Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership Paradigms: The Pillar of “Right”

BOND: Do you see your legitimacy as a leader grounded in your ability to persuade people to follow your vision or in your ability to articulate the agenda of a movement?

THOMAS: Well, for us, it’s different here at the Court. When I was at EEOC, it was leading people in a direction. And one of the most gratifying things is when I was leaving EEOC to have people who were somewhat reluctant and reticent when I arrived to be so supportive and to just [be] endearing and loving, because we had gone in the right direction. And whether no one else knew it, they knew it. And that’s all that mattered.

Now, up here, this is different. This is more monastic. It’s quiet. It’s just like this room. We were work alone. We have law clerks. I work at home. It’s more contemplative. That is different, and you just think of this — one of the greatest opinions that I think in the U.S. Reports is the dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson. Quiet, alone — but it stood there all this time like a monument to what is right and then one day, what? It changes.

BOND: Right.

THOMAS: Everything changes, so leadership becomes more like what my grandfather — it becomes a pillar, a rock. You think it through. You make sure it’s right and you leave it there. And maybe one day it’ll become a touchstone for some movement as, say, the dissent in Plessy became.