Lately, Thurgood Marshall has been on the news for Hollywood’s portrayal commemorating his storied career in “Marshall.” Yes, Marshall does deserve commemoration for being a trailblazer for African-Americans on the highest court in the land. However, one cannot help but view the differences in society’s portrayal of Marshall versus that of Justice Clarence Thomas. Too often the narrative does not treat Justice Thomas’ legacy in the same storied fashion. There are examples ranging from categorizing him as an “Uncle Tom” to not being honored timely in the African-American Smithsonian exhibit among many others.
Some time ago, I read Thomas’ book, “My Grandfather’s Son” and it was nothing short of inspiring. It’s a story based on more than just Constitutional interpretation, but rather a story of a journey- a journey from Justice Thomas’ humble beginnings to being among the most influential figures in modern American history as a member of the United States Supreme Court. One does not have to be a Constitutionalist to appreciate it, the lessons learned cross the ideological spectrum. It encourages us to really dig deep into the person that is Justice Thomas and how adversity should never stop us from achieving our goals.
Clarence Thomas begins his book describing his early childhood in Georgia and how he and his brother were raised by his grandparents. Throughout much of the book, he focuses on his Grandfather and how he was an early inspiration to him in how he carried out his life. His Grandfather had a strong work ethic and self-discipline and he held the young Clarence Thomas to this standard. He used a powerful metaphor to describe his life’s journey- “blisters come before calluses, vulnerability before maturity.” His life would be filled with many ups and downs, “blisters” if you will, before he found his true calling and became one of the greatest jurists of the modern era.
After spending some time in the seminary, he withdrew among the racist tensions of the 1960s and enrolled in Holy Cross College. There, he became a student activist and gained an interest in the political climate of the time. He would later pursue a career in law and attend Yale Law school where he would eventually befriend future U.S. Ambassador John Bolton. Later, while reflecting on his college and law school experiences he admits they influenced his position on Affirmative Action programs.
Following law school, Thomas worked for Missouri Attorney General and future Senator Jack Danforth. When Danforth was elected to the senate, Thomas joined him and began his experience in Washington. Eventually his career took him to chairing the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) under President Ronald Reagan. However, during his early years in Washington he struggled with alcoholism and struggled with his personal relationships. He explains the struggle, and the battle it took to overcome it. It had dawned on him that he must return to the lessons of his Grandfather and put his life back on track.
President George H.W. Bush nominated him to a position on the Federal Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and eventually the Supreme Court to fill the vacancy left by Thurgood Marshall. Thomas recounted a notable conversation with the President and I think it strikes to the heart of Justice Thomas’ own view of his role as a judge.
The first question President Bush asked him during the vetting process for his nomination him was, “If you are appointed to the Court, could you call them as you see them?” Clarence Thomas responded, “That is the only way I know how to do my job. . .” This exchange reflects the very character of Justice Thomas and nicely summarizes his tenure on the Supreme Court. Justice Thomas is one that does not look to use his role on the Court as a means to legislate social policy, but rather as an obligation to interpret the law.
The hearings for his Supreme Court nomination are well documented so I do not need to go in-depth here. However, I will say with the Bork tide of the late 1980s still fresh in the minds of the public, Thomas’ process was the latest example during that era of politicization of the process and a so called- “muddying” to say the least. Scholars will continue to debate the merits of it for many years to come, but all will agree that it was a challenging time for Justice Thomas and tested him to extremes. Ultimately, Justice Thomas triumphed and persevered, gaining seat on the Court. The nation has certainly reaped the benefit.
Thank you for your great work Justice Thomas and keep being a guiding light to Constitutionalists and the larger society.
Thomas, Clarence, 1948-. My Grandfather’s Son : a Memoir. New York :Harper, 2007. Print.