Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Obligation to Help Others

BOND: In a book called Challenging the Civil Rights Establishment, the authors quote William Allen. He writes of a danger in continually “thinking in terms of race or gender. Until we learn once again to use the language of American freedom in an appropriate way that embraces all of us, we’re going to continue to harm this country.” Is there a danger of further divisiveness when we focus on the concept of black leadership?

THOMAS: Oh, I don’t know. That might be going — I know Bill Allen, and I think he was probably thinking at a much more global or higher level than the specificity required for, say, black leadership. I think that’s more — Bill’s a very erudite and brilliant political theorist and philosopher, but I think that you have to recognize that there are race-specific problems and there’re specific problems to, say, Native Americans or whites or elderly people. But I think that we can fragment ourselves that way. I mean, if you look at the 14th Amendment, it doesn’t break those groups. I mean, let’s just take the amendment that does the hard work in the area of race. It gives us rights as citizens. It speaks of persons and what we were arguing for is that we were actually being denied the fullness of the benefits of that amendment, whether it’s in Brown or in any of the other cases. And so, the — I think that the Constitution gives us rights as citizens and we should make the argument or have the discussion on that level, but you have to always recognize that there are specific problems with members of different groups. I understand that, but I think as a matter of constitutional rights, it’s on a higher plane.

BOND: Do you feel that black leaders have an obligation to help other African Americans? Is there a point at which that obligation ends and one can pursue his or her own ambitions?

THOMAS: You know, first of all, let me just say I haven’t had those ambitions. I know this sounds odd, but my life has been one of just doing what I was supposed to do and doing the best job I could and the rest just happened, but let’s go to this point. I think we are obligated to help people and certainly those who are less fortunate. And I can be even more specific. Kids who look like me, who come from my neighborhood, I have a special affinity for. But my view is that I help anybody who is trying, who is less fortunate. You know, we have this week this wonderful organization that I’ve been a part of since I’ve been on the Court — Horatio Alger, and it’s underprivileged kids. These kids have been abused. These kids have come from difficult circumstances and it’s a way to help kids who were — who are in the circumstances I was in at their age and some a lot worse off, so I think it’s not just black. It’s not just women. It’s not just Hispanic or mixed race. It’s everybody. We are obligated to help others.