One of the nuns who had mentored him suggested he apply to Holy Cross, in Worcester, Mass., where a friend from his all-black high school was also a student. With excellent grades from high school and Immaculate Conception, and the strong recommendation from the nun, he was accepted. He wouldn't have needed affirmative action to get in, and he says he did not benefit from it. He was one of six black students in the all-male class of about 550.
"I didn't have this view that I was going to go North. Ideologically, I wanted to be like the Northern kids who were no longer submissive. They were fighting back on the racial issues," Thomas says. "But I didn't want to go North. That was not a part of it. But it was the only option I had after I got kicked out of the house."
At Holy Cross, Thomas says he read The Autobiography of Malcolm X so many times that the pages grew worn. Thomas admired his philosophy of self-reliance and, having grown up in the segregated South, shared Malcolm's distrust of government and "the man," and he angrily saw racism everywhere. He was part of a black community at Holy Cross, but he also developed friendships with whites.
As Thomas became something of a radical at Holy Cross, the rift with his grandfather grew deeper, and Thomas began wondering whether Anderson was "a coward or a fool." But he was conflicted, and he never completely embraced the radical movement that swept up many of his classmates. When he attended a protest in Boston in 1970 that turned violent, and he went to chapel when he got back to Holy Cross and prayed.
"I just asked God to take hate out of my heart, and I just vowed that if he did I would never hate again," Thomas says.
The day after he graduated from Holy Cross with honors, he married his college girlfriend, Kathy Ambush. He wrote that he had begun to drink a fair amount in college, and that on his wedding day, he was hungover and riddled with doubts — and headed for Yale Law School.
When he starts classes at Yale, he wrote of his old fear of failure, and how "panic and dread" threatened to overwhelm him. Again, he feels out of place. "I was among the elite, and I knew that no amount of striving would make me one of them," he wrote.
He didn't try to become one of them or to blend into their world. He says he wore overalls and a hat, like he had been working in the fields. In the book, he sounds enormously bitter about his years there, but in an interview, he acknowledges his depiction "may be tainted by the years after my graduation," when he saw all his accomplishments "rolled into the race issue" because of affirmative action and watched as some professors at Yale actively opposed his Supreme Court nomination.
"When I was at Yale, I got along fine. I had friends. The professors were great. I took a lot of very demanding courses — and, again, it was the seminary all over again. Here's this challenge," he says. "But (then) all my achievements were collapsed, or actually discounted. That did not happen in the seminary, it did not happen at Holy Cross. But everything — all the hard work, those long hours, the deferred gratification — suddenly was discounted.