"I thought I could do some good. Again, it's put up or shut up, that you play the hand you're dealt," he says. "And it wasn't much of a hand at the time, but I thought it was an opportunity to do some good, particularly with the black colleges, the historically black colleges and universities."
Thomas later would write with passion in his opinions as a Supreme Court justice about the role those schools have played and why they are important to maintain, instead of focusing exclusively on integrating white schools.
"It was all these black kids. See, the schools started for maybe the wrong reasons, but look at all the good they had done. And, also, they allowed blacks to go to school in an environment, but didn't have to fight all these battles. They could go to their football games, be members of fraternities, sororities, be leaders on their campus… They could just grow and mature," Thomas says. "Not everybody can fight every battle and still perform academically.
"Now if the schools weren't up to par, that's a separate issue," Thomas says. "But if they were, and they had these wonderful records of achievement, then why close them just because you say they're predominantly black?"
Thomas would soon leave the Department of Education to head up, ironically enough, the EEOC. He wrote that his instinct at first had been to "run, to go back home to Georgia and the uncomplicated life I had left behind so long ago," but decides to take the post when Reagan offered it to him — so long as he had "total independence."
That night, he went home alone and afraid. He brooded over his decision, his still-strained relationship with his grandfather, his abandonment of his wife and son. He recalls the words his grandfather told him when he threw him out of the house at 19: "You'll probably end up like your daddy or those other no-good Pinpoint negroes."
"His terrible words still burned in my memory a decade and a half later. Had Daddy been right after all?" Thomas wrote, the anguish evident in his words. "I poured myself a large glass of scotch and Drambuie over ice and downed it greedily, alone with my thoughts and afraid of what lay ahead."
Some months later, Thomas recognized he was becoming dependent on alcohol and decided to quit. He wrote vividly of drinking too much one night when out with an old friend, Thelma Duggin, who warned him that "loose lips sink ships."
"I drank too much and ate too little, and by the time I finally stumbled home to my sad little apartment, I was exhausted. The room was spinning and I felt queasy as I fell asleep on the old mattress I used as a bed," Thomas wrote.
Thomas wrote that he awoke the next morning with a "splitting headache" and opened the refrigerator to get something to eat.
"It was empty — except for two cans of Busch. I thought of how long it took me to clear my head the morning after I'd had even a few drinks, and vowed that those two cans of beer would be the last alcohol I ever drank," Thomas wrote. "I drew myself a hot bath and slowly downed them as I sat in it. I haven't had a drink since."
In an interview, Thomas says he was never "a drunk or anything like that," but that he had begun drinking more heavily as his problems and anxieties mounted in the early 1980s. His revelations are surprising — for all his confirmation hearings, for all the books that have been written on him, for all the weapons his critics have employed — no one has ever suggested Thomas was a heavy drinker.