Clarence Thomas

1948 -

 U.S. Supreme Court justice. Born June 23, 1948 in Pin Point, Georgia, a tiny, coastal hamlet town outside of Savannah. For the first years of his life he lived in a one-room shack with dirt floors and no plumbing. When Thomas was two years old, his father walked out on the family, leaving Thomas’s mother with two small children and another on the way. At the age of seven, Thomas and his younger brother were sent to live with their grandfather, Myers Anderson, and his wife, Christine, in Savannah. Anderson, a devout Catholic and active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), sent Thomas to a Catholic school staffed by strict but supportive nuns.

In 1964, the year the Civil Rights Act was enacted, Thomas' grandfather withdrew him from the all-black parochial high school he was attending and sent him to an all-white Catholic boarding school in Savannah, St. John Vianny Minor Seminary. Despite being confronted with racism, Thomas made excellent grades and played on the school's football team. Thomas' grandfather sent Thomas to Immaculate Conception Seminary in northwestern Missouri after his graduation from high school in 1967. Although Thomas was not the only African American student, he still was troubled by poor race relations. A racist remark made about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. dissuaded Thomas from becoming a priest, a decision which bitterly disappointed his grandfather. Thomas decided to enroll at Holy Cross, a Jesuit college in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he proved himself a devoted student who "was always in the library," according to one friend. He participated on the track team, worked in the school cafeteria, and volunteered weekly to help the poor in Worcester. He also assisted in founding the Black Student Union at Holy Cross. Thomas seemed haunted by racial isolation and academic pressures and admitted later that he had seriously considered dropping out of college. However, fearful that he would be drafted for service in the Vietnam War, Thomas stayed at Holy Cross and was graduated in 1971 with honors.

Another reason that Thomas may have decided to stay in school was his introduction to Kathy Ambush, a coed at a nearby college. A few days after they met, Thomas told a friend that he was in love with Kathy. They were married in Worcester the day after Thomas's college commencement and had one son, Jamal, born in 1973.

Thanks to his sterling academic record, Thomas was admitted to the law schools at Yale, Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania. He chose Yale because of the financial support it offered him as part of its affirmative action policy to attract students from racial and ethnic minorities. At Yale, he continued to do well academically, receiving mostly passes on Yale's grading scale of honors, pass, low pass, and fail.

Thomas appeared to fit in socially as well as academically. Yet, years later, he described his "rage" and loneliness at feeling snubbed by whites who viewed him as an affirmative action token and ignored by African Americans with more elite backgrounds. In his third year of law school he interviewed with law firms but again felt that he was treated differently because of his race. He graduated from Yale law school in 1974, and rather than take what he considered an insufficient salary from the firm where he'd done his summer work, Thomas accepted a position on the staff of Attorney General John Danforth, a Republican. With Danforth's election to the Senate in 1977, Thomas took a job as an attorney for the Monsanto Company in St. Louis.

In 1979, Thomas moved to Washington, D.C., and became a legislative assistant to Danforth on the condition that he not be assigned to civil rights issues. His resentment toward the tokenism of affirmative action, combined with his grandfather's lessons on self-sufficiency and independence, had moved Thomas into a circle of African American conservatives who rejected the dependency fostered among blacks by the welfare state. Thomas' conservative ideas quickly brought him to the attention of the Reagan administration, which was always looking for qualified members of ethnic minorities. In 1981 Thomas was appointed assistant secretary for civil rights in the United States Department of Education. Thomas openly stated that minority groups must succeed by their own merit, and he asserted that affirmative action programs and civil rights legislation do not improve living standards.

In 1982, Thomas became the chairman of the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which was designed to enforce anti-discrimination laws that cover race, sex, gender, and age discrimination in the workplace. Thomas served two consecutive terms as chairman, despite having previously sworn he would never work at EEOC. Over the eight years that he served as chairman, he shifted the focus of the commission from large class-action suits to individual cases of discrimination. In 1990, President George Bush appointed Thomas to the Washington, D.C., Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals, a common stepping stone to the Supreme Court. Thomas filled the seat left vacant by Robert Bork, an unsuccessful nominee to the Supreme Court. Thomas wrote only 20 opinions in the year he served on the court, none of which involved controversial constitutional issues. Despite this comparatively limited experience, Bush nominated Thomas to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall on July 1, 1991. In announcing his choice to replace Marshall, Bush implausibly argued that "the fact that he [Thomas] is black has nothing to do with the sense that he is the best qualified at this time."

The Senate's confirmation hearing appeared to be moving along smoothly until Anita Hill's allegations were made public. On October 8, Hill—a professor at the University of Oklahoma Law School—held a press conference, in which she made public the main points of testimony she previously had given the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Vociferous protest by some feminist groups led the confirmation committee, headed by Delaware Senator Joseph Biden, a Democrat, to publicly review Hill's charges. In her testimony, Hill alleged that while she had worked at the EEOC nearly a decade earlier, Thomas had badgered her for dates and told stories in her presence about pornographic film scenes and his own sexual prowess. Hill claimed that Thomas's actions made it difficult for here to do her job and even caused physical distress. Nevertheless, she continued to initiate contacts with Thomas even after he helped arrange for her appointment as a law professor.

The televised hearings, during which Hill, Thomas, and several witnesses on both sides testified about the allegations, were among the most widely viewed political events in television history. Thomas denied any wrongdoing. His allies suggested that Hill was lying and was being cynically manipulated by liberals opposed to Thomas's views on abortion and affirmative action. Thomas himself remarked during the course of the televised hearings that the process had been a harrowing personal ordeal for him and his wife. Indeed, he claimed, he would have preferred "an assassin's bullet to this kind of living hell," and he would have withdrawn himself from consideration earlier had he known what lay ahead. Suspending his lifelong criticism of racial politics, he characterized the televised hearings as a "high-tech lynching."

Militant women's groups threatened to vote against Thomas's backers in the next elections. At the same time, many African Americans believed the Republican charges that Hill was part of a campaign to smear Thomas. In the end, Thomas was confirmed by a 52-48 margin, the smallest by which any justice has been confirmed in this century.

Hill's allegations helped to make sexual harassment a major political issue. The phrase itself had varying, even conflicting, definitions. Nevertheless, local, state, and national laws were passed to stop workplace practices considered demeaning to subordinates. Meanwhile, articles and books continued to debate the validity of Hill's specific charges against Thomas. There probably never will be a consensus judgement. Hill did not overtly protest at the time the alleged actions took place, and determining the truth years later was difficult.

After joining the Court, Thomas voted most frequently with Justice Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice William Rehnquist, thereby aligning himself with the conservatives who wish to restrain the federal government's power. Thomas showed no signs of the "freshman syndrome" attributed to Justice David Souter, who was relatively inactive his first year as a justice. Instead, Thomas was relatively visible in his opinion-writing from the beginning. Reviewers of his opinions and legal essays agreed that they were clear, well researched, and consistent.

African American political groups criticized Thomas for maintaining his conservative values on the Court. In July 1995, NAACP convention delegates decried Thomas's votes regarding school desegregation, race-based redistricting of voting precincts, and racial quotas and set-asides. An invitation to speak before an eighth-grade awards ceremony in Maryland in 1996 sparked weeks of protests and disputes among school board members. The invitation ultimately was rescinded as was a request to address a youth festival in January 1997. Following the latter incident, however, NAACP president Kweisi Mfume suggested that African American organizations should stop bashing Thomas. "I don't think we can ever change Clarence Thomas," Mfume stated, "and I don't want to spend any more of my time or NAACP time trying."

For the first few years after his appointment, Thomas tended to keep a low public profile. Due to the antipathy of some African American and feminist groups, he had fewer of the ceremonial invitations normally extended to Supreme Court Justices. From 1996 on, however, Thomas began to make occasional appearances before conservative political groups. In these speeches, he continued to call on judges to restrain their efforts to remake society by judicial decree. And, without directly alluding to his personal experiences, he eloquently deplored the decline of civility in America's public discourse and conduct.

Thomas had separated from his wife Kathy in 1981; the two divorced in 1984, and he retained custody of Jamal. The circumstances of the divorce remain private, although allegations of abuse made at the time returned to haunt Thomas during his confirmation hearings. In 1986, Thomas met Virginia Lamp, a white fellow law school graduate active in conservative causes; and the two married in 1987.