"Time Out with Cleo Thomas" Adam Jones Tuscaloosa Magazine November 22, 2006
Itís been 30 years since Cleo Thomas was the Student Government Association president at the University of Alabama. Today, he is an attorney in Anniston.
Cleophus Thomas Jr., 50, was born in Sylacauga and attended public schools in Goodwater and Anniston. In 1973, he graduated from Anniston High School and enrolled at UA.
Thomas formed a coalition of white sorority members and black and independent students Ė who at that time were being ignored by the unofficial yet dominant political group known as The Machine -- and won the SGA presidency. To this day, he is the only black to ever hold the office.
After graduating with honors in 1977, Thomas went to England to attend the University of Oxford, where he received an advanced degree in philosophy, politics and economics in 1980. He received his law degree from Harvard Law School in 1982 and served as law clerk to U.S. District Judge J. Foy Guin 1982-83. At age 27, he was named to the UA board of trustees. He served as a trustee until 2003.
Despite such credentials, the only attempt he made to run for public office came in 1998, when an incumbent in the state Senate dropped out of the race about three months before the election. Thomas narrowly lost.
Q: You were SGA president. You went on to Oxford and Harvard and clerked for a federal judge. The trajectory for you did seem to be political. Did you intend it to be political, or was there an event to change your mind?
A: Originally, I intended it to be political. That was my self-perception as a 17-year-old. I was born in June 1956. I graduated high school in May 1973, so I had skipped the second grade. When I graduated high school, I was still 16-years old. And when I graduated from the university four years later, I was 20 years old. As a 20-year-old university graduate who had been admitted to Harvard Law School, I suppose my self-perception was of a prospective politician.
Law school and [Oxford] were transformative. I am not the man I was. I think by the time I was through with all that, I was through with elective politics, and frankly, one wonders but for the quarky opportunity that presented itself before the election, I donít think I would have run then. But for that unique situation, I would have had a record of never having run.
One changes. Whatís important and whatís desirable changes if youíre lucky Ö Really, that is what an education is meant to do. Itís not meant to ratify and confirm all of the beliefs that we bring to it. If we leave the university precisely as we came, the university has failed.
Q: Was the bench ever something you thought about?
A: No. Let me say this. I think when I clerked for Judge Guin, I found that to be a very intriguing life and intellectual pursuit. But thatís never been an aspiration of mine either.
Q: Thirty years after you were SGA president, has anything changed about that accomplishment, or has its meaning changed through the years?
A: Itís regrettably significant in that it has not been superseded. I have not been succeeded by another African-American student. It was not meant, certainly by me, to be a singular achievement. I take no pride in that fact, certainly. Hopefully, the university will see growth in that area.
Q: It seems now youíre almost remembered by todayís students as being one of the few candidates to beat The Machine as much as you are as being the sole black president.
A: Let me say thatís the way I saw it prospectively. I never gave very much thought at all to the racial dimension of it, and had I done so, it would have been absolutely paralyzing. Certainly, climbing the mountain to beat The Machine was high enough, adding more feet of elevation to it with thought of race and all of that would have just been too much. I never thought much about the racial aspect of it. I was always trying to come up with a winning strategy to beat The Machine. Who needed the further complication of race...
Q: Surely, you came across racial difficulties in your campaign.
A: There were. After the election Ö somebody burned a cross, which was almost a benign act of terror. It was so uncreative -- at least to me. Really, during the election, there were not tremendous barriers or incidents that I recall...
Know this, the í60s did not end in 1970. There was still, really, the spirit of progressivism. The aspiration of an inclusive community existed at that time. So it was just a great time to be at the university and a great time to be a college student. So there were not a lot of racial issues or racial encounters that I recall.
Q: Why do you think in the 30 years there has not been another black SGA president?
A: Just [that] culturally things have changed. The communal aspirations are not now what they were. There is a different spirit of the age. There is a different zeitgeist. And I think we have to work harder to make it a progressive and inclusive one.
The university was responding to larger forces around it at the time, and there was, really, this spirit of inclusion. Certainly, the African-American students themselves were deeply interested in claiming the university as their own. During my four years there, at least two of the homecoming queens were black, and I remember one of those years, my sister was in the homecoming court.
That whole sense of ďour universityĒ was that it was our university. That coupled with that zeitgeist and the spirit of the age to which I refer, I think, led to the level of participation and the level of success that students had at that time.
Q: Do you think the university gets a bad rap for not since electing a black student body president?
A: I donít know if itís a bad rap. I donít know if it gets any kind of rap for that.
Q: People think the university is in the South, so thatís the reason, but are there more powerful forces, like The Machine, than racism?
A: The Machine has adapted. The sororities are in it now, I understand. So it will adapt.
I think what is much more notable to the public is the issue of racially segregated fraternities and sororities Ö [integrated Greek organizations] are done matter-of-factly at other universities.
It takes a special kind of time machine to keep you from progressing in that regard. Thereís a kind of willful, retrograde tendency to keep that in place. Itís an unnatural state...
Having said that, I think black students by and large couldnít care less. Let it be said that itís not necessarily a classically racist issue, but itís something thatís bizarre.
Q: Is there any remedy to get the black and white kids at the same table?
A: Hereís all I know: In 1972, I was invited to rush weekend at the (Alpha Tau Omega) house, and I went. I spent rush weekend at the ATO house. Again, weíre talking about the spirit of the age. I remember writing the rush chairman, Jeff Underwood, who went on to serve briefly in the Alabama Senate, telling him there must be some mistake. Iím a black kid from Anniston. He said ďI know perfectly well who you are, come on down for rush weekend.Ē That was 1972.
In 2006, how many black kids are invited to rush weekend. Back then, they asked member Chip Smith who were sharp guys coming to the university from Anniston. Thatís how my name got on the list. All praise is due to Chip Smith for not filtering black kids from that list.
Q: How often do you return to the university now that you are no longer a trustee?
A: Whenever my daughter needs a black dress thatís in her closet. What one finds is certainly having a child there, particularly a child who doesnít come home very much, is much more of an incentive to come. Iím certainly down more now. I am delighted to come down as often as I can, two or three times a semester at least.
Q: In 2003, you gave a speech at the Opening Doors program, and you said to focus on what doors are still closed. Are there still doors closed, for instance, to your daughter?
A: I would have to ask her. I would say, we have to work to keep minds open and to keep expectations open.
For instance, I found it disturbing the way we hired Chancellor [Malcolm] Portera. Dr. Portera got hired without the job being advertised, and [trustee] Sid McDonald said, ďWe know Mac, and Mac knows us.Ē Well, maybe there are people you donít know.
We have to make sure that there are not structural barriers, and that through custom and practice and convenience we affect things that sound benign but can be quite otherwise exceedingly exclusionary by doing things like that. I think we have to get out of the insularity when you are at a traditional place where it might be easy to just stay secluded with people you know and not go beyond that. Those are instances where doors are not just closed, but locked. There are structural barriers to other people being considered because of the way you do business.
Somebody has to have the nerve to point that out.
Q: Lastly, your first 30 years you had an amazing run. What do you plan for the next 30 years?
A: First off, I hope to claim them. Please promise them to me. I hope to continue to be productive. Robert Nozick has a book, and people use the term ďThe Examined Life.Ē You just want to hopefully live a useful and enlightened life. You want to be thoughtful and productive in some socially useful way.