From a kerosene-lit shanty in a Georgia swamp to the Supreme Court bench is almost as meteoric a rise as from a log cabin to the White House, and if you add in overcoming segregation in the days when the KKK marched openly down Savannah’s main street, it’s closer still. Michael Pack’s riveting documentary on Justice Clarence Thomas, Created Equal—opening in theaters this week and airing on PBS in May—movingly captures the uncompromising ethic that propelled the justice’s career past so many obstacles as it distills 30 hours of interviews with Thomas and his wife, Virginia, into what feels not only like the exemplary life story of an underappreciated hero but also like a laser-focused, two-hour account of our nation’s race relations over the last 70 years. Yes, we overcame, but at a cost—of which Justice Thomas paid more than his fair share.
The film is purely biographical—Thomas’s brilliant jurisprudence plays no role here—and the justice’s somberly eloquent, slightly melancholy recounting of his saga as he faces the camera directly, dark-suited, with starched white shirt and monochromatic necktie, closely follows the style of his bestselling memoir, My Grandfather’s Son. But as Thomas tells his story, Pack shows us haunting images, over a nostalgically evocative American musical score—bluegrass guitars and banjos, jazz, and Louis Armstrong longingly singing “Moon River” (with lyrics by Savannah-born Johnny Mercer, Thomas reminds us)—that bring it all even more vividly to life than the excellent memoir does. The film clips of the mazy creeks around Thomas’s birthplace, the coastal Georgia hamlet of Pin Point—founded by freed slaves just after the Civil War—sometimes seen from above, as in the iconic shot toward the end of The African Queen, and sometimes seen as we travel along them in one of the little “bateaux” that the oystermen and crab fishers of that lush and remote outpost on the very edge of America still use, bring home how “far removed in time and space” it was from modern, urban America, as Thomas puts it.
It was a completely different world—a tiny, poor, all black community of jumbled shacks around the cinderblock workshop where the women picked the crabs and shucked the oysters that the men caught and raked. The still photos Pack found from the 1940s show you a preindustrial world so vanished that it could just as easily be the nineteenth century as the twentieth. Descended from West Africans, Thomas and his neighbors spoke a dialect called Gullah or Geechee, incomprehensible to outsiders; but when Pack shows us a film clip of a woman singing that patois as she feeds her chickens, we grasp viscerally from the creole lilt how this corner of America was a link in Britain’s triangle trade, with ships bringing enslaved Africans to the Caribbean and southern colonies, carrying the sugar north for distillation into rum, and returning to Britain to sell it.
For Thomas and his playfellows, this was a Mark Twain world of improvised games in the woods and swamps, with no such thing as a store-bought toy—until the heartbreakingly tiny, jerrybuilt shack where he lived with his mother, older sister, and little brother burned down. He came home to “just ashes and twisted tin,” he says. “Everything that you ever knew in life is just there—I mean, it’s smoldering.”
From the “very livable” rural poverty of Pin Point, he recalls, his mother moved with him and his brother (leaving his sister behind with an aunt) to Savannah’s “urban squalor--and that was horrible.” Thomas remembers the cold and hunger of that year living together in one room of a slum tenement, but what most sticks in his mind is the filthy outdoor toilet—of which the ever-resourceful Pack shows a picture worth a thousand words—that flushed not into a sewer but into everybody else’s backyard, so that the slumdwellers were awash in each other’s waste, trying to keep clean and preserve a sense of decency by laying boards to tiptoe across the yards.
When his mother’s stepmother saw how difficult it was for the young woman to work as a maid and care for her two sons, she offered to have the boys come live with her and their grandfather, Myers Anderson, in their childless home, an offer gratefully accepted. And so the two children, five and six, packed up all their things in a grocery bag apiece and walked a few blocks away into a world as different as the one Oliver Twist found after his rescue by Mr. Brownlow. “Just imagine,” Thomas comments: “everything you have in less than a paper bag.”
In Grandfather Anderson’s sparkling clean, sparkling white house—“For us,” Thomas says, “it could have been a palace”—they marveled at the full fridge and sparkling porcelain bathtub and toilet, whose magic they conjured up by flushing it every time they walked by. If the plumbing was modern, the child-rearing system was Victorian, all “rules and regulations and manners and behavior.” Anderson, born out of wedlock and with an out-of-wedlock child of his own, had decided in young manhood to straighten up and become that quintessentially independent American figure, a self-made man, living according to his own code and vision. He left the Southern Baptist church of his birth for stricter, more orderly Roman Catholicism, he started a coal and ice business that had modernized to oil delivery by the time the boys came to live with him, and—though essentially illiterate—he had made himself a modestly successful businessman, with his wife keeping the books and now his two grandsons helping out on the oil truck, starting precisely half an hour after they got out of school every afternoon. “He thought that we were destined to have to work for everything, because of what had happened in the Garden of Eden,” Thomas says. “Because of our fallen nature, we would have to earn everything by the sweat of out brow.” To keep them from dozing off, Anderson disconnected the truck’s heater.
He sent them to St. Benedict the Moor’s parochial school, staffed mostly by Irish immigrant nuns who taught that segregation was wrong because God had created all men equal. They ran a tight ship, with the requisite emphasis on manners and behavior: to look at Thomas’s class and school photos that Pack unearthed from the mid-1950s, with the orderly, serious-faced, respectful, and self-respecting children at their desks, the girls in white-collared cotton dresses, and some of the boys in neckties in the light flooding in from the school’s big windows, is to glimpse a very different possible path for black America than the one actually taken. A tight but loving ship: “When you think somebody loves you and deeply cares about your interests, somehow they can get you to do hard things,” Thomas remarks of his teachers. The kids learned.
Parochial school plus oil delivery was one way of keeping Thomas away from street culture, the “riff-raff” that his grandfather feared. But come summer, he had a yet more strenuous ploy. He took the boys, now nine and ten, to the 60 rural acres where he’d grown up, across the way from where their ancestors had been enslaved, and set them farming from sunup until sundown. They cleared the land—felling trees with crosscut saws instead of chainsaws to make it “doubly hard,” says Thomas—plowing the fields behind frisky Lizzie the horse, stretching barbed-wire fencing, gutting the fish they caught, all to the accompaniment of Anderson’s inexhaustible stock of moral maxims, which Thomas repeats to this day: “Old man Can’t is dead; I helped bury him,” or “You can give out, but you can’t give up.” It was a graduate course in Character Education, and again, Pack’s still photos make it look nineteenth-century.
“You can’t give up” was the deal when Thomas’s grandfather agreed to pay to send him to a pricey pre-seminary boarding school to become Savannah’s first black priest. The only black student on the lush, Spanish-moss-draped campus, Thomas “knew I was never going to be part of that world,” he says; “I was never going to be white.” So he decided to be perfect, never satisfied with less than 100 on a test, so that any schoolmate who wanted to discriminate against him as inferior could allege no grounds but naked bigotry. “It’s sort of like ‘checkmate,’ okay?” Still, the racist taunts came.
They kept coming in the Missouri seminary that he entered in 1967, as he brooded over the Church’s failure to address racism—from the all-pervading segregation he endured in Savannah, where he couldn’t walk across the main park or drink out of certain water fountains or use the best library, to the tear-gassing and beating of civil rights protesters, led by Martin Luther King, in Selma, Alabama on Bloody Sunday, 1965, footage of which Pack shows us, its power to shock undiminished for those of us who, like Thomas, were then entering adulthood. “The treatment of blacks in America cried out for the unequivocal condemnation of a righteous institution,” Thomas increasingly felt. And then the screen shows Walter Cronkite, TV’s foremost newscaster, announcing the shooting of King in April 1968. “That’s good,” said a fellow seminarian. “I hope the son of a bitch dies.”
That was the death of Thomas’s vocation, too, and when he came home to announce that he was quitting the seminary, his grandfather reminded him of his earlier promise and banished him from the house, starting that very day. “Are you still going to help me with college?” Thomas asked. “He said, ‘No. You’re a man. You figure it out.”
That spring, as Thomas felt his life unravelling, America seemed to be coming apart too, with rioters torching ghettos in Washington, Chicago, Trenton, Baltimore, and elsewhere. It was the season of “Burn, baby, burn!” and the film’s footage of the conflagrations, the looting, the wild destruction still stuns. Then, in June, an assassin’s bullet slew Senator Robert Kennedy, whose Justice Department, when he had been attorney general, had spearheaded the government’s civil rights push. “For the first time in my life, racism and race explained everything,” Thomas recalls. “It became sort of the substitute religion”—a religion not of love but of anger. “I’m just angry. Nothing is right.”
He took his anger with him to Holy Cross College, where he’d been admitted on scholarship, and funneled it into helping found the Black Students Union. He read Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. Listening to Stokely Carmichael declare in one of Pack’s clips that the Panthers “are going to shoot the cops who are shooting our black brothers in the back in this country” makes you ache with sadness that at that pivotal moment so many black Americans followed power-crazed, violent-minded demagogues where demagogues usually lead—down the road to serfdom. The film’s stills of the BSU radicals, slouching with as much alienation as they can project in their army fatigues and carpenters’ jeans, bring back vivid youthful memories to people of Thomas’s and my generation, though a photo of the slightly pudgy Thomas in his bib overalls, clean and pressed, suggest, a tad incongruously, a good Catholic school revolutionary. He once told me that he wore them with one strap unfastened, but not here.
Visits home grated. Thomas talked about “the revolution,” drank, didn’t comb his hair. “I didn’t raise you to be like this,” his grandfather said. “After all our sacrifices, this is what you’ve become?” His younger brother, back from a hitch in the Air Force in Vietnam, told him that he and his radical friends should leave the country. “He had no use for any of us.”
In the spring of 1970, he and his BSU pals headed to Boston to protest the war his brother had been fighting and to demand freedom for America’s black radical “political prisoners,” such as Black Panther killers. They ended up, fueled by rage and alcohol, amid a riot in Harvard Square, complete with arson, looting, and injured cops and kids, as the film shows. Back in Worcester at four in the morning, horrified by what he had done, he stopped in front of the Holy Cross chapel and prayed for the first time in two years, vowing that if God would take the anger from his heart, he’d never hate again. “And that,” he says, “was the beginning of the slow return to where I started”—to the self-reliant, hardworking conservatism his grandfather had taught him.
He read Ayn Rand—everybody has to start somewhere, though the clip Pack shows, of Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead, does make the gorge rise. The day after his Holy Cross graduation in June 1971, he married his very pretty and radical college sweetheart. Partly out of memories of the legal oppression of segregation—“which is as close to totalitarianism as I would like to get,” he once said—and with the still-vivid recollection of his grandfather’s impotent rage at getting a ticket for driving the oil truck with too many clothes on—he enrolled in Yale Law School that fall. Many of our generation became lawyers to “change the system,” but none with quite Thomas’s slant.
Affirmative Action was Yale Law’s new nostrum, and Thomas watched its results with misgivings. In his second year, his wife gave birth to their son, just when the angry, violent demonstrations over the start of another vast social-engineering scheme—Boston’s long, wrongheaded experiment with school busing to achieve racial balance—filled the TV news, as Pack’s documentary reprises. “Someone has a theory, and then they insert human beings into their theory,” Thomas muses. “You know, sort of like, “Have theory; add people.’” All the fuss, he knew, was about pointlessly exchanging kids between rotten black schools in Roxbury and equally rotten white ones in South Boston. “I knew one thing,” Thomas says. “Nobody was going to have some social experiment and throw my kid in there,” and by hook or crook, he scraped together the money to send him to private school. More broadly, his son’s birth “woke me up about the direction we were headed in our country and what the prospects would be for him.”
He found out the hard way what affirmative action, that even more gargantuan social-engineering project, had done to his own prospects. Employers viewed white Yale Law grads as the cream of the crop but black ones as inferior specimens who “didn’t really quite belong there.” After graduation—which to his bitter regret his grandparents didn’t attend—Thomas interviewed with law firms in big cities from coast to coast and couldn’t get a job. At long last, Missouri attorney general John Danforth hired him, promising him “more work for less money than anybody in the country.” That was okay with Thomas, but “the idea of working for a Republican was repulsive,” he recalls. “I was left wing.”
So he still thought; but experience handling criminal appeals changed that for good. All blacks in jail were political prisoners? How about the black thug who held a blade to a black toddler’s throat and threatened to kill him if his black mother wouldn’t submit to rape and sodomy, twice? “For me, it was one of these Road to Damascus experiences,” Thomas says, an experience powerfully reconfirmed by statistics showing that almost 80 percent of the violent crimes against blacks, and 90 percent of the murders, were committed by other blacks. When Danforth was elected senator, his deputy took a corporate law job but soon rejoined his old boss as a legislative aide in Washington. And in 1980, he voted for Ronald Reagan, who was “promising an end to the indiscriminate social engineering of the sixties and seventies,” for president—“a giant step for a black man,” Thomas recalls.
A faux pas made him a national figure. Falling into conversation with a young black tablemate at a 1980 conference about policies for black America, Thomas explained that he was so interested in this issue because he had seen the damage done by affirmative action, busing, and other purportedly helpful policies, and he illustrated his point by disapprovingly describing his sister’s dependence on welfare. He learned shortly afterward that his tablemate was journalist Juan Williams when he read Williams’s account of their conversation in the Washington Post, headed Black Conservatives, Center Stage.
This flagrant political incorrectness made Thomas an instant persona non grata among his fellow blacks, but it caught the Reagan administration’s attention, and within a year Thomas found himself running the Department of Education’s civil rights division and, a year later, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Now an ex-officio Uncle Tom, he became fair game for racism from both whites and blacks, some shamefully repulsive examples of which Pack displays.
There ensued an interval of transition and self-doubt. His marriage broke up. His grandparents died in quick succession, which felt like “somebody opened the trap door, and you fell through it,” he says. The public abuse took its toll. He began to ask himself, “Why am I doing this?” After much turmoil, he found his answer. “I decided that the principles on which I was raised—my grandparents, the principles of this country—were worth dying for.” With two EEOC speechwriters, both Straussian political theorists, as his mentors, he immersed himself in the American Founding, reassured by Lincoln’s view that the Founding Fathers and the Constitution’s Framers knew that slavery was wrong—knew that it was inconsistent with their belief that nature made all men equal and endowed them with unalienable rights to life and liberty—but that they couldn’t abolish slavery at once if they wanted to get the Constitution adopted, so they tried to limit it in every way possible, certain that it would wither away of its own economic obsolescence. When that hope proved false, the country went to war to vindicate its founding ideals. What Thomas learned in all that study, his second wife, Virginia, tells Pack, is “what came out to be his jurisprudence.”
Just in time, too. In March 1990, George H. W. Bush named Thomas a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, though Thomas had spluttered to a friend that at 40, he was too young to take “a job for old people.” But he liked the work and readily accepted when, a year later, Bush offered him a seat on the Supreme Court, replacing retiring Justice Thurgood Marshall.
At first, I bristled at the prominence Pack gives the confirmation hearings, which take up more than a third of the film. I think Thomas the most consequential jurist of our era, and I don’t want history to link his name forever to the circus that the Senate Judiciary Committee staged. But on second thought, Pack’s choice is right. A shrinking number of Americans have seen the hearings, and Pack’s editing of the proceedings goes right to the heart of the matter. By 1991, the Supreme Court had been the chief instrument for enacting the Left’s agenda for nearly four decades, making national policy on the thorniest questions of race and abortion with—in the view of constitutional originalists like Thomas—no democratic legitimacy. There was no means too foul, no ploy too low, for the Left to use to keep its grip on this crucial lever of power—to conservatives, illegitimate means to an illegitimate end.
Thomas was an anti-quota, anti-abortion anti-Semite, who believed in natural law but not in privacy, said the press and the activists. “We don’t need a lot of questions to be asked before we Bork the guy,” feminist Florynce Kennedy insists in a film clip. Thomas had a history, says the head of the National Organization for Women, more sedately if incorrectly, of “supporting a judicial philosophy that is really out of step with the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.” All these years later, it’s a treat to re-see the young and handsome Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, Judiciary Committee chairman, question Thomas about natural law. You understand what Thomas means when he tells Pack that in hearings, “you have to sit there and look attentively at people you know have no idea what they’re talking about.” But of course the blather was a ploy to trick him into talking about abortion, which is what the committee Democrats cared about. He wasn’t taking the bait.
After five days of this, when the committee seemed done with its questioning, FBI agents appeared at Thomas’s house with questions about Anita Hill, a University of Oklahoma law professor who had been an aide to Thomas at the Education Department and then followed him to the EEOC. Had he ever tried to date her or discuss pornography with her? the agents wanted to know. “No, no way!” Thomas told them, though the questions made him feel like Joseph K in Franz Kafka’s The Trial, as if he’d been arrested for he knew not what and was entering an unknown world. But the agents soon called back and told him that they thought there was no problem. The Judiciary Committee then voted on his nomination, split seven to seven, and sent his name for a vote in the full Senate.
Then, as has become the standard Democratic M.O., a Senate staffer leaked to the press the affidavit that Anita Hill had submitted to the committee, claiming just what the FBI had been asking about and sparking calls from activists and Senate Democrats for a delay in the vote so that the Judiciary Committee could hear these new claims of sexual harassment—the not-so-secret hope being that Thomas, with reporters now camped out in his yard and following him wherever he went, would slink away and withdraw his name in embarrassment.
But this was a man brought up to give out but not give up, and, despite his inner turmoil, he resolved to see the reopened hearing through to the end. He categorically denied Hill’s charges, and pointed out that if his conduct had been so offensive, why had Hill asked to follow him to EEOC, and why had she continued contact with him after she left? Then it was Hill’s turn. In her modest, nicely tailored suit, and with her Sunday schoolteacher demeanor, it seemed incredible that she could ever have heard of the pornographic pictures of Long Dong Silver that she claimed Thomas had discussed with her (and that Pack mercifully does not display), if Thomas had not told her about them. Sitting behind her husband and looking directly at Democratic committee member Edward Kennedy, Virginia Thomas remembers wondering how he, whose mistreatment of women went far beyond sexual harassment, could sit and participate in all this.
Senator Danforth, Thomas’s old boss and supporter through all this, called him at home to come back to the committee room and reply to the charges that very night, so as not to let Hill’s allegations fill the weekend news cycle. At 9 p.m., he went in, loaded for bear. He again denied every allegation Hill had made—and every fiber of his character makes it impossible to believe he could lie. And then he made as lethal a charge as a black man could make to Democratic senators. This whole circus is a national disgrace, he said. “And from my standpoint, as a black American, as far as I am concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that, unless you kowtow to the old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate, rather than hung from a tree. I wasn’t harmed by the Klan. I wasn’t harmed by a racist group. I was harmed by this process. I would have preferred an assassin’s bullet to this kind of living hell that they have put me and my family through.”
Did he still want to serve on the Court? Senator Orrin Hatch asked.
“I would rather die than withdraw from the process.” Thomas replied. “I have never run from bullies. I’m not going to cry uncle today, whether I want to be on the Supreme Court or not.” You could see the Democratic senators looking at each other with embarrassment, not quite knowing what to do. So they recessed. Over the weekend, public opinion swept in favor of Thomas, and, when the full Senate reconvened, it confirmed him 52 to 48.
The racist jibes never stopped, as Pack shows, because, says Thomas, he’s “the wrong black guy,” who isn’t doing what the Left and the black establishment “expect black people to do.” It’s a high cost, as I say. But as the movie ends, Pack points out that Thomas has written over 600 opinions—30 percent more than any other sitting Supreme Court Justice. And, taken together, they add up to a magnificent effort to restore the Framers’ Constitution, as perfected by the Bill of Rights, the Reconstruction Amendments, and the Nineteenth Amendment, unraveled by so much Supreme Court mischief.
See the movie. You’ll be enthralled.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images