At the end of each Supreme Court term, around Independence Day, Justice Clarence Thomas takes his clerks to tour the battlefield at Gettysburg. By then, long hours of intense, closely researched debate, along with the almost parental care that the justice and his wife, Virginia, have lavished upon them, have melded the young lawyers into something like family. They have spent part of the year on Fourteenth Amendment questions, but now it’s time for a closer look at the realities that the amendment addresses. “I thought it would be important for my clerks not just to talk about the Fourteenth Amendment, not just to talk about the equal protection clause,” explained Thomas in a Heritage Foundation lecture last year, marking his 25th anniversary on the Court, “but to go and feel it—to see the place, to see what this was about. Why did people die? To go where Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, where he implores us, the living, to make it worthwhile, this experiment to which these people had given the last full measure.” Because, he concludes, “this ideal, that’s all we have left: the perfectibility of this great republic.”
That ideal of republican perfectibility—the full realization of Jefferson’s proposition that all men are created equal—lies at the heart of Thomas’s career on the nation’s highest court. Lincoln had urged his Gettysburg audience to rededicate themselves to that ideal to spark a new birth of freedom, which would have occurred, had not some failed actor felt called to blow out the noblest brain of the age five days after the South’s surrender. If Lincoln had lived, Reconstruction would have invested black Southerners permanently with all the civil rights of American citizenship, as the heroic president intended. That’s why biographer Richard Brookhiser calls Lincoln, in his book’s title, the Founders’ Son: the Great Emancipator understood the Founding Fathers’ vision of liberty and equality before the law with a seer’s acuity and aimed to bring it about more completely than circumstances had allowed the Founders themselves to do.
But Southern segregationists derailed his plan soon after his assassination and prolonged racial oppression for nearly another century, distorting race relations in the nation to this day. It’s in this sense, as Thomas works to fulfill Lincoln’s task of extending the unalienable rights of the Declaration of Independence to all Americans, that it’s not fanciful to think of the justice as the Founders’ grandson.
How Thomas could become so historically consequential is a story that really begins with his actual grandfather, Myers Anderson. Thomas was born in 1948 in Pinpoint, Georgia, a tiny creekside hamlet founded by freed slaves southeast of Savannah, where the men caught crabs and raked oysters, and the women picked and shucked them in a little cinder-block factory. Despite its poverty, Thomas’s early childhood in the woods and swamps seemed idyllic to him, something like the life of an African-American Huck Finn. But when Thomas was six, his younger brother and cousin, playing with matches, burned down their kerosene-lit shanty, and his mother, who had divorced his father when he was two, took her two sons to live in the “foulest kind of urban squalor” of inner-city Savannah, leaving their elder sister behind with relatives. In their cramped apartment, with its cracked and stinking outdoor toilet, single faucet, and linoleum kitchen floor laid directly on the earth, Thomas knew “hunger without the prospect of eating and cold without the prospect of warmth,” he recounts in his memoir, My Grandfather’s Son. But after one awful winter, his mother, exhausted and demoralized from her $10-a-week job, sent the two little boys, their meager wardrobes packed in one paper bag apiece, to live with her father and stepmother, two and a half blocks away.
That short walk, all by themselves, took the children to a different world. Myers and Christine Anderson lived in a sparkling white, sparkling clean two-bedroom cinder-block house that the Andersons had built themselves for $600. It boasted hardwood floors, a fridge flowing with milk and soda, a stove, washer, and, a special luxury to Thomas, porcelain indoor plumbing. Though barely literate, Anderson had started his own wood-, ice-, and coal-delivery business, which, when his grandsons came to live with him, had evolved into a heating-oil company, with himself making the deliveries and his wife taking the orders and keeping the books. Thomas was surprised to learn that the business had never grossed more than $7,000 a year—especially considering how hard his driven grandfather worked, starting before dawn every day—but it was enough to keep the little family of four in comfort and security.
The Andersons had had no children together, though before marriage each had had out-of-wedlock offspring, including Thomas’s mother. Anderson himself had been born to a single mother, and “he resented his father’s lack of interest in him,” Thomas remarks, no less than his grandsons resented their absent father. The boys used to ask themselves “how a man could show no interest in his own children,” Thomas recalls. “I still wonder.” They would conclude by “saying that the only father we ever had was our grandfather,” Thomas says. “What I am is what he made me.”
Certainly, Anderson, then in his forties, took to child-rearing with born-again zeal, though whether to plug the hole in his heart left by his own father’s absence, or to atone for his own early sins of omission as an unwed father, or to fill up the void in his otherwise model but childless household, as Thomas believes, is unknowable. Having made himself into a paragon of self-discipline and hard work, he was determined to mold the boys in his image, through a rigid structure of rules, good manners, high expectations, and moral maxims so vivid and oft-repeated that before long, the boys were lip-syncing as their grandfather pronounced them. “Old Man Can’t is dead—I helped bury him,” he would say, or “Any job worth doing is worth doing right,” or “Waste not, want not,” or “Play the hand you’re dealt”—a laudable call to face reality and cope with it head-on, without self-pity or bitterness, very different from the mind-set of such celebrated younger black memoirists as Barack Obama or Ta-Nehisi Coates. It was a tough school of virtue, aimed at giving the boys the tools to surpass their grandfather’s achievements and get “coat-and-tie jobs.”
As part of his own self-reinvention, Anderson had embraced Catholicism, rejecting the traditional black Baptist church’s ecstatic emotionalism in favor of order, dogma, and ritual. He sent his grandsons to Catholic school and pushed them to serve as altar boys, slapping Thomas across the room one Sunday for starting for church with unshined shoes. Anderson liked the structured environment of Saint Benedict the Moor’s school, with its neat uniforms, its no-nonsense demand for achievement, and its housekeeping chores for each pupil. The mostly Irish nuns taught their students that since God made all men equal, segregation was wrong—for which segregated Savannah’s whites called them “the nigger sisters.”
Once Thomas reached fourth grade, Anderson put him to work after school and on Saturdays, taking orders or helping deliver oil. Shortly afterward, grandfather and grandsons began building a cinder-block house on 60 fallow south Georgia acres that the family had owned for generations but no one used. Thereafter they spent the whole of every summer vacation on “the farm,” where the boys worked from dawn till dark, clearing fields, mending fences, and helping to plow and harvest, and, from time to time, to butcher a hog. The point was not just the food that the family ate the rest of the year: Anderson knew how toxic inner-city street culture could be, and he wanted to keep the boys from its influence by filling up every hour with parochial school, homework, oil delivery, and farmwork.
In a 1995 lecture after four years on the Court, Thomas reflected movingly on the meaning of such an upbringing. “The very notion of submitting to one’s circumstances was unthinkable in the household in which I was raised,” he said. “It may have seemed harsh at the time to be told that failure was one’s own fault.” But “accepting personal responsibility for victory as well as for defeat is as liberating and empowering as it is unpopular today. Overcoming adversity not only gives us our measure as individuals but also reinforces those basic principles and rules without which a society based upon freedom and liberty cannot function.” A free society requires free citizens, not victims. It needs citizens who can accept Thomas à Kempis’s charge—as much stoic as Christian—“to ensure that in every place, action, and outward occupation you remain inwardly free and your own master. Control circumstances, and do not allow them to control you. Only so can you be a master and ruler of your actions, not their servant or slave; a free man.”
Thomas and his siblings constitute a natural experiment in the effects of such a caring, supervised, value-laden upbringing, compared with a more usual poor, fatherless black childhood. It is the difference between freedom and victimhood. He and his brother both became upwardly mobile successes, though a heart attack killed his brother while jogging at age 50. His high-school-dropout sister, left behind as drugs and crime invaded Pinpoint, went on welfare, as Thomas told eminent journalist Juan Williams in 1980. “She gets mad when the mailman is late with her welfare check,” Thomas said, explaining his opposition to the dole. “That is how dependent she is. What’s worse is that now her kids feel entitled to the check too. They have no motivation for doing better or getting out of that situation.”
He was more right than he knew, for though his sister later got off welfare and got a GED and a menial job, her son took to selling cocaine. “Mark, please, you got them pretty little kids. Please,” Thomas would beg his nephew, from the depths of his own early experience of fatherlessness. But to no avail, for the oft-jailed Mark finally drew a 30-year prison sentence in 1999. Thomas took in his six-year-old son, became his surrogate father, and sent him to private school, as his grandfather had done for him.
Segregation-constricted Savannah was almost as small as Pinpoint. “Segregation created fear,” Thomas told his Heritage Foundation audience, and that fear kept black children from venturing beyond the ghetto. Little wonder, since the Ku Klux Klan held a Savannah march, in white robes and pointy hats, as late as 1960, when Thomas was 12. But in the relative security of his childhood world, Thomas’s sharpest memory of racism, which would loom ever larger to him as he grew up, is the taunt from fellow black kids that he was “ABC—America’s Blackest Child.”
All that changed when he persuaded his grandfather to send him to Saint John Vianney, a boarding school for prospective Catholic priests, which he entered at 16 in autumn 1964, one of two black students in an otherwise all-white institution. There he encountered the anxiety of inferiority that, as an adult, he warned would beset the supposed beneficiaries of affirmative action. “We had always believed we could do as well as whites if we were only given a fair shake,” he writes—“but what if it turned out that we weren’t good enough after all?” Thomas worked as hard as his grandfather had taught him to, and earned such stellar grades that his yearbook photo bore the caption, “. . . blew the test, only a 98.”
Even so, his smirking schoolmates needled him with racist taunts. When, after Herculean effort, he won a Latin prize—a statuette of Saint Jude—someone broke off its head, and broke it again after he glued it back. He glued it a third time, and his tormentors lost interest. The saint now guards his Supreme Court desk. So touchy did he understandably become that when the school’s rector advised him to learn to speak standard English—his speech smacked of the Gullah dialect of the Georgia barrier islands, similar to West Indian Creole, that he had first learned—he took it as a racist slap. Much later, he learned that the rector had given the same advice to white students with thick Southern drawls.
But only when he enrolled in the Immaculate Conception Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri, did racism derail him. With one of his few black fellow students, he agonized over the church’s failure to condemn racism and segregation, a failure that he felt subverted its moral claims. A classmate’s brutal response to the news of Martin Luther King’s shooting during Thomas’s first year—“I hope the son of a bitch dies”—“finished off my vocation,” Thomas recalls. When he came home and announced his resolve to quit, his disappointed grandfather turned him out of the house. To Thomas’s lasting regret, grandfather and grandson never really made up, and Anderson, who died in 1983, didn’t live to see Thomas join the high court.
A summer job at a Savannah paper company, where he choked down his inner rage at his white coworkers’ pervasive racism, turned him, he says, into “an angry black man.” As a transfer student at mostly white Holy Cross in 1968, he grew angrier still, adopting the rhetoric, gestures, and army-surplus garb of the sixties’ black student radical. Awaiting the revolution that would purify a U.S. culture “irretrievably tainted by racism” (as he then believed), he and his small band of fellow black undergrads put on the “swagger [and] sense of moral superiority” of “the aggrieved and the righteous.”
But his critical judgment never wholly deserted him. He began to see—but not to say—that the conventional left-wing nostrums for uplifting black Americans might backfire. Holy Cross was doing no favors for many of the black students it admitted in increasing numbers under affirmative action, he thought. Smart but unprepared, they too often got bad grades or flunked out. “Why, I asked, were these gifted young people being sacrificed on the altar of an abstract theory of social justice,” when they would have flourished closer to home or in all-black colleges? Those affirmative-action beneficiaries who succeeded tended to be the light-skinned children of middle-class families who needed no extra boost and who, with their own brand of racism, looked down on darker, poorer blacks like himself.
Despite his ambivalence, he went to a march in Harvard Square in support of “America’s domestic political prisoners,” especially Communist UCLA professor Angela Davis, a radical-chic celebrity inmate of the sixties, ultimately acquitted because her purchase of the guns used in killing a judge and three others in a courtroom hostage-taking was deemed insufficient proof that she had supplied the weapons. The march turned into a riot, to Thomas’s horror. Back at Holy Cross the next morning, he begged God to purge him of the “rage and resentment that threatened to wreck my academic career and my life”—and to flatten him to a mere stereotype parroting empty slogans. To change the world, he realized, he’d have to change himself first, man up, and play as best he could the hand he was dealt—a hand containing, he acknowledged, much better cards than his grandfather had ever held.
By the time he reached Yale Law School in 1971, his politically incorrect views on race were hardening fast. He and his college sweetheart had married just after his college graduation (they divorced in 1984), and their son, born when the NAACP’s Boston school-busing lawsuit headlined the news in 1973, led him to think that if public school systems made poor black kids ride a bus for an hour to reach a white school just as bad as the black one round the corner, he would send baby Jamal to private school, whatever the cost, rather than offer him as one more sacrifice to a feel-good but harebrained social experiment. And so he did. Investigating why so many black law graduates flunked the bar exam, he discovered that, with each question graded by a separate scorer and the test-takers identified by numbers alone, discrimination was an unlikely answer, despite the claims of yet another NAACP lawsuit. The test’s “adverse impact” on black test-takers showed only the culpability of those who had set these unready kids up for failure, he thought. His most painful discovery, though, was that Yale Law’s affirmative-action push starting in 1969 made employers view the school’s subsequent black grads as inferior, harming even those who, like Thomas, had earned good grades. That Yale had admitted him in part because he was black, he writes, “was the soft underbelly of my career.”
“I couldn’t get a job,” Thomas told a University of Kansas Law School audience in 1996. What was “a Yale law degree worth when it bore the taint of racial preference?” he asks in his memoir. In answer, he peeled a 15-cent price tag off a cigar wrapper and stuck it onto his framed diploma, before stashing it in the cellar forever.
Missouri’s Republican attorney general John Danforth saw his worth and offered him a job, which Thomas accepted on the pledge that he’d be treated neither better nor worse than the other assistant AGs. True to his word, Danforth “ignored the hell out of me,” Thomas gratefully recalls. In his stint in the criminal-appeals division, the young lawyer lost his last radical illusion about race. Jailed blacks were not political prisoners, suffering oppression by “the man,” he found. A black man who raped and sodomized a black woman after holding a blade to her little boy’s throat was just a thug. “This case, I later learned, was far from unusual: it turned out that blacks were responsible for almost 80 percent of violent crimes committed against blacks, and killed over 90 percent of black murder victims,” he writes. “This was a bitter pill to swallow.” But swallow it he did, growing permanently skeptical of radicalism’s fictitious assertions and conspiracy theories.
Finally, he read a review of Thomas Sowell’s Race and Economics, which showed him that he and his grandfather weren’t the only African-Americans to believe that black advancement required self-reliance, education, work skills, and pride in achievement—all of which, Sowell argued, the nostrums of job quotas, charity subsidies, and preferential treatment subverted. That recognition meant giving up the illusion that “whites, having caused our problems, should be responsible for solving them instantly,” Thomas realized. On the contrary, “blacks could never hope to improve their lives until they took responsibility for them.”
A stint in chemical giant Monsanto’s law department after Danforth’s election to the U.S. Senate in late 1976 helped only partly to repair cash-strapped Thomas’s deflated finances, and he chafed at finding himself a token affirmative-action hire, though his bosses soon saw his uniqueness and offered him a promotion and raise. Nevertheless, he jumped at the chance of going to Washington to join Danforth’s Senate staff. He realized that his life’s ambition was not to make money but to improve the lot of black Americans, though he worried that if he clearly voiced his emphasis on self-reliance, which he’d hitherto cloaked under “the similar-sounding views of Malcolm X and the Black Muslims,” he’d earn the same condemnation that black activists heaped upon Sowell. So he accepted Danforth’s offer with the proviso that he wouldn’t work on race or civil rights issues. Ultimately, however, he knew that he’d have to follow his grandfather’s maxim: “You have to stand up for what you believe in.”
His mask fell by accident at the end of 1980, after he’d read through Sowell’s works, registered as a Republican, and voted for Ronald Reagan, whose promise to end the racial social engineering of the last two decades coincided with Thomas’s belief that “blacks would be better off if they were left alone instead of being used as guinea pigs for the foolish schemes of dream-killing politicians and their ideological acolytes.” Government, he had come to think, with Reagan, was part of the problem, not the solution. At a San Francisco conference on race, where organizer Sowell had asked him to join a panel on education policy, he unguardedly told fellow attendee Juan Williams his views on welfare, illustrated by his sister’s current situation. Back in Danforth’s office, he was flabbergasted when a Washington Post photographer called to take his picture for Williams’s column, to appear the next day.
The abuse followed as expected. But what also ensued was an offer in 1981 to head the Reagan Education Department’s civil rights division, clearly (and offensively, to him) because of his race, since he was no education professional. He asked a friend for advice, expecting dissuasion. “Aren’t you tired of just talking about problems, Clarence? Wouldn’t you like to try doing something about them, for a change?” his friend challenged. “Put up or shut up.” He put up—a decision that turned out to lead inexorably to the high court.
His nine years as a federal official—at the Education Department until 1982 and then as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission until 1990—not only gave him ample data to support his unorthodox views but also provided a concrete way to stop government from making America’s race problems worse. Poring over the Education Department’s numbers, he saw that almost half of black kids in white colleges failed to graduate on time, if at all, and that very few graduates ranked in the top half of the class. Few took the math, science, and engineering courses that increasingly led to success in a high-tech economy. Maybe they’d do better in historically black colleges, Thomas opined to a senior bureaucrat. Those institutions had no right to exist, the official snapped, toeing the line of the mainstream civil rights groups. Thomas wasn’t convinced.
The data on black performance in integrated high schools told an equally dispiriting tale of dropout, failure, poor course choices, and misbehavior, though the girls’ better achievement partly masked the dismal washout of the boys. His staffers could provide no data showing that integrated primary and secondary schools helped black students learn more than they did in all-black schools. The department had no interest in that question, staffers told him. The point of integration and forced busing wasn’t education but ultimately the integration of America’s neighborhoods. “I didn’t care which schools blacks attended, so long as they received a good education,” Thomas wrote. “You don’t need to sit next to a white person to learn how to read and write.”
Once he had cleaned up the administrative mess that he had inherited at the EEOC and named himself executive director as well as chairman, to take full responsibility for results, Thomas set about changing the commission’s approach to employment-discrimination claims. Out went class-action lawsuits based on supposed patterns and practices of discrimination, demonstrated by statistics. Only individual cases of proven discrimination interested him. “The most vulnerable unit in our society is the individual. And blacks, in my opinion being one of the most vulnerable groups, should fight like hell to preserve individual freedoms so people can’t gang up on us,” he told Williams, by then the journalist he trusted most. “Suppose we did band together, group against group—which group do you think would win?”
Speaking more broadly, anyone who thinks that the EEOC or any other federal body can make amends for past discrimination by putting a thumb on the scale in favor of blacks is deluded. “There is no governmental solution,” he told Williams. As history shows, all groups have to forge their success for themselves, person by person. Moreover, a thumb on the scale in favor of one group disadvantages another. “Playing that game builds up racial conflict,” Thomas observed—an insight that might have profited former attorney general Eric Holder and his boss, President Obama, as would Thomas’s caution that group favoritism violates the Constitution, “which says you are to protect an individual’s rights no matter what. Once you say that we can violate somebody else’s rights in order to make up for what happened to blacks or other races or other groups in history, then you are setting a precedent for having certain circumstances in which you can overlook another person’s rights.”
For Thomas, that reverence for the Constitution took root during his EEOC tenure, when he hired as special assistants Ken Masugi and John Marini, students of political philosopher Harry Jaffa, the West Coast oracle of Leo Strauss’s natural-law political theory. “I have to spend my days working for the agency, and I don’t have time to think,” Masugi says Thomas told him. “So I want you to think.” The result, says Masugi, was that he and Marini became something like tutors, guiding Thomas’s reading and expounding the recommended Straussian texts, giving him, without knowing what lay in store, the education of a justice.
Together, they conveyed Jaffa’s version of Strauss: that the Declaration of Independence, with its proposition that man’s inborn natural rights preexist any government formed to guarantee those rights, lies at the heart of the American project; that the Framers saw the Constitution as the governmental machinery to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” as its preamble says and as the Declaration promised; that it was Lincoln who understood that the Founders, “cast into a life where slavery was already widely spread and deeply seated,” as Lincoln said in another context, “did not perceive, as I think no wise man has perceived, how it could be at once eradicated, without producing a greater evil, even to the cause of liberty itself”; and how, whatever Jefferson’s proposition that all men are created equal might mean, it certainly means, as Lincoln put it in 1858, that, while “the negro is not our equal in color—perhaps not in many other respects; still, in the right to put into his mouth the bread that his own hands have earned, he is the equal of every other man, white or black.”
So Thomas was intellectually prepared when President George H. W. Bush nominated him for a seat on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1989, and emotionally ready for the stiff left-wing opposition to his anti-affirmative-action views. But an extravagant document demand from Senate Judiciary Committee chief Joe Biden gave him pause—he thought it as much a fishing expedition as the subsequent three-hour recorded interview with the committee’s staff—and Biden’s later warning that he’d support this nomination but would balk at confirming him to the Supreme Court flabbergasted him. The shrewd Democrat could read the political tea leaves better than Thomas could—as he saw when President Bush nominated him to the high court in July 1991, just 15 months after he joined the appeals court.
The partisan nastiness of his confirmation is legendary. Led by Biden, Democrats had tasted blood when they killed Robert Bork’s nomination to the Court 21 months earlier, and they aimed for Thomas’s scalp, too, to maintain the judiciary as a magical, rights-creating machine, especially the rights to abortion and affirmative action, in those days as much for women as for blacks. He swatted away false rumors, and, in a pre-confirmation interview, he dealt easily with one senator’s challenge to his natural-law views by explaining that the Founders had written the philosophy that “all law is based on some sense of moral principles inherent in the nature of human beings” into the Declaration of Independence. Those inherent principles, he noted, explain why the senator wouldn’t “consider having a human-being sandwich for lunch instead of, say, a turkey sandwich.” The senator changed the subject.
After three days of grilling, the Judiciary Committee voted seven-to-seven, and the full Senate was poised to vote. But then, up sprang law professor Anita Hill, whom Thomas, at a friend’s request, had hired at the Education Department when she was one year out of Yale Law. She charged in a written statement to the committee that Thomas had kept trying to date her despite her rebuffs and had sexually harassed her with sordid (if trivial) sexual remarks. In the statement, leaked from the committee to the liberal press, Hill presented herself as devout, modest, and conservative, though, as Thomas remembered it, she was not religious and was a Democrat who avowed that she detested President Reagan.
Thomas’s allies urged him to fight, and he was angry enough to do so. With Native Son and To Kill a Mockingbird echoing in his mind, he chafed at having the hackneyed racist stereotype mobilized against him: “You can’t trust a black man around women.” In his Deep South childhood, he’d feared the KKK, ready to lynch any black man for sexual misconduct, but now he “was being pursued not by bigots in white robes but by left-wing zealots draped in flowing sanctimony,” using Hill as their willing tool. He went back into the Senate Caucus Room on Saturday, October 12, and upbraided the Democratic senators for subjecting him to a 103-day Kafkaesque, un-American ordeal of lies and slime. He denied Hill’s charges and asked, if he had so harassed her, why had she followed him to the EEOC?
Then it was Hill’s turn. Thomas didn’t watch her televised performance. I did, and I couldn’t help thinking of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s classic film All About Eve. In it, the scheming, ruthlessly ambitious young title character presents herself as an innocent, injured, idealistic ingenue, as she manipulates her way to success at the expense of her patrons. Only the maid sees the truth: “Oh bruthuh,” says actress Thelma Ritter in the purest old Brooklynese, “what a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end.”
When she had finished, Senator Danforth called Thomas and asked him to return to the committee that same evening, to block Hill’s story from dominating the next day’s news. He wearily agreed. When the committee reconvened at eight o’clock, Thomas told the senators that their hearing was “a circus, . . . a national disgrace, . . . a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who . . . think for themselves.” He answered more questions, made more denials, came back the next morning for more questions and more denials. Public opinion surged in his favor. When the full Senate voted on Tuesday evening, the vote was a narrow 52 to 48 to confirm. “Whoop-dee-damn-doo,” said Thomas from the bathtub, when his second wife, Virginia, whom he’d married in 1987, told him the news.
He joined the Court on November 1, 1991.
This is the first of two articles on Justice Thomas. Read Part II here.
Top Photo: Justice Clarence Thomas’s clerks often end up feeling almost like members of his family. (DAVID HUME KENNERLY/GETTY IMAGES)