Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership: Independent Thinking

BOND: Now, is there a point in your life, and I want to take you back to school days, where you think to yourself and maybe not articulated in this way, you say to yourself, "I am a leader, other people follow me, other kids follow me"? Is there a moment or a time or a place or an occasion where that strikes you?


BOND: Never at all?


BOND: Not in grade school?


BOND: Not in high school?

THOMAS: I was never a leader in that sense. I didn’t run for office. I wasn’t a vocal kid. I was just like I am at the Court. I was just quiet and I didn’t ask any questions throughout my years in school. I wouldn’t be one that I would point out that led anybody to do anything.

BOND: Well, in college, aren’t you active in forming the black student group?

THOMAS: That’s because I could type. I had my typewriter. I had my Smith Corona.

BOND: Like the woman who becomes the secretary.

THOMAS: Yes. That’s why I became the secretary because I had a typewriter and I could type and I could edit.

BOND: Well, surely it had to be more than that. I mean, there must be some reason that people looked to you for this.

THOMAS: You know, when I first arrived on campus, the head of the Black Student Union was a wonderful young man named Arthur Martin and he heard that I could type and I was a transfer student. I hadn’t been there the year before, and so he brought over the proposed constitution and told me the changes they wanted to make, and it was a handwritten portion and he said, "Would you type it up?" And I said, "Oh, fine." So I sat at my Smith Corona and typed it up and made the edits and that was it. I was reliable, let’s put it that way. And this is something, again, that came from my grandfather. He would send us off. He said, "Take the tractor and go back to the field and plow," and he would go back and inspect it later on. You have to be reliable without supervision, so I was reliable in that way. But, no, I would never — you know, my classmates to this day, I was probably one of the least likely people to see leading anything. I just wasn’t — I didn’t see myself that way.

BOND: So there was never a time when you said, "I can lead people to do something"? "I have the ability within myself to get others to follow me," and I don’t mean follow you blindly, but to follow you?


BOND: Never at all?

THOMAS: No. I was more independent. I was — I would think things through and make my own decisions. I probably wasn’t a great follower either. If anything, I would say I was just independent, more like my grandfather. I would participate, that I was a part of lots of things. I was a part of the Black Student Union. I was a part of some other organizations. I was a part of the school newspaper — so I did all sorts of things, but I would not have pegged me — the only thing I can say about the leadership part of it was that I thought for myself. I liked to think things through and I loved the idea of talking and persuading. I think we’ve kind of gotten away from that in this society.

BOND: No, but that’s a little bit of what I mean — talking and persuading. So here’s — you have an idea and a way of thinking and here’s another fellow or classmate or student who thinks differently or doesn’t think quite the same way, and you can convince that person.

THOMAS: I tried.

BOND: Or you can try.


BOND: Isn’t that some aspect of leadership?

THOMAS: Well, if you define it that way, yes. I loved that. I think that’s a part of being educated. I think that is a part of the discipline of education. I think it is most wonderful thing, and to open up the mind and to really think that, "Look, you don’t have to agree with me, but let’s talk about this. Let’s talk about whether it’s philosophy or history or art. Let’s just talk about it." Or it could be politics. It could be the Constitution, because the way that we’ve kind of gotten now is that it’s almost like we have — it’s become a religious thing, that there’s a religiosity to this, sort of the opinions that we have, that then it was like you can go. I remember in law school, we would go over and there’d be a dollar-a-pitcher beer. That was back in the days when I enjoyed beer, and we’d talk and the ideas were free-flowing. I found those to be wonderful, like the old coffee shops, you know. So if you define it as willing to exchange and debate ideas, then, yeah, that’s a part of leadership.

BOND: Do you think — or I was about to say, don’t you think — that people said, "Oh, Clarence Thomas thinks this ways about that. He’s interesting. You need to talk to him about this."

THOMAS: You know, it’s interesting. I think they didn’t say it that politely and they didn’t call me Clarence then, but they — they’d say go talk to him because he’s got some ideas. I was interested in everything. If someone had a good argument, I was interested in looking at that argument and take the time. I think that’s fascinating and it’s a fascinating part about leading people because they might come from a different part of the country, they have a different sort of education, they think a different way, and it made education exciting. And I think when someone comes in and they already have all the answers, that’s a boring person, because now they’re just sort of preaching to you, whereas I was more interested in just processing it all and thinking it through. So, yeah, I think there’d be times — people wouldn’t say that generously, "He had some good ideas," but they’d say, "Oh, he thinks differently, you might want to go over and say something to him."

BOND: I bet some people said it.