Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership: Principles

BOND: What do you see as your greatest contribution as an African American leader? Remember, you can’t deny that you’re a leader.

THOMAS: Oh, goodness, I — you know, I don’t think in those terms. I really don’t. I just, you know, I think that when you are called upon to do a job, you do it the best you can and then when it’s over, you go away and you just be grateful for the opportunity that you had a chance to do it. That’s it. I don’t look back and wonder about legacy or whether or not — how I’m going to be treated in books or anything like that. I think that that’s just thinking too highly of yourself. I think it’s about the job and the cases that you sit on, that you try to just make sure you do it right. That’s it.

And, you know, my grandfather, as I said to you, that when I went in the seminary, that he said, “Boy, don’t shame me. And don’t shame the race.” And to do just your job, just do it competently. I don’t do any more or any less. I don’t play games. I don’t do things to be flamboyant or draw attention. I just do my job. The proof of the pudding on all the talk about style and this and that’s done, when we’re long gone, the proof is in the U.S. Reports. We don’t have a clue what [Justice John Marshall] Harlan’s style was, you or me. What we do know about him is that dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson.

Now, neither you nor I have any clue what the circumstances are going to be in this country fifty or a hundred years from now. We don’t know which cases are going to jump out of those U.S. Reports and be the determinative case. I live with the comfort that these principles have a much longer shelf life than these sort of quick, flash-in-the-pan sort of fads that come on, whether it’s jurisprudentially, socially or otherwise or politically. It is critical — all I want to do is to do this job in a way that when I look at that bust of my grandfather overlooking me, know that he would say it’s a job well done. That’s it. No more.

BOND: And so when you’re writing an opinion, are you conscious of those fifty years that have yet to come?

THOMAS: I’m conscious that this is going to be here a long time. And I don’t know to what use it will be put, but that you might be — that’s a very good question, by the way. I tell my law clerks that we’re not writing current events, we’re writing for a much longer period. Again, look at Plessy. I’m not saying that anything that I have written rivals the dissent in Plessy, but I will say that these opinions have an enormously long shelf life, so it is critical that they not be based on shifting sands of fads and what’s popular but rather principles that are locked down and that will be here when the tides turn or the winds blows in a different direction fifty years from now to deal with that.