Clarence Thomas: A Silent Justice Speaks Out

Clarence Thomas: A Silent Justice Speaks Out

Sept. 30, 2007— -- To begin to understand Clarence Thomas, you have consider where he came from, the influence of his grandfather, the racism and challenges he faced growing up in the segregated South and as the first black in all-white schools. The challenges he faced because of his race and class (he was the best reader in his family when he was in third grade), were steep. Yet he would go on to graduate with honors at overwhelmingly all-white Holy Cross, where he was an outspoken activist who admired Malcolm X.

Throughout the book, themes of isolation and loneliness emerge. He wrote of wanting to be "home," and over the course of several days spent with Thomas, it's clear he seeks to connect with people on a personal level, always plumbing their backgrounds for common ground to continue a conversation. He has become a huge fan of the University of Nebraska football team (his wife Virginia attended school there), and he knows several of the young players personally, sometimes sending them handwritten notes of encouragement. Many call him "Coach," and they listen intently when he addresses the team and calls on them to "do your best."

Thomas can easily find that common ground, because, as he says, he has always traversed different worlds — beginning as a poor teenager sent away to an all-white Catholic boarding school, where his white Southern classmates had been taught as children not to drink from the same water fountains as blacks. Thomas entered that world, largely alone, and dealt with racism and prejudice — for most of his formative teenaged years — as the only black.

"One of the vows I made years ago when I was in school was that if I was ever in the position to help, I wouldn't do to young kids — who were trying — what had been done to me. Because the loneliness, even with doing all the things you have to do, the loneliness is one of the hardest parts — to think nobody cares, and it doesn't really make a difference," Thomas said in an interview in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he had addressed the football team before its game against the University of Southern California.

He is part of another great generation — a generation of blacks who integrated a racist society, whose entry into those hostile white worlds was, in many ways, no less courageous than the brave men who stormed the beaches of Normandy.

Those battles obviously shaped Thomas and his views. And Thomas also had scars because of class: he would become acutely conscious of his lower class social status when he encountered the more elite and privileged blacks in the Ivy League of the Northeast. That all fueled his struggles and his doubts: His book is almost astonishingly unflattering in parts and unflinchingly honest in others — about his struggles with alcohol and finances, about his guilt in divorcing his wife and his feelings of forever being an odd-man out, unable to go "home."

Thomas describes his childhood and adolescence in vivid detail in the book. He's discussed much of the story before, either when he was nominated to the Court or in speeches, and his conservative supporters used it to create an image of Thomas as a "good" black who rose above it all. But that image conservatives created was in some ways as cartoonish as the story offered by his opponents. It was devoid of the pain and anger — at a racist system then and now, and at whites and blacks who believed they were superior to him. It also lacked any understanding of how Thomas struggled with his rage and how it threatened to consume him, and how sharply he felt that he stood on the edge of a cliff, always fearing he would fall.

The central puzzle about Thomas is how he, as a black man who grew up in the segregated South and achieved success academically when thrown into white environments, came to part ways ideologically with most other African Americans.

Thomas describes his ideological evolution as a journey back to the principles he believes his grandfather — a fiercely independent man he called "Daddy" — instilled in him. And it is a journey clearly influenced by all the detours and roadblocks he encountered along the way.

To this day, he wrote, his mother swears he was "too stubborn to cry" when he was born 59 years ago in Pinpoint, Ga., a coastal community in southern Georgia. His father abandoned the family three years later, but Thomas has fond memories of his earliest years, which he calls "idyllic." He lived with his mother and siblings in the "ramshackle house" of an aunt and uncle, until the house burned down when he was 7.

It was then his mother moved Thomas and his younger brother to tenement in Savannah that lacked indoor plumbing or beds for the children. Thomas slept in a chair.

"Overnight I moved from the comparative safety and cleanliness of rural poverty to the foulest of urban squalor," Thomas wrote, recalling a time of "hunger without the prospect of eating, cold without the prospect of warmth."

The family would eventually move to a nicer apartment, but Thomas's mother struggled to support them. One Saturday, Thomas wrote, his mother told Thomas and his younger brother Myers that they were going to live with their grandparents, Myers Anderson and his wife Tina. She sent the boys out the front door with all their belongings in a pair of grocery bags.

"I have never made a longer journey," Thomas wrote. His saw his grandfather as a formidable presence, and when the boys arrived at his home, Anderson greeted them by saying, "the damn vacation is over." Anderson was, as Thomas wrote, an ill-educated black man who, by hard work, perseverance, self-discipline and foresight, managed to achieve modest success.

"He put his faith in his own unaided effort — the one factor in his life that he could control — and he taught Myers and me to do the same," Thomas wrote.

Anderson had his own fuel oil business, but Thomas says it's an exaggeration to say he owned a "business."

"We had an oil truck, and we delivered fuel oil." Thomas says. Thomas, his brother and his grandmother were the only employees.

Their home was luxurious compared to what Thomas had known. It had two bedrooms, and Thomas had his own bed. He describes his amazement at the indoor toilet, which he said he flushed as often as he could when he first moved in.

But his grandfather made it clear those luxuries were earned by working. It would be a childhood of little tenderness and "unbending rules," Thomas wrote. He made the boys bathe in a teaspoon of water, using laundry detergent instead of soap. And wouldn't let them wear gloves on cold winter mornings when delivering fuel oil. Thomas's first and only embrace with his grandfather would come when he was a grown man.

As unyielding as his grandfather was, though, Thomas credits him with saving his life and making him the person he is. Anderson put his generation's hopes and dreams on a young Thomas's shoulders, demanding he be something more. And he imbued in his grandson ideas, often said in Southern colloquialisms, that Thomas would take from Savannah to the Supreme Court.

In conversation today, Thomas often uses a phrase his grandfather told him as a child: "Play the hand you're dealt." Thomas's wife, Virginia, had a bust of his grandfather made when Thomas first joined the Court. On it is a saying Thomas heard often as a child: "Old man can't is dead. I helped bury him."

"You know, you're a little kid. You say, 'I can't do this, I can't do that.' And he wouldn't hear it," Thomas says.

Anderson also delivered a stern warning to Thomas: "Don't shame me, and don't shame the race." That phrase, too, would haunt Thomas throughout his life.

Thomas faced numerous instances of racism throughout his childhood. He grew up in the Jim Crow South, when blacks couldn't go to the same schools, parks, beaches or restaurants. The state enforced that system by law. It was reinforced by countless stories of blacks being brutalized by whites if they strayed out of their "place."

"The system was clear. You'd go to this school. You were supposed to conduct yourself this way. You couldn't walk into this park. You couldn't vote here. You couldn't walk through this neighborhood after dark. There were all of these rules," Thomas says.

"There were no bathrooms for you, no facilities on the road, no place you could stay," Thomas continues. "Now people can go to Travelodge, Motel 8, do whatever they want. You don't think about it. But back then, when you took a trip, you had to plan. The food had to be there. You had to plan where you were going to get gas. You couldn't just go any place."

Thomas went to all-black schools through the 10th grade, but he was conscious even then of distinctions based on class and skin color. He wrote about being insulted by black classmates "because of the darkness of my skin" and says he was referred to as "ABC," or "America's Blackest Child." His only real encounter with whites was with the nuns and the priests.

"We didn't consider them white. They were nuns. You had white priests and white nuns, but they were considered nuns and priests," Thomas says. "That's sort of like thinking of angels. You didn't think of angels as white or black. They were angels."

Thomas, who had grown up as an altar boy, decided he wanted to become a priest. A Catholic boarding school prepared boys for the seminary, so Thomas "dared to leave the comfort zone of segregation," he wrote, and transferred there, enrolling in 10th grade. The school, St. John Vianney, had never admitted a black student. Thomas and another classmate were the only blacks there. The classmate left after a year, leaving Thomas as the only one.

His grandfather sent Thomas into this White world with two conditions: "You can't quit," and "Don't shame me, and don't shame our race."

"We believed so strongly that, if given a chance, we could do as well or better than whites at anything," Thomas says. "(So) you could not give up … you didn't have that right once you got started, because then that would be I think proof positive that we couldn't do it. So yes, the burden was there and we felt it. It was palpable. And somehow it becomes part of your nature."

It was his first real contact with white people, and Thomas wrote of his feelings of panic and anxiety — the price his generation of blacks paid for moving out from behind the wall of segregation. When he first arrived, he wrote that he was struck by a "sea of white faces" and thought "they were all staring at me." Thomas wrote that his "panic gave way to a constant state of anxiety."

"I saw all those white kids, and I said, 'oh my goodness,'" Thomas says. "It put you in a constant state of fear of failure, that you did not have the option to fail or to be mediocre … You had to watch your conduct. You had to not reaffirm any stereotypes. You had to break down the barriers through personal performance."

Amid the crushing pressure, one of the priests asked to speak with Thomas about his speech, which was heavily accented with the dialect of the Georgia low-country. He told Thomas he would have to learn to talk "properly" if he didn't 'want to be thought of as inferior.'" Thomas wrote that those words were a slap in the face.

"I of course just conflated everything and thought that he was saying I was inferior," Thomas says. "And I went off to the chapel to pray."

Thomas was a diligent and, by all accounts, highly successful student. He was determined to succeed, to prove himself, not only for himself, but for his race. When he returned home on weekends, Thomas says his proud grandfather would take him to the local NAACP meetings so he could report on his grades. He had become one of the school's top students, and the couple dozen people at the meetings — most were laborers, maids or cooks — would applaud his reports. He was a symbol.

"What he wanted me to do was to simply report that I was doing well," Thomas says. "I was proof positive that they had been right, that all of their dreams … You'd have these older ladies. They're working. These are people who didn't have much.

"They would just reach into their inner garments and pull out a dollar that was crumpled and hand it to you (and say), 'Boy, you get your education, and don't listen to these other kids out here. Because once you get it up here,'" Thomas says, pointing to his head, "'no one can take it away from you.'"

Thomas says his reports at those meetings — and the admonitions he heard from all those older black women who toiled for little pay in the homes of white people — would forever stay with him.

"That's why it's so important when you hear me from time to time say, 'look, what is critical isn't you just sort of absorb what other people tell you you've got to do because you're black. You think for yourself. That's what they were talking about, that once you have it here," he says, pointing again to his head, "you think it through yourself and nobody can make you think anything.

"They can't hold you into a neighborhood. They can't force you into a set of ideas. They can't make you drink from a separate fountain of knowledge … you get to choose," he says. "In a much larger sense, the ability to think yourself is kind of the culmination of what they thought would happen — that nobody would make you think what you didn't want to think. You see it reflected even today in so much of what you hear me say or what you see me doing."

Thomas encountered overt racism in high school, which he has talked about over the years and which has been described in other books about him. When he won the Latin Bee, for example, some of his classmates broke off the head of the prize, the Statue of St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes. Thomas glued the head back on, and someone broke it off again. He stubbornly glued it back. He would keep that statute for decades, as a reminder.

Another time a student passed him a note in class that read, "I like Martin Luther King." Thomas opened it up and saw one word: "Dead."

"That's not something you react positively to," Thomas says. "You have a number of choices. You could continue to always fight against people who are really distractions. They're people in the cheap seats of life. Or you can do what you went there to do. I mean, did I go to the seminary to constantly get distracted by jerks, or did I go to the seminary to achieve certain goals?

Thomas says that he reacted "the way I reacted to a lot of the bad things … I would go to the chapel and simply just pray for strength to continue on."

"That was the hard part. How do you become a better person when you're dealing with people who are not good people? And do you allow them to pull you down into their swill? Those are the things that were going through my mind at 16," Thomas says. "The first reaction (is) you want to punch him. You want to hit him. You want to strike out. That's your first reaction. But then, after you've done that, what do you do? I mean how does that advance your vocation? Have you become a better person?

"And the way you ultimately win all of that is to become better than they are," Thomas says.

He says in the long run, those encounters and the racism he experienced prepared him "for dealing with the challenges" he would face later in life.

"Because, actually, the more pernicious conduct based on race would come later, certainly when I was nominated to the Court," Thomas says.

At the end of his first year at St. John Vianney, a senior signed Thomas's yearbook: "Keep on trying, Clarence, one day you will be as good as us." Thomas interpreted that to mean the white student believed, in fact, that Thomas never would be. Thomas later would come to see his experiences at Yale Law School and with affirmative action as sending the same message.

"People, when they say you accomplished things because of race, are being the judge of you, ultimately: 'We will tell you when you are as good as us, and we hold the key to that,'" Thomas says. "It's like a membership in a private club, and that's how I viewed, to a large extent, this whole Yale thing, that, 'We will allow you into our club and we'll allow you into our club of elites if you do what you're told to do.' And I reject that notion, as I reject the notion that one day, I'll be as good as you — when you say so."

And he again equates that attitude with the bigots he encountered as a teenager in the South.

"The people who claim to be so progressive and forward-thinking are far more pernicious than the Southerners were, because so much of that in the '60s was ignorance. This was intentional, and this was by very well-heeled and well-positioned people," he says in describing the attitudes he would encounter among white liberals later in life. "But that's fine. It doesn't matter … because in the end, as those ladies said at the NAACP meeting, once you get it in your head, nobody can take it away from you."

After graduating, Thomas continued his studies to be a priest at Immaculate Conception seminary, where he again was the only black student. And again, race — and racism — is ever present, although, as in high school, he made good friends and was known for his booming laugh and outgoing manner.

But Thomas became disenchanted with the church and its failure to condemn racism, and decided to leave.

"When you go to church, there's a big focus on ending abortion. When I went to church back in the '60s, there was no focus on ending segregation, except from the nuns, who were adamant from day one," Thomas says. "The Church wasn't. It seemed to be more accommodating, again, at least from where I stood. And I just thought that had they been as principled as the nuns or as forceful as they are on the issue of abortion now, I would have gone on and become a priest."

Thomas says he "wanted to go home … back to where I was comfortable."

"I didn't want to fight all the racial battles. I didn't want to be the only black anymore. I didn't want to keep having to figure out new things and new places. I didn't want to be the only one, or one of two," he says. "I wanted to go back to where I was comfortable, and that was home. That was with other blacks, that was in the South, that was with my relatives."

But his decision to quit went against everything his grandfather had taught him, he says. When he got home and tried explained his decision, his grandfather was devastated.

"I was tired. I was 19 years old and tired and confused and upset, and I wanted to go home. The other thing is, you get lonely. When you hear these people, these theorists, talking about putting little black kids in all-white environments, you go do it for awhile. You go be the only white in a black environment and see how easy it is. It is not all that easy, and everybody can't do it," Thomas says. "And that's what I said to my grandfather. At some point, you just get worn down. Well, he wasn't having any part of that."

Anderson, a hard man who Thomas had never seen so much as shed a tear, later went outside and wept. The next morning, he asked Thomas to leave, saying "you'll probably end up like your no-good daddy and those other no-good Pinpoint negroes." That harsh prediction would haunt Thomas for most of life.

"He told me that day I was to leave his house," Thomas says, "and I left."

Thomas moved back in with his mother, reversing the journey, as he puts it, that he made as a child. He could not go "home."

"I recognized, after my first year at the seminary, that I would be in a no man's land, that I could never return to the world of Pinpoint and Liberty County and 543 32nd Street, and I would never be a part of this other world," he says. "That was an uncertain path, and you're 19 years old. But I knew for certain that I could be in neither world."

To continue on to Part III: Going North, please click here.

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