Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Fostering New Leadership

BOND: In his book Race Matters, Cornel West writes, “The crisis of leadership is the symptom of black distance from a vibrant tradition of resistance, from a vital community bonded by ethical ideas and from a credible sense of political struggle.” Do you see a crisis of leadership in black communities today? And if you do, what makes this happen? What contributes to it?

THOMAS: You know, I don’t know. I just see leaders. I mean, if you look, I mean, my goodness, we have a gentleman with some, you know, who's mixed race who’s got a great chance to be president of the United States. You’ve got — maybe it’s different. I think the current governor of New York is black. The current governor of Massachusetts. We've had the governor of Virginia, you know, yeah, there’s been problems, but, you know, you — I think — see, I’m more optimistic. I think the problems are — I mean, they’re just — they’re heartbreaking.

I go back to Savannah. It just breaks my heart, but it’s been breaking my heart for most of my life, you know, that you can’t persuade, that you can’t — even with people that are close to you, just say, "Look," like my grandfather said, "the library is open now, you can go." But I don’t know. I’m not going to condemn leadership I don’t know that well. I think that if you say that often enough the young kids who could be the leaders might not want to be or might feel that it’s too steep a hill to climb, but I see the young kids I see on these university campuses, in the law schools — I see them not feeling that there’s a crisis. There might be a gap or there might be not a great leader in this particular locale, but I see another generation of leaders coming up and well trained and ready to go. And so I don’t know. He might have a point that I’m missing, but I don’t feel that negative toward leadership.

BOND: What kind of leaders does contemporary society demand and how will future problems demand different leadership types? I know we can’t predict the future, but who do we need now? What kinds of leaders do we need now and what kinds might we need in the future?

THOMAS: I sometimes think that — and this is just my perception, I have no particular skill or a certain knowledge to even comment on it, but my own personal concern sometimes is that people find out through polls or through fingers to the wind where people are going and then they jump in front of them and call themselves leaders. I don’t think that’s what a leader is. And I go back to my grandfather. I think you’ve got to have some principles that you believe in, that are important to you. In order to, as you say, persuade people, I think you have certainly some needs — the ability to communicate to them, but, you know, above all, when it’s not looking real good, you need some courage.

You know, I remember this wonderful quote that I won’t get right but Churchill after his wilderness years and his political career is supposed to be over and he’s going to be named Prime Minister, he’s going to Buckingham Palace, he’s quoted as having said something to the effect that "it was a though my whole life was but a mere preparation for this moment." You know, I don’t know. I just, you know, I think that things that you do need in these jobs is courage. I think you need to hold, even when you’re being tempted by praise, you need to remain firm and principled. When you’re being beaten by criticism, you need to be principled.

There’re things — when you were in Liberty County, you were not safe. You know it and I know it. What propelled you? What was important to you? Why was it worth the risk? What called on you to pull that courage up to go in a rural area where if you got isolated back up in those woods, it was going to be difficult for you? What is it that gave my grandfather the courage to strike out on his own? I don’t know. Or when he went to get his business license. So I think there’s something that was in you that said, "No matter what, I’m going to stand up." And I think that leadership perhaps first and foremost requires fortitude.