Justice John Charles Thomas gave a powerful presentation about the importance of hope to unite our society at the Madison Vision Series on February 7th. Justice Thomas’ fundamental message was: “Have hope, spread light, and seek knowledge.”
Below are reflections from JMU Honors College Students taking “#BeingtheChange in Civic Life” with Dr. Carah Ong Whaley.
Hope (Chris Gothard, JMU ‘19):
The overarching theme of Justice Thomas’s address was hope. He discussed the hope that inspires us as a society, that there are ways to mend a broken society. Hope can be summoned from friends and leaders. Justice Thomas called hope inspirational, because of its ability to induce positive change.
Using his personal life story, Justice Thomas shared about his birth in Norfolk, VA during segregation and his successful attempts to overcome discrimination to reach his dreams. He eventually became the youngest person ever appointed to the Virginia Supreme Court, as well as the first black justice on that court. Justice Thomas credited his hope for a better society in helping him to achieve so many great accomplishments.
Justice Thomas cited the next generation of leaders as a reason to be hopeful. He noted the immense talent at James Madison University and the student’s efforts to build a more perfect union. He said that America is still a work in progress and that the students at JMU are a part of making America all that it can be. With hope and hard work, Justice Thomas said, anything is possible.
Knowledge and the Candle (Madison Farabaugh, JMU ‘21):
A major practice for reaching unity, Justice Thomas argued, involves contributing one’s own individual knowledge to the greater body of public knowledge as a whole. This will lead to a growth of communities that consist of informed citizens who positively engage with each other and the world.
Justice Thomas poetically compared personal insight and intellect to a candle’s flame: a valuable source of light, bright in its own existence and full of potential to illuminate a room of darkness. He encouraged us to never be selfish by withholding our intelligence and proficiencies from others, for spreading the flame of knowledge from one candle to the next will not make the first burn any less bright but will make the whole room less dim.
Ultimately, Justice Thomas advocated for “finding humanity in situations whenever possible,” withholding judgement and embracing the diverse backgrounds and perspectives that make the act of teamwork so efficient and eye-opening.
The goal of education, in both an institutional and interpersonal sense, should be to reach every aspect of our communities, bringing the light of knowledge where it is needed most for awareness and understanding of just how influential a more perfect union can be.
Poetry (Kasey Clayton, JMU ‘20):
Justice Thomas’ first brush with poetry would have been enough to discourage many. After writing a poem in high school titled The Morning and handing the work to his teacher, Thomas had his poetry thrown back at him, his teacher adamantly refusing to believe a “colored child” had written it. While retelling this story, Justice Thomas urged the audience at JMU, “Don’t take the hate that is within you and squish someone else’s dreams.” Although we can’t change our experiences, we do have control over our reactions. It’s easy to lose our way in the face of harsh circumstances, but Justice Thomas urged us to draw upon those who lift us up in an effort to follow a path to hope and light.
Taking on a similar theme as his Madison Vision Series talk, many of Justice Thomas’ poems circulate around the concept of hope. His poem, The Morning, left the audience with a sense of overwhelming opportunity. Each morning offers up a host of choices and experiences. Utmost hope can be found the moment the sun first appears. The poem serves as a reminder to all that we can begin a new day with an optimistic and hopeful heart, leaving behind the hurt and pain of our past just as he has.
Discrimination (Nicole Loan, JMU ‘20)
Justice Thomas grew up in poverty. He had no help from anyone; everything he had, he built for himself. In fact, there were a lot of factors working against him, but Justice Thomas did not let this discourage him. He attributed this to a lot to hope and saying “yes” to all the opportunities that presented themselves.
Justice Thomas was born in 1950 in Norfolk Virginia. In 1954, the Brown vs Board court case took place, but it took longer for Virginia to enforce the court rulings. Justice Thomas told a story of when he turned in a poem for one of his classes, and the teacher gave it back to him and said “I don’t believe that someone of color had the ability to write this.” Justice Thomas emphasized how dumb it was to discriminate based on the color of skin. It is only a slight variation in the genetic code; in fact, it would make more sense to discriminate based on the shape of our earlobes. Justice Thomas worked extremely hard to not let discrimination affect his success. At the age of 32, he became the first black and youngest justice in Virginia history.
Keep Pushing (Ethan Gardner, JMU ‘20)
Justice Thomas focused on the need for people who care about justice and social change to keep pushing for those needed changes. He described a number of dark moments that he individually faced and that America collectively faced, and explained that though circumstances felt hopeless, cracks would show themselves in the facade of oppression. When there are small glimpses of light through the cracks, it is our responsibility to push through them. Thomas described his time at the University of Virginia, where he was constantly urging his fellow students and administration to change injustice in the institutions of higher learning. His message was one of constant advocacy and action for social change, saying that it is the students of today who are responsible for building the “more perfect union” that our constitution describes.
It was with these ideas in mind that I asked a question of Justice Thomas, seeking advice on how to be active in these goals when there is a sense of complacency at home or in major institutions. His response was one of balancing the goals he described in his speech with a realism that not everyone will be persuaded and that some will be set in their ways, regardless of what you do. Using the metaphor of sitting around the family table, he said that you may not be able to change the mind of family members who are older and set in their ways, thus it may not be worth your time. Instead, speak with your younger siblings and cousins about the important issues you care about and communicate the importance of social change.
Biography (Tyler Strosnider, JMU ‘22):
Justice John Charles Thomas, a native to the Norfolk area, graduated from the University of Virginia Law School in 1975, and soon after became the first African American to be a partner at Hunton & William. In 1983, Justice Thomas became the first African American and youngest person to have a seat on the Virginia Supreme Court. Today, he serves on the Court of Arbitration for Sport, located in Lausanne, Switzerland. Justice Thomas has received the 1995 NAACP’s Lifetime Image Award and served on the board of Visitors for the College of William & Mary in 2006 and 2009.
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