Virginia has gone through many changes since John Charles Thomas was a youngster in Norfolk, back in the days when the state shut down the public schools rather than allow black children in the same classes with whites.
"I have seen transitions that are great in Virginia," said Thomas, 32, who is 10 days away from being sworn in as the first black to sit on the state's seven-member Supreme Court.
Thomas spoke from a board room high above Richmond's Main Street, the heart of the state's establishment, in a building where he has worked for seven years as a corporate lawyer with the prestigious law firm of Hunton and Williams. Behind him was a portrait of Lewis F. Powell Jr., who, like Thomas, was a partner in the firm before leaving in 1972 to join the U.S. Supreme Court.
In an interview with a dozen reporters today, Thomas said he was determined that his appointment by Gov. Charles S. Robb-- cheered by black leaders as a milestone -- would be more than just symbolic.
"I am not going to be on the Supreme Court just to be a figurehead," Thomas said. "I am going to do my work and bring whatever viewpoint I have grown up with to whatever work I have to do.
"I recognize that I am a black man born in Virginia, raised in Virginia, that I have seen Virginia develop in a way that white people have not had opportunity to see," he said.
"Justice is sometimes as much appearance as it is substance," he added later. "There may be some difference in substance -- I don't know -- but there sure is immediately a difference in appearance."
Thomas, a large, ebullient man, exuded self-confidence today. Unabashed, he said that he has been telling friends since high school that he would one day be governor of Virginia. "I have repeated that over time," he said. "I never had any idea of how I was going to get from John Thomas, lawyer, to governor of Virginia, but I said it anyway."
That self-confidence, said Thomas, came from a lifetime of determination. "I have always been first. I have always been advancing, always been out there, always been striving," he said. "If you want to go from here through a brick wall, I may be a good person to be with.
"I grew up hard. I grew up real hard. I have lived in a house where the heat came from the oven," said Thomas, one of four children brought up largely by his mother, a nurse and community activist.
He was one of the first children in Norfolk to go to an integrated school and was among the first black students admitted to the University of Virginia in 1968. In 1969, he wrote then-governor Linwood Holton about his interest in government, and to his surprise, was appointed to a Commission for Children and Youth, making him the youngest appointee in state government.
"I don't want to sound smug, or like I have some incredible ego, but I think I have been blessed along the way to be able to do things that are incredible to most people," he said.
Robb's call late Sunday offering him the appointment to the state Supreme Court was a "thunderbolt," however. "I thought it was a moment in time that might not well repeat itself and this was time to act," he said.
White liberals, as well as blacks, have hoped for the day when the Virginia Supreme Court, described recently by one Northern Virginian as the "last plantation," would break from its conservative ways. Their complaint has not been just one of philosophy, but of approach. Critics complain of the court's reluctance to look beyond the letter of the law for broader interpretations that would serve as a guide to lawyers and other judges.
On his own philosophy, Thomas today was as cautious as he was at a joint press conference on Monday with Robb to announce his appointment. "I don't have any preset views," Thomas said.
"I am willing to listen to argument, willing to listen to facts, willing to deliberate with my brothers on the court to find the right answer for Virginia," he said.
In accepting the $65,400-a-year position, which brings a considerable cut in pay, Thomas said he was driven by a special sense of responsibility. "It's a matter of history," he said. "It's a matter of history because there are black people in the past who have put their lives on the line so other blacks could participate fully in society. If someone else can sacrifice their life to be involved in the governmental process, then for John Thomas to sacrifice some money is of no great moment."