end up in Jefferson City, Missouri and you’re doing, as I understand it, mostly tax work and other kinds of things.

THOMAS: I started out with criminal appellate work.

BOND: Oh really?

THOMAS: I did — we — that was the beginning. It was really interesting because you show up. Of course, you have to pass the bar exam. I lived with Margaret Bush — Mrs. Margaret Bush Wilson that summer which was great. It was a great learning experience in many ways. And on September 14, I became a member of the Bar of Missouri and September 17 I argued my first case before the Supreme Court of Missouri, and so you can imagine what that was like.

BOND: Yes, sure.

THOMAS: I was twenty-six years old, but the job was great. I mean, there was an enormous amount of work to do and this was purely — it’s one of these swim or sink situations. There was very little supervision because people didn’t have time. The great part about it was that the work came to you in an indiscriminate manner. There was so much it that just poured in and you just did it as it came in. It was a wonderful experience.

The other great part of it was that I worked for a person who was a good man, so even today I advise my law clerks or any kids who ask me for advice to work for the person, not the job. Because again, it’s sort of like learning from my grandfather — you can learn so much by observing a good person and having a good person supervise you.

BOND: And that good person was John Danforth?

THOMAS: Jack Danforth. Yes, he was just a wonderful man, and one thing — I’ll just be brief here — that he did, that he showed me, is he never mixed the politics of his job with the function of the office, so we were never confused and we never had to change things because it might be in his political interest.

BOND: You know, he strikes me as an unusual person, not necessarily in Missouri, but an unusual person generally speaking. He’s deeply religious and he seems to me to be a person who works his religion, uses, lives his religion in ways that other people who say "I’m a Christian" really don’t.

THOMAS: He is a deeply religious man and he did not wear that, though, on his sleeves when we worked for him. And we knew he was a minister but we never saw it. And it was only years later that I saw that. But he is just a good man.