Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Learning and Teaching Leadership: The Right and the Just

BOND: Do you think for your grandfather and others like him that that something was conviction — the conviction that he stood for something that was right and just?


BOND: And therefore had a responsibility to demonstrate it to others?

THOMAS: I think so. And I think it was even beyond that, that — I think right and just may cover it, because right and just includes raising his boys right. It includes showing how you can live as an independent black man in the segregated South, showing how, as he used to say, a motherless and fatherless child could survive. Yeah, I think that it was worth it to him and for me — and I borrow this from that movie Saving Private Ryan, where Captain Miller’s asking Sergeant Ryan right at the end of it when all these guys have died to save Private Ryan, he asked him these words or told him, “Earn it. Earn this.” And with my grandfather, what I’ve got to do and what I’ve got to do because of you and other people who risked it, you’ve got to earn it. You know, you do it not to in a sense that you are mimicking or you’re being controlled or we agree, but there is — just like the library, when people fight for us to be in the library, how do you earn it? How do you say to them, "thank you"? Do you go and say "thank you" or do you go to the library and use it? And so, in a sense, that it was for him that he was doing the right thing and for us that we earned the right to benefit from the right thing.

BOND: Are the values that you talk about teachable? We know that they’re teachable on an individual basis, your grandfather to you and your brother, but are they teachable on a larger basis in a classroom to older children? Can you transmit this?

THOMAS: You know, I’ve traveled all over this country and I’ve been in all sorts of environments and some pretty depressed, and I think that when kids look you in the eye and you sit down and you talk with them and you explain to them — you don’t have an agenda, you just care about them — they can sense it.

I remember sitting in a room with black law students at the University of Georgia. And after a couple of hours of just talking, they understand that what you’re saying — but, see, what you almost have to cut through or peel away are the layers of negativism and the cynicism and mistrust and calumnies. That’s the unfortunate part, but as soon as you connect on a sincere level and you tell them, "This is not about you agreeing with me, this isn’t about you having a particular point of view. This is about you thinking about your lives and the fact that now, the mere fact that you’re in law school, you’re the leaders, you’re it." They do get it. Do you go to these little schools — my little kids, I see them all over the place — they believe. They want to believe. But you’ve got to give them something to believe.

I quote a janitor just across the street when I was in the Senate one morning when I was coming in all down in the mouth and despondent, and he said — made it clear to me — “You cannot give what you do not have.” So you go to these kids and you don’t have anything constructive. You have nothing positive. You’re worried about your own sort of self-interest. They sense it. You’ve got to have it to give it to them and the bottom line answer is yes, you can influence them. Will you influence 100 percent? No. But you can influence the 20 percent, the 30 percent, the 50 percent, the kids who will be the leaders and you can do it by example, of course, but you can also do it by showing them how much you care about them and how sincere you are about your ideas and the fact that you are not requiring them to agree with you on the bottom line, but to be independent and have their own thoughts.

BOND: Justice Thomas, thank you for being with us. We appreciate it.

THOMAS: Thank you very much.

BOND: Thank you.