Doubtless, the two-hour film will refer to Justice Thomas's autobiography, My Grandfather's Son, which I reviewed shortly after its publication in October 2007. My review is quite long, and appears immediately below.
MY GRANDFATHER'S SON
By Clarence Thomas
[Reviewed by Professor Henry Mark Holzer]
Upon entering the august chamber of the Supreme Court of the United States during oral argument, one immediately sees the nine justices, almost regal in their black robes in front of a huge velvet curtain.
Among his colleagues—Chief Justice Roberts and Associate Justices Stevens, Kennedy, Scalia, Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Alito—sits Associate Justice Clarence Thomas.
Chief Justice Roberts’s father was an executive with Bethlehem Steel. Justice John Paul Stevens’s father was a lawyer. Justice Antonin Scalia’s father was a professor of romance languages. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s father was a lawyer. Justice David Souter’s father was a banker. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s father was a businessman. Justice Stephen Breyer’s father was a lawyer. Justice Samuel Alito’s father was a high school teacher. Given their family circumstances and upbringing, it is not surprising that eventually they would be successful candidates for the Supreme Court of the United States.
In contrast, Justice Clarence Thomas was nine when he first met his father, whose “firm, shameless voice . . . carried no hint of remorse for his inexplicable absence from our lives.” In his recently published autobiography, My Grandfather’s Son, the author writes that “I saw him for the second time after I graduated from high school.”
Thomas’s mother had been born out of wedlock. She worked in a rural factory shucking oysters and picking crabs, and as a domestic servant.
I knew none of this, and little else, about Clarence Thomas’s personal life until reading his revealing, evocative autobiography. However, before that, albeit in another connection, I knew him quite well—even though we have never corresponded, spoken, or met.
I knew Justice Thomas through his opinions, written as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, which are the subject of my own book The Supreme Court Opinions of Clarence Thomas, 1991-2006.
My research for that book consisted solely of reading and analyzing some 350 of those opinions. The Supreme Court Opinions of Clarence Thomas is thus, in effect, a judicial biography.
But while reading Justice Thomas’s opinions on most of the important provisions of the Constitution (and many federal statutes) I couldn’t help wondering about the man, not the justice, who for now sixteen terms has been making statement such as:
- “The Court’s evident belief that it is qualified to pass on the ‘[m]ilitary necessity’ . . . of the Commander in Chief’s decision to employ a particular form of force against our enemies is so antithetical to our constitutional structure that it simply cannot go unanswered.”
- “The Necessary and Proper Clause is not a warrant to Congress to enact any law that bears some conceivable connection to the exercise of an enumerated power.”
- “As serious as the [majority’s] disregard for history, is its disregard for well-established principles of statutory construction. The Court chooses not only the harshest interpretation of a criminal statute, but also the interpretation that maximizes federal criminal jurisdiction over state and local officials.”
- “Today’s decision, while protecting jurors, leaves defendants with less means of protecting themselves. * * * In effect, we have exalted the right of citizens to sit on juries over the rights of the criminal defendant, even thought it is the defendant, nor the jurors, who faces imprisonment or even death.”
- “In short, the view that the Establishment Clause precludes Congress from legislating respecting religion lacks historical provenance, at least based on the history of which I am aware.”
- “Yet today the fundamental principle that ‘the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market’ . . . is cast aside in the purported service of preventing ‘corruption,’ or the mere ‘appearance of corruption.’ * * * Apparently, the marketplace of ideas is to be fully open only to defamers . . . nude dancers . . . pornographers . . . flag burners . . . and cross burners.”
- “Whether embodied in the Fourteenth Amendment or inferred from the Fifth, equal protection is not a license for courts to judge the wisdom, fairness, or logic of legislative choices.”
- “This deferential shift in phraseology [from “public use” to “public purpose”] enables the Court to hold, against all common sense, that a costly urban-renewal project whose state purpose is a vague promise of new jobs and increased tax revenues, but which is also suspiciously agreeable to the Pfizer Corporation, is for ‘public use.’ I cannot agree. If such ‘economic development’ takings are for a ‘public use,’ any taking is, and the Court has erased the Public Use Clause from our Constitution . . . .”
- “In my view, a use of force [by prison guards] that causes only insignificant harm to a prisoner may be immoral, it may be tortuous [an actionable civil wrong], it may be criminal, and it may even be remediable under other provisions of the Federal Constitution, but it is not cruel and unusual punishment.”
- “. . . as a Member of this Court, I am not empowered to help petitioners and others similarly situated. My duty, rather, is to decide cases agreeably to the Constitution and laws of the United States. * * * And like Justice Stewart [dissenting in Griswold v. Connecticut], I can find neither in the Bill of Rights nor in any other part of the Constitution a general right of privacy . . . or as the Court terms it today, the ‘liberty of the person both in its spatial and more transcendent dimensions’ . . . .”
- And, making as his own words those of ex-slave Frederick Douglass: “[I]n regard to the colored people, there is always more that is benevolent, I perceive, than just, manifested toward us. What I ask for the negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice. The American people have always been anxious to know what they shall do with us . . . . I have had but just one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! And if the negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! . . . [Your] interference is doing him positive injury.”
Time and again I wondered what the formative influences were that shaped the man who sat with dignity and confidence among his judicial peers, judges of such different backgrounds and upbringings.
Neither I nor the rest of America—the legal profession and laymen alike—have to wonder any longer. In My Grandfather’s Son Clarence Thomas the man, not the justice, has candidly told us how he became who he is today.
Clarence Thomas’s life may have taken him to the heights of the Supreme Court of the United States, but it began inauspiciously.
He was born in 1948. His place of birth, Pinpoint, Georgia, “too small to be called a town,” was a twenty-five-acre peninsula, a tidal salt creek. The lives of the hundred-or-so inhabitants “were a daily struggle for the barest of essentials: food clothing, and shelter.” Medical care was sparse, if available at all. Thomas’s home was a “shanty,” lacking a bathroom or running water. There was but a single light bulb. Newspapers stuffed into cracks were supposed to keep out the winter cold.
Because Thomas “had no idea that any other life was possible,” his days in Pinpoint, though “uncomplicated and unforgiving,” were “idyllic.” From reading the author’s descriptions of life there—“skipping oyster shells on the water,” catching fish—one gets the sense of Huck Finn amidst Negro rural poverty. It is a testament to Thomas’s sense of balance that he can recall those days fondly, despite how objectively disadvantaged materially he was.
At the age of six Thomas and his brother moved to Savannah, into a single room occupied by his mother, a far cry from his home today in Northern Virginia. He characterizes where he lived, on the second floor of a tenement, as “the foulest kind of urban squalor.”
In the mid-Twentieth Century—not in Lincoln’s log cabin days—the future lawyer, federal administrative official, and Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, today not a stranger to the finery of the White House, lived with running water on only the floor below, an outdoor toilet with a cracked and rusty bowl and a rotten wooden seat, and the stench of raw sewage emanating from a broken pipe.
The youth who would one day break bread with the President of the United States could not afford sugar for his breakfast cornflakes. While his mother and brother slept in the room’s only bed, Clarence Thomas, who would one day own a forty-foot motor home, slept in a chair that “was too small, even for a six-year-old.”
The only source of heat was a kerosene stove, but because on his mother’s paltry earnings they couldn’t afford to light it very often, and the child who today has more than satisfied all his material needs “was cold most of the time, cold and hungry.” Indeed, Thomas says that “[n]ever before had I known the nagging, chronic hunger that plagued me in Savannah.” In a sentence of touchingly evocative prose Thomas writes that it was “[h]unger without the prospect of eating and cold without the prospect of warmth—that’s how I remember the winter of 1955.”
The following summer the situation improved. Thomas’s mother found a two-bedroom apartment, which had a stove and refrigerator. “The outdoor toilet didn’t leak,” and Clarence had his own bed.
Although he doesn’t dwell on the impact his early childhood had on him, Thomas reveals and implies enough for the reader to form a pretty clear picture. The virtual non-existence of his father took a toll, “idyllic” or not his life in Pinpoint was a struggle for survival, mere existence in Savannah was “hell,” and there his mother “worked to stay alive and keep us alive, nothing more.”
This chapter of Clarence Thomas’s life changed later in the summer of 1955 when his mother unceremoniously announced he and his brother were going to live with their grandparents. Two grocery bags were all that was required to pack the children’s earthly belongings, and off they went.
Thomas surmises that the main reason for the move was because his mother “simply couldn’t take care of two energetic young boys while holding down on full-time job that paid only ten dollars a week”—especially since “she refused to go on welfare.” His absent father made no contribution to Clarence and his brother’s care.
It was that move, Thomas becoming his “grandfather’s son,” laid on top of the imprints from his earlier years in Pinpoint and Savannah, that influenced Clarence Thomas life materially, spiritually, psychologically, and in every other way.
From what the author writes about his grandfather, Myers Anderson, “an ill-educated, modestly successful black man in the Deep South,” it’s clear that Thomas could have written an entire loving book about him. “In every way that counts, I am my grandfather’s son. I even called him Daddy because that was what my mother called him. * * * He was dark, strong, proud, and determined to mold me in his image. * * * He was the one hero in my life. What I am is what he made me.”
This is truly so, and it is in the next section of My Grandfather’s Son—where writing about family history, his grandfather’s background, and the incredible material change in his and his brother’s circumstances—the author provides context for the story of his growing-up and describes the influence of Myers Anderson, “the greatest man I have ever known.”
This window into the youth Clarence Thomas who became the Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, provided by this part of My Grandfather’s Son, is utterly fascinating and candidly revealing. Regrettably, space considerations don’t allow me to here do more than merely touch on the most important facts.
While living with his grandfather and grandmother, Clarence Thomas actually had two lives.
One was in the city, where he attended a Catholic school run by Irish immigrant Sisters. His description of the institution uses words like “neat and clean,” where the students “were required to pick up trash, empty wastebaskets, sweep floors, and clear blackboards.” Classes were “orderly,” and corporal punishment was normal. The nuns treated all the students with respect. Importantly, “[t]he sisters also taught us that God made all men equal, that blacks were inherently equal to whites, and that segregation was morally wrong.” (My emphasis.)
Life in the city with his grandparents emphasized education (“I was never prouder than when I got my first library card”), discipline (“[W]e were never to ‘spute’ his word”), and hard work helping Daddy deliver fuel oil (“My fingers grew numb from the cold”).
Thomas’s other life with his grandparents was in the country, on an abandoned sixty-acre farm that had been in his grandfather’s family for generations. On Christmas Day, 1957 Daddy announced that they—he, Clarence, and his brother—were going to build a house there. According to the author, “[b]y springtime we’d finished building a simple four-room house, and we spent the summer building garages, a barn, and other facilities, putting up fences, and clearing the surrounding land with axes and bush hooks. Friends and family members had helped us lay the cinder blocks and put on the roof, but we did all the rest of the work ourselves, screening the porch and installing a secondhand tub, sink, and toilet . . . .”
Clarence Thomas was now all of ten-years-old.
After that, Thomas spent every summer there—“a place of torment, and salvation”—doing tasks that are difficult to imagine of a Supreme Court justice.
On task led to the next. Up before sunrise. Cutting trees, clearing land, laying fence, cutting grass, feeding animals, driving tractors, planting crops, spreading fertilizer, weeding fields, picking corn, cutting sugarcane, skinning animals, cleaning fish, throttling chickens, and, yes, slaughtering hogs (the details of which, as a vegan I could have done without). All without gloves (Daddy considered it a weakness), and under the brutal and unrelenting Georgia sun—plagued by hot air in which swirled hordes of grats, mosquitoes, and flies.
Was Daddy some kind of a Simon Legree?
On the morning the Thomas brothers moved into their grandfather’s house he informed them that “[t]he damn vacation is over”—which caused Clarence to think “of the filthy outdoor toilet behind [his mother’s] old tenement and [try] to figure out what vacation he [Daddy] was talking about.”
From now on there would be “manners and behavior” and “rules and regulations.” “Our first task,” Thomas writes, “was to get a good education so that we could hold down a ‘coat-and-tie job,’ and he wouldn’t listen to any excuses for failure. ‘Old Man Can’t is Dead—I helped bury him,’ he said time and again.” (My emphasis.)
Daddy, Thomas writes, “loomed over us like a dark behemoth, instilling fear and demanding absolute adherence to all his edicts, however arbitrary they might appear to be.” But all in aid of one relentless goal: instilling in his grandsons independence, discipline, knowledge, and self-esteem.
About the farm, the old man cannily explained years later “that he’d decided to build a house and cultivate the family land in order to keep [Clarence’s brother] and me off the streets of Savannah during the hot weather months when nobody bought fuel oil [and thus there was no work to keep the boys occupied and out of trouble].”
Clarence Thomas’s early years in Pinpoint, in Savannah, and on the farm, as revealed in My Grandfather’s Son are, as he acknowledges, what essentially formed him. The lessons and experiences of his childhood—the hurt of an absent father, the cost of a broken family, the desperation of rural poverty, the despair of urban squalor, the benefits of iron discipline, the self-esteem gained from hard work, the necessity of inculcated values, would be with him all the way to the Supreme Court.
In Catholic high school he studied hard, delivered fuel oil, and slept little. He experienced how “the peculiar institution of slavery had evolved into the peculiar institution of segregation,” and became aware of the civil rights movement that was beginning to swirl around him. Soon switching to a seminary where he was one of only two black students (and later the only one), he won a Latin prize, was instilled with academic discipline, and for a while suffered race-based insults and indignities.
Graduation summer found Thomas as a janitor, groundskeeper, and general handyman.
In the fall he began studies at a religious college, but doubts arose about his vocation partly because of the Catholic Church’s unacceptable position on racial discrimination. When Martin Luther King was shot and a fellow student said “I hope the son of a bitch dies,” “[h]is brutal words finished off my vocation—and my youthful innocence about race.”
Thomas left the college, and told Daddy. “I had broken my promise [not to quit], and my failure to live up to my word became a burden on my conscience that I have never escaped.”
Myers Anderson threw his grandson out of the house: “I want you to leave,” he said. “Today, this day.” Thomas writes: “I fumbled for something more to say. Would he help me with college? ‘I’m finished helping you,’ he said. ‘You’ll have to figure it out yourself. You’ll probably end up like your no-good daddy or those other no-good Pinpoint Negroes.’ The set of his jaw and the steel in his voice left no doubt that his word was final. My life and fate were in my hands.”
Broke, Thomas moved in with his mother, found a job as a proofreader in a paper bag factory, endured racial insults, and started down the road to racial radicalization.
He writes of how the assassination of Robert Kennedy somehow crystallized his fear of white America, making him remember the frustrations and humiliations Daddy had suffered. He writes of 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.” In one of the most open, and probably most difficult passages to have written, Thomas says that:
I lost my battle with the beast in the summer of 1968. It isn’t hard to see
why. My family, my faith, my vocation, the heroes who inspired me: all
had been taken from me. Once they had helped keep the beast at bay.
Now it slipped its leash and began to consume me from within. I began to fear
that I would never climb out from the crushing weight of segregation. No
matter how hard I worked or how smart I was, any white person could still
say to me, “Keep on trying, Clarence, one day you will be as good as us,’
knowing that he, not I, would be the judge of that. The more injustice I saw,
the angrier I became, and the angrier I became, the more injustice I saw, not
only at [the factory where he worked] but everywhere I worked.
Thomas saw Daddy as a victim of that injustice. His grandfather was religious, honest, patriotic, hard working. He had struggled to shelter his family, clothe them, and put food on the table. “Daddy didn’t complain,” Thomas writes, “but I couldn’t accept the way the white man had treated him. Somehow, some way, he and the others like him had to be avenged.”
Clarence Thomas had come a long way from playing barefoot in the bubble that was Pinpoint, to being a black college student determined to avenge the wrongs done to the Negro race in America.
The following fall he enrolled at Holy Cross College, obsessed over social problems, especially race, left the church, earned good grades, and began thinking about law school.
In passages about how some of his black classmates were over their heads academically at Holy Cross, we can see the genesis of his affirmative action jurisprudence, as applied in his Grutter dissent where he rails against do-gooders who use under qualified blacks as guinea pigs for liberal academic social experiments.
Affirmative action was not the only thing that Thomas began to notice about racial issues. He disagreed with a plan of black students to live separately. He wondered why the administration gave into the plan with such alacrity. He began, perhaps inchoately, to realize that there were race hustlers out there, playing their own game. He questioned racial entitlements. Although, in his words, “[t]he beast of rage kept gnawing at my soul . . . the more I saw of radicalism, the more I doubted it had any answers to offer me . . . . * * * As much as I hated the injustices perpetrated against blacks in America, I couldn’t bring myself to hate my country, then or later.”
Participation in a “demonstration” that ended in tear gas was a catharsis and Thomas’s radical days were about over.
In the rest of his time at Holy Cross Thomas studied voraciously, soaking up knowledge like the proverbial sponge, and through introspection and rigorous honesty let go of the rage.
His expanding intellect now stimulated by the works of Ayn Rand, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and others, Thomas was accepted to Harvard Law School. He declined, perhaps because it was too conservative (!) in favor of Yale, which was smaller and perhaps more liberal.
Despite considering himself far left of center and reluctantly voting for the “too conservative” George McGovern, some of classmate John Bolton’s (yes, that John Bolton) conservative arguments began to sink in.
Indeed, Thomas began to realize that he was being used by Yale: “. . . in the years following Dr. King’s assassination, affirmative action (though it wasn’t yet called that) had become a fact of life at American colleges and universities, and before long I realized that those blacks who benefited from it were being judged by a double standard. As much as it stung to be told that I’d done well in the seminary despite my race, it was far worse to feel that I was now at Yale because of it.”
In My Grandfather’s Son, Thomas writes of how in his last semester at Yale Law School he realized that no job offers were forthcoming: “Now I knew what a law degree from Yale was worth when it bore the taint of racial preference. I was humiliated . . . .” (My emphasis.) (Today, the Yale degree reposes in his basement, adorned with a 15-cent price sticker he removed from a cigar package.) Thomas says to this day that going to Yale was a “mistake.”
Eventually, Clarence Thomas was hired by then-Missouri Attorney General, later United States Senator, John Danforth. Although neither of them could have known it then, Clarence Thomas, the unstoppable son of his grandfather, was headed for the Supreme Court of the United States.
On the way there, the future justice’s life was full of highs and lows.
- Passing the Missouri bar examination, the first time out.
- Arguing an appeal before the Missouri Supreme Court only a few days after being admitted to practice. (Regrettably, Justice Thomas tells the reader only about his and the appellant’s lawyer’s sartorial splendor.)
- Learning, as a state criminal-appeals attorney, not “to assume that whites were responsible for all the woes of blacks, and [he] stopped throwing around the word ‘oppression’ so carelessly. [He]also grew more wary of unsupported generalizations and conspiracy theories, both of which had become indispensable feature of radical argument.”
- Finding and returning a stranger’s lost wallet containing six hundred dollars, when he himself was virtually broke, and as a result reaching a “defining moment: my needs, however great they might be, didn’t convert wrong to right or bad to good. That man’s wallet wasn’t mine, no matter how much I needed the money, or how rude he happened to be.”
- Ameliorating his racial beliefs but feeling alone in them, but then finding Tom Sowell’s Race in America. “I felt like a thirsty man gulping down a glass of cool water. Here was a black man who was saying what I thought—and not behind closed doors, either, but in the pages of a book that had just been reviewed in a national newspaper. Never before had I seen my views stated with such crisp, unapologetic clarity: the problems faced by blacks in America would take quite some time to solve, and the responsibility for solving them would fall largely on black people themselves.” (Thomas promptly bought six copies of Race in America.)
- Relocating to Washington, D.C., after leaving a corporate law job with Monsanto in Missouri, and joining the senatorial staff of John Danforth.
- Meeting Tom Sowell and Walter Williams.
- Registering to vote in Maryland—and as a Republican, so he could 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 promises to legislate the problems of blacks out of existence. Their misguided efforts had already done great harm to my people, and I felt sure that anything else they did would compound the damage.”
- Meeting, fortuitously, a labor-relations lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Virginia Bess Lamp, whom he married in 1987 and calls “a gift from God.”
- Leading two of his EEOC staffers (Ken Masugi and John Marini) “in discussions of the natural-law philosophy with which the Declaration of Independence, America’s first founding document, is permeated. * * * We debated at length the implications of natural-law thinking, and speculated on how it might apply to contemporary political discussions. These arguments stimulated my mind in a way that no discussion of current events could possibly hope to equal.”
- Accepting nomination to, and being confirmed for, a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
- Unsuccessfully trying to sell his blood to raise money while studying for the bar exam.
- In his first law job, living from paycheck to paycheck, with usually only about ten dollars left over, and thus having repeatedly to borrow money to tide over his family of three.
- A bank foreclosing on one of his student loans.
- Finally recognizing that Daddy’s “hardness had hardened my own heart. Eventually the chasm that separated us became too wide to cross. It is my fault, not his that I never tried to bridge it. Only in the very last months of Daddy’s life did we share a solitary embrace, and by then it was too little, too late. Not a day passes that I don’t wish I had thrown open my arms sooner to that good man. Not until he was gone did I know how wrong I’d been to turn away from his love.”
- Discontent with his marriage, causing him to drink even more than he had formerly, and forcing him to conclude that in order to be happy he had to dissolve it. “I left my wife and child. It was the worst thing I’ve done in my life, worse even than going back on my promise to Daddy that I would finish my seminary studies and become a priest. I had broken the most solemn vow a man can make, the one that ends . . . as long as you both shall live. I still live with the guilt, and always will.”
- As the assistant secretary for civil rights in the Department of Education having a difficult time “because of the public’s perception of the Reagan administration’s racial attitudes.”
- The close-in-time deaths of his grandfather and grandmother, while Thomas was trying to cope with his constant personal financial problems and reform the dysfunctional Equal Employment Opportunity Commission of which he had recently become chairman. “Things kept on going from bad to worse. Running EEOC was a Sisyphean struggle: every time we put out one fire, another one started. My bills piled up, often unopened. I was nearly evicted from my apartment more than once . . .”
From the EEOC, Thomas became a judge on the D.C. Circuit. One day, about fifteen-months later, Thomas was secretly taken to the White House via a tunnel from the Treasury Department, and “escorted to a windowless office and left by myself for a few hours. * * * As I waited, I tried to think of a way to convince President Bush to choose someone else [to replace Justice Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court]. The obvious reasons were my relative youth and inexperience—I’d just turned forty-three . . . and had been on the Court of Appeals for only fifteen months—but I knew these were mere excuses. Neither then nor at any other time did it occur to me that I could not do the work of a Supreme Court justice. I’d spent my whole life coping with one challenge after another, and I knew I could handle this one as well, the same way I’d learned Latin, passed the Missouri bar exam, briefed and argued numerous cases, and straightened our EEOC. The problem was that I still didn’t know whether I wanted to spend the rest of my life as a judge, and I was sure that I didn’t want to run the confirmation gauntlet again.”
A few days later President Bush called: “Judge, we’re still thinking about this Supreme Court thing. Could you come up to Kennebunkport tomorrow to have lunch with me and talk about it?” Thomas, apparently still ambivalent, went. That day, the President announced Clarence Thomas’s nomination.
As the President introduced me to America, I thought of my wife, my grandparents, and all the other people who had helped me along the way, especially the nuns of St. Benedict the Moor and St. Pius X. Then my thoughts drifted from those who had made this day possible to those who would now try to undo it. I recalled the ants I had watched as a child on the farm, building their hills one grain of sand at a time, only to have them senselessly destroyed in an instant by a passing foot. I’d pieced my life together the same way, slowly and agonizingly. Would it, too, be kicked callously into dust?
Most readers of this review know the answer to the question Clarence Thomas asked himself that sunny day in Maine, and I will not discuss it here except to make two points.
The first is that, as his book shows beyond doubt, the contemptible conduct of the interest groups, politicians, and individuals who sought to defeat then-Judge Thomas’s nomination exposed themselves as bigots, frauds, liars, and enemies of the democratic process.
Indeed, while their conduct was contemptible, they themselves were and remain, beneath contempt. That goes doubly for Anita Hill, a perjurious ingrate who willingly allowed herself to be used as the tool of corrupt forces, and who should have been disbarred for lying to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which constitutes unethical professional conduct. If for no other reason, and there are many others, My Grandfather’s Son needs to be read for the true story of Hill’s mendacious assault on a decent man who had more than once been her benefactor.
Second, as both his book and the public record make clear, during the Senate Hearings on his confirmation Clarence Thomas was knowledgeable, responsive, dignified, and especially brave. Brave, because at the end he told the Judiciary Committee, the Senate, the American public, and the world that, given what had been done to him,
The Supreme Court is not worth it. No job is worth it. I am not here for that. I am here for my name, my family, my life, and my integrity. I think something is dreadfully wrong with this country, when any person, any person in this free country would be subjected to this. * * * This is a circus. It is a national disgrace. 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 an 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.
Before ending this review I want to mention a disclosure that Justice Thomas makes in his book, something that probably only a few people knew before My Grandfather’s Son was published—something that, hopefully, will lay to rest for all time vicious, indeed racist, allegations that have dogged Justice Thomas for years.
After I had been on the Court for about five years, I raised the topic of my nomination with Boyden Gray [counsel to the President] over lunch. He had always been candid with me, so I asked him a straight question, knowing that he would give me an equally straight answer: was I picked because I was black? Boyden replied that in fact my race had actually worked against me. The initial plan, he said, had been to have me replace Justice Brennan [who had retired before Justice Marshall retired] in order to avoid appointing me to what was widely perceived as the Court’s “black” seat, thus making the confirmation even more contentious. But Justice Brennan retired earlier than expected, and everyone in the White House agreed that I needed more time on the D.C. Circuit in order to pass muster as a Supreme Court nominee.
There is much more to say about My Grandfather’s Son. It is honest, touchingly introspective, and extremely self-revelatory. Much of Justice Thomas’s prose is poetic. His autobiography—warts and all—shows Clarence Thomas to be a fine human being, doting father, loving husband, patriotic American, and brave man. Indeed, when one finishes reading the justice’s autobiography, the reader feels like he is saying goodbye to a new friend, with whom he has traveled the long road from Pinpoint, Georgia, to the marble halls of the United States Supreme Court.
And at that Court, one wonders whether in his chambers Clarence Thomas sometimes turns to a proudly displayed bust of his grandfather and shares a thought with him—and then hears his grandfather reminding, yet again, that “Old Man Can’t is Dead—I helped bury him.”