Arthur Ray Thomas Biography
Developed Interest in Activism, Community Programs Influenced Fraternity Work, Worked For Better Health Care
International fraternity president, attorney, activist
Arthur Ray Thomas, Esq. is the thirty-first International President of the Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, a 125,000 member black fraternity with chapters in the United States, St. Thomas, Japan, Germany, and the Bahamas. He is an accomplished attorney who has worked tirelessly on behalf of political and social issues affecting young African Americans, seniors and the disadvantaged. His work to provide assistance in securing affordable housing has helped many gain a foothold on the path to a better life. With an eye towards better health care, Thomas has been instrumental in gaining support from Phi Beta Sigma members. By adopting national initiatives that enhance the lives of many, his life's work establishes the fraternity as a serious player in the effort to create greater opportunities for blacks. Thomas has also served as a staff member for U.S. Congressman Gillis Long and is a past president of the Southern University Law Center Alumni Association and the Louis A. Martinet Legal Society.
Thomas was born in the small Louisiana town of Ville Platte, on August 17, 1951, the fourth of 12 children born to Artellus Jr. and Ernestine Thomas. In school Thomas ran track, captained the basketball team, and was considered an all-around athlete. He excelled academically, graduating third in his class at James Stephens High School in 1969, and played the saxophone. Thomas was a member of his high school ROTC program and considered entering the military after graduation. Later the death of a friend killed in Vietnam would cause him to reconsider.
Developed Interest in Activism
Thomas entered Southern University in Baton Rouge and after his junior year in 1971 joined the Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity. Motivated by the prejudice he experienced growing up in a small town, he decided to pursue a law degree. "In a place like Ville Platte it's obvious," he said in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). "Blacks lived on one side of the tracks, whites on the other. Doctors' offices had separate doors for the races and blacks had difficulty securing employment. All this was in the back of my mind. I wanted to go back and help."
His college years were a time of major social and political change in America; many colleges were experiencing campus unrest. Thomas worked along side fellow members of the Black Stone Society, a group of political science students seeking to improve conditions on campus. During Thomas' last year there activists seized the administration building to protest conditions. National guardsmen were called in and two students were killed. This early exposure to political activism and a desire to improve the lives of young people would become a persistent theme of Thomas' work during law school and in the coming decades. In 1972 Thomas received a bachelor's degree in political science and in 1976 he graduated from the Southern University Law Center. " My mother was particularly happy about it," he told CBB. "I'll never forget the smile on her face the day I graduated." After his parents had divorced years before, Ernestine's years of raising 12 children had not been without difficulty. She was indeed very proud of her son's accomplishments.
Thomas then went to work as a clerk for the Louisiana State Legislature Health and Welfare Committee and as an assistant law librarian. Later, along with a law partner Thomas started the Southern University Aging Program, geared towards geriatrics, advising seniors on matters such as Social Security. "We were very entrepreneurial and saw an opportunity for law students to get some clinical experience," Thomas said. "There were lots of administrative hearings and we advised seniors of their rights. I enjoyed speaking with seniors; it taught me stability, patience, and listening skills."
Thomas opened the law firm of Johnson, Taylor & Thomas in 1980 and later in 1990 started the firm of Arthur R. Thomas and Associates. Much of his legal work involved personal injury and civil rights litigation, with one case being the longest-running school board desegregation case in the country. His firm also worked as lead attorneys on Clark v. Edwards, an important case in Louisiana aimed at increasing the number of black judges in the state.
Community Programs Influenced
In 1993 Thomas started the Renaissance Development Corporation to serve Baton Rouge Parish, building 85 affordable homes in blighted areas. The company qualifies first-time homebuyers, provides training and credit counseling, and funds for purchasing. Thomas took the project a step further with his Renaissance Youth Build Program. Providing opportunities for at-risk youth to get their GED and job skills, the program offers on-the-job training in housing construction and bi-monthly stipends. "My passion is helping young kids especially black males," Thomas told CBB. Although real estate development is not his main focus, a lot of these activities "flowed into his fraternity work prior to becoming president of Phi Beta Sigma," Thomas said.
The Phi Beta Sigma initiative he is most proud of is the youth component. The program started in 1950, but its true potential had not been tapped until Thomas got involved. "I took a centrist program and divided it, incorporating a three part program: First, the job shadowing program to offer job training; second, the tutorial program working directly with youth offering educational opportunities and scholarships, and third, a teen pregnancy program named SATAPP (Sigma Against Teenage Pregnancy Plus)," Thomas explained.
Under Thomas local alumni chapters appreciated the focus and structure he brought to the project; he won their support. Previously it had limited recognition nationally and is now constitutionally recognized as the Sigma Beta Club Foundation. He feels this will be one of his greatest contribution to the organization followed by the establishment of the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship fund Sigma Beta Club Scholarship Endowment, which will benefit Sigma Beta Club and Collegiate members of the organization. "When someone looks at us as an organization they see us involved with young black males across the country and an organization involved in community service with a greater amount of financial stability and fiscal responsibility," he said.
"Membership has increased under my administration, the largest in the fraternity's history," Thomas said. "I was able to accomplish this because I learned when I was very young that people become interested because you are doing positive things. If you focus on helping young black men there are many Fraternity members who want to help. They see themselves in these young Black males and they want to be part of it. Our members are informed of what we are doing, the grant opportunities we are seeking, we're making our national programs much more structured, and we are providing the necessary ingredients to fulfill the dreams of our Founders. Also, to keep our brothers interested we have provided a greater amount of efficiency in member services and those services that members expect."
Worked For Better Health Care
Thomas has met with Bush Administration policy advisors to secure major grants for health care and spoke with the first lady regarding her initiatives for at-risk kids. "My task is to make this a component of all Greek letter organizations," Thomas said. "I think it's important that we partner to make a greater impact on our youth and health-related issues." Thomas is the chairman of the Council of Presidents of the Pan-Hellenic Organization, a decision-making body comprising all national fraternity presidents.
A tireless and effective administrator and attorney, Thomas works for many causes. One important program that continues under Thomas is Sigmas Waging War Against Cancer (SWWAC). Partnering with the American Cancer Society, it focuses on early screening and detection for colorectal cancer. The National Marrow Donor Program began under Thomas to urge fraternity members' involvement with donor registration. Phi Beta Sigma's St. Jude's Children's Hospital Project raises funds and advocates for children's health.
So what does Thomas see as the key to success for these young people he spends his life leading and mentoring? "Starting out things are tough for African-American males; the odds are against us and opportunities are not always there," he told CBB. It is important to recognize that education is a critical part of preparation. Be focused, set goals, and know you can do it. These things will allow you to put together a plan of action. With this you can achieve great heights. I am a prime example of someone who came from a very small rural area during an era when there was not a lot of help. I became focused." Focused and relentless, giving back and making a difference, Thomas has paved the way for many.
Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc., www.pbs1914.org/ (February 01, 2005).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Attorney Arthur R. Thomas on February 21, 2005, and through biographical information supplied by Attorney Thomas.
—Sharon Melson Fletcher