This year Clarence Thomas enters his 25th year on the Supreme Court. In the 226-year history of the court, he is the second African-American Supreme Court Justice, after Thurgood Marshall who served from 1967 to 1991.
Clarence Thomas’s life is unusual because he is a black political conservative, who lost his first marriage, conquered rage and alcohol, and survived a high-tech lynching, by holding on to the promises of the Bible.
He worked in the Reagan administration, and was nominated for the Supreme Court by President George H. W. Bush. Based on his own Memoir, this is his story the way he tells it. All the quotations are from Clarence Thomas: My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir (New York: Harper Collins, 2008).
Savannah Was Hell
He was not always a conservative. He grew up in Savannah, Georgia. “When I was a boy, Savannah was hell” (6). His parents were too poor to feed him and his brother, and so gave them up to his grandparents. He named his Memoir after his grandfather, whom he called “Daddy” to the end of his life. “I had been raised by the greatest man I’ve ever known” (28).
But it was not easy. “He never praised us, just as he never hugged us. . . . In his presence there was no play, no fun, and laughter. . . . Once, years later, I got up the nerve to tell him that slavery was over. ‘Not in my house,’ he replied” (26). His grandfather converted to Roman Catholicism and tried to get a good Christian education for Clarence.
That too wasn’t easy. “In those days it was an insult to call a dark-skinned Negro black, and more than once when our teacher was out of the room, someone would call me ‘ABC – America’s Blackest Child,’ an epithet that made many of my classmates roar with laughter” (30). Outside, in the streets, things were not better. The Ku Klux Klan held a convention in Savannah when Thomas was twelve, and 250 of its white-robed members paraded down the city’s Main Street (22).
But he pressed on and excelled in a mainly white Catholic school. “I was never prouder than when I got my first library card” (17). “Some mocked me for trying to ‘talk proper’ and accused me of thinking that I was better than they were” (36).
The Pathway to Rage
His father wanted him to be a priest, and sent him to study in Kansas City at Immaculate Conception Seminary. Here the rage was born. It was a mainly white school, and when Martin Luther King was shot, on April 4, 1968, he heard one student say, “That’s good.” Another replied, “I hope the son of a bitch dies” (43). Two months later, when Thomas heard that Robert Kennedy was shot, he collapsed: “I fell to my knees and burst into tears” (46).
This was too much. All the painful memories flooded his enraged soul — as when his grandfather
received a traffic ticket for the fabricated violation of driving with too many clothes on, or when a white woman called him ‘boy’ in front of [his grandsons]. Every southern black had known such moments, and felt the rage that threatened to burn through the masks of meekness and submission behind which we hid our true feelings. It was like a beast that lay in wait to devour us. . . . I lost my battle with the beast in the summer of 1968. (47)
In that rage, he abandoned the pursuit of the priesthood and the faith of grandparents. He went to the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, and moved in a politically radical direction. “It was in Boston, not Georgia, that a white man had called me nigger for the first time” (78). He moved on to Yale Law School and graduated in 1974.
The Pathway Out of Dishonest Invisibility
But a sea change was about to happen in his worldview. He began to feel a tension between his own honesty and his persona as an angry black man. There was a kind of awakening as he recalled Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. (“So after years of trying to adopt the opinions of others I finally rebelled. I am an invisibleman.”)
There it was. How could a black man be truly free if he felt obliged to act in a certain way — and how was that any different from being forced to live under segregation? How could blacks hope to solve their problems if they weren’t willing to tell the truth about what they thought, no matter how unpopular it might be? I already knew that the rage with which we lived made it hard for us to think straight. Now I understood for the first time that we were expected to be full of rage. It was our role — but I didn’t want to play it anymore. I’d already been doing it for too long, and it hadn’t improved my life. I had better things to do than be angry. (63–64)
Between 1974 and 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected President, Thomas came to see things very differently. One of the Democratic staffers told him, “Black is a state of mind.” His response, in his own mind, was, “That kind of all-us-black-folks-think-alike nonsense wasn’t part of my upbringing, and I saw it as nothing more than another way to herd blacks into a political camp” (125).
But could he really make this change? Could a black be a conservative? “I’d never known a black person who called himself a conservative, and it surprised me that we rarely disagreed about anything of substance” (124). But he took the step.
I have decided to vote for Ronald Reagan. It was a giant step for a black man, but I believed it to be a logical one. I saw no good coming from an ever larger government that meddled, with incompetence if not mendacity, in the lives of its citizens, and I was particularly distressed by the Democratic Party’s ceaseless promise to legislate the problems of blacks out of existence. (130)
Other Independent-Minded Friends
He would go on to take positions in the Reagan administration. The price was high. “Any black misguided enough to accept a job in the Reagan Administration was automatically branded an Uncle Tom” (145). “I could only choose between being an outcast and being dishonest” (133).
But lonely as it was, he did find some soul brothers. “Hearing Thomas Sowell, and speaking to him privately . . . was a landmark event for me.” Along with Sowell, there were Walter Williams and Jay Parker. Thomas said, “[They are] smart, courageous, independent-minded men who came from modest backgrounds. Politics meant nothing to them. All they cared about was truthfully describing urgent social problems, and finding ways to solve them” (126–127).