Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Focusing on Commonalities

BOND: How does race consciousness affect your work? Do you see yourself as a leader who advances issues of races or issues of society or both? And is there a distinction? Is there such a thing as a race-transcending leader?

THOMAS: Wow, that's really interesting.

BOND: Many, many questions —

THOMAS: Let’s just take the race transcendence.

BOND: All right. Race transcending.

THOMAS: I think that there are some things that are common to us all, and when I found myself in the seminary as the only black kid in Savannah in the late ’60s that I had to find things that we all had in common. And obviously, we knew we could look at me and see that I was different, but that’s been true throughout my life. My grandfathers used to say when people were quick to dismiss somebody, you know, he’d tell you, "Well, you could find good in everybody. There’re exceptions to that rule, but you could find good in everybody," or as Lincoln is said to have said, “I don’t like that fellow. That means I have to get to know him.” I think you can find something that we all have in common. You asked a few minutes ago about management style at EEOC. I looked in every person I came in contact with — what do we have in common and we worked from here. We established that foundation.

Now, with respect to race consciousness, there is — we’re race conscious. We’re a race conscious society. We look at each other in different ways. We segment the population, we fragment the population, and there’s, of course, as a member of our race, there’s been a treatment. You know, I went back recently and found the plantation that I’m from. And it was there, just a few miles from where we farmed, not even a few miles, but I’d never been allowed to go on it, and it was a little eerie. So that’s a history that obvious that’s there. Now, how do you deal with that? You can deal with that by focusing exclusively on that and put yourself right back to where you came from, to limit yourself. How do you get broader than that? And I like to start, as I said, by thinking about what we — and focusing on what we have in common, what transcends race, recognizing that race will always be a conscious part of the way we live.

BOND: Following that, do you have a different leadership style when you deal with groups that are all black, mixed race, or all white?


BOND: The same with groups falling into each category?

THOMAS: I mean, you — if I'm in — when I was at EEOC, I had my standard civil rights EEO speech that — and I remember getting up at a conference in Hawaii and looking out and saying, "Oh, my goodness, this is a totally different population than my standard speech addresses." You know, you had Hawaiians, you had Japanese, you had Samoans, etc. I said, "This is really — the speech doesn’t match the audience." So, obviously, there’s some tailoring that you do, but I think there’s a core message that is the same and I stay consistent. Even with my law clerks, I don’t change. If a law clerk’s black or a female or Asian, you know, they’re human beings and I try to deal with people on that level.