Nonetheless, Anderson appears to have been a devoted father to Thomas and his brother, and Thomas' description of his life with Anderson is vivid and moving:
"The family farm and our unheated oil truck became my most important classrooms, the schools in which Daddy passed on the wisdom he had acquired in the course of a long life as an ill-educated, modestly successful black man in the Deep South. Despite the hardships he had faced, there was no bitterness or self-pity in his heart. As for bad luck, he didn't believe in it. Instead he put his faith in his own unaided effort — the one factor in life that he could control — and he taught Myers and me to do the same. Unable to do anything about the racial bigotry and lack of education that had narrowed his own horizons, he put his hope for the future in "my two boys," as he always called us. "I am going to send you boys to school and teach you how to work so you can have a better chance than I did," he said. We were his second chance to live, to take part in America's opportunities, and he was willing to sacrifice his own comfort so that they would be fully open to us."
At 16, Thomas decided that he wanted to become a Catholic priest, and he took the remarkable step of enrolling in a boarding-school seminary that had never before had a black student. It wasn't easy, and anyone misguided enough to think Thomas has not really led a "black" life on account of his current politics ought to read the chapters about his experiences in newly desegregated schools.
Being the first black student meant that his success or failure affected more than just himself. "Don't shame me, and don't shame our race," admonished his grandfather, who made him promise not to quit. Competing with whites who doubted his abilities, Thomas bore the burden of representing his race in "a constant state of controlled anxiety."
Thomas worked hard and earned mostly A's at St. John while he endured racial hazing and the disappointing realization that his white friends would not necessarily defend him in such encounters. Thomas then attended a college-level seminary for a year before deciding that he did not want to become a priest after all. He says he had grown disillusioned with the church for not doing enough to combat racism. Soon after Martin Luther King's assassination in April 1968, he resolved to leave the seminary at term's end.
Monica Dolin is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., and a consultant to ABC News.
Next he had to face the "dreaded task" of telling his grandfather, who heard the news and thundered, "You've let me down." Thomas says he "knew exactly what our shared dream had meant to him. It justified the sacrifices he'd made and the bigotry he'd endured as he struggled with the daunting obligation of raising Myers and me. Now the dream was a heap of ashes. I had broken my promise, and my failure to live up to my word became a burden on my conscience that I have never escaped."
That he broke this promise is a point Thomas returns to again and again.
Kicked out of the house by his furious grandfather, Thomas enrolled at Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., as a sophomore transfer student to the Class of 1971. There weren't many blacks in the Class of 1971, but they were an impressive bunch that included Ted Wells, the criminal-defense lawyer who represented Scooter Libby, and Edward P. Jones, winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for "The Known World."