Clarence Thomas interviewed by Julian Bond: Explorations in Black Leadership Series
Julian Bond interviews Clarence Thomas, an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, in this installment of “Explorations in Black Leadership.”
Thomas is the second African American to serve on the Supreme Court. The series is presented by the Institute for Public History at the University of Virginia. More information on “Explorations” can be found at http://www.virginia.edu/publichistory.
Clarence Thomas (born June 23, 1948) is an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Succeeding Thurgood Marshall, Thomas is the second African American to serve on the Court.
Thomas grew up in Savannah, Georgia, and was educated at the College of the Holy Cross and at Yale Law School. In 1974, he was appointed an Assistant Attorney General in Missouri and subsequently practiced law there in the private sector. In 1979, he became a legislative assistant to Senator John Danforth (R-MO) and in 1981 was appointed Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan appointed Thomas Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
In 1990, President George H. W. Bush nominated Thomas for a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He served in that role for 16 months and on July 1, 1991, was nominated by Bush to fill Marshall’s seat on the United States Supreme Court. Thomas’s confirmation hearings were bitter and intensely fought, centering on an accusation that he had sexually harassed—or engaged in unseemly behavior toward—attorney Anita Hill, a subordinate at the Department of Education and subsequently at the EEOC. The U.S. Senate ultimately confirmed Thomas by a vote of 52–48.
Since joining the Court, Thomas has taken a textualist approach, seeking to uphold what he sees as the original meaning of the United States Constitution and statutes. He is generally viewed as the most conservative member of the Court. Thomas has often approached federalism issues in a way that limits the power of the federal government and expands power of state and local governments. At the same time, Thomas’ opinions have generally supported a strong executive branch within the federal government.
Early Life and Education
Clarence Thomas was born in 1948 in Pin Point, Georgia, a small, predominantly black community near Savannah founded by freedmen after the American Civil War. He was the second of three children born to M.C. Thomas, a farm worker, and Leola Williams, a domestic worker. They were descendants of American slaves, and the family spoke Gullah as a first language. Thomas’ earliest-known ancestors were slaves named Sandy and Peggy who were born around the end of the 18th century and owned by wealthy Liberty County, Georgia planter Josiah Wilson. M.C. left his family when Thomas was two years old. Thomas’ mother worked hard but was sometimes paid only pennies per day. She had difficulty putting food on the table and was forced to rely on charity After a house fire left them homeless, Thomas and his younger brother Myers were taken to live with his mother’s parents in Savannah, Georgia. Thomas was seven when the family moved in with his maternal grandfather, Myers Anderson, and Anderson’s wife, Christine (née Hargrove), in Savannah.
Living with his grandparents, Thomas enjoyed amenities such as indoor plumbing and regular meals for the first time in his life. His grandfather Myers Anderson had little formal education, but had built a thriving fuel oil business that also sold ice. Thomas calls his grandfather “the greatest man I have ever known.” When Thomas was 10, Anderson started taking the family to help at a farm every day from sunrise to sunset. His grandfather believed in hard work and self-reliance; he would counsel Thomas to “never let the sun catch you in bed.” Thomas’ grandfather also impressed upon his grandsons the importance of getting a good education.
Thomas was the only black person at his high school in Savannah, where he was an honor student. He was raised Roman Catholic. He considered entering the priesthood at the age of 16, and became the first black student to attend St. John Vianney’s Minor Seminary (Savannah) on the Isle of Hope. He also briefly attended Conception Seminary College, a Roman Catholic seminary in Missouri. No one in Thomas’s family had attended college. Thomas has said that during his first year in seminary, he was one of only “three or four” blacks attending the school. In a number of interviews, Thomas stated that he left the seminary in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. He had overheard another student say after the shooting, “Good, I hope the son of a bitch died.” He did not think the church did enough to combat racism.
At a nun’s suggestion, Thomas attended the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. While there, Thomas helped found the Black Student Union. Once he walked out after an incident in which black students were punished while white students went undisciplined for committing the same violation, and some of the priests negotiated with the protesting black students to re-enter the school.
Having spoken the Gullah language as a child, Thomas realized in college that he still sounded unpolished despite having been drilled in grammar at school, and he chose to major in English literature “to conquer the language.” At Holy Cross, he was also a member of Alpha Sigma Nu and the Purple Key Society. Thomas graduated from Holy Cross in 1971 with an A.B. cum laude in English literature.
Thomas had a series of deferments from the military draft while in college at Holy Cross. Upon graduation, he was classified as 1-A and received a low lottery number, indicating he might be drafted to serve in Vietnam. Thomas failed his medical exam, due to curvature of the spine, and was not drafted. Thomas entered Yale Law School, from which he received a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree in 1974, graduating towards the middle of his class.
Thomas has recollected that his Yale law degree was not taken seriously by law firms to which he applied after graduating. He said that potential employers assumed he obtained it because of affirmative action policies. According to Thomas, he was “asked pointed questions, unsubtly suggesting that they doubted I was as smart as my grades indicated.”
I peeled a fifteen-cent sticker off a package of cigars and stuck it on the frame of my law degree to remind myself of the mistake I’d made by going to Yale. I never did change my mind about its value.
In 1975, when Thomas read Race and Economics by economist Thomas Sowell, he found an intellectual foundation for his philosophy. The book criticized social reforms by government and instead argued for individual action to overcome circumstances and adversity. He was also influenced by Ayn Rand, particularly The Fountainhead, and would later require his staffers to watch the 1949 film version. Thomas later said that novelist Richard Wright had been the most influential writer in his life; Wright’s books Native Son and Black Boy “captured a lot of the feelings that I had inside that you learn how to repress.” Thomas acknowledges having “some very strong libertarian leanings.”
Career – Early Career
Thomas was admitted to the Missouri bar on September 13, 1974. From 1974 to 1977, Thomas was an Assistant Attorney General of Missouri under State Attorney General John Danforth, who met Thomas at Yale Law School. Thomas was the only black member of Danforth’s staff. As Assistant Attorney General, Thomas first worked at the criminal appeals division of Danforth’s office and moved on to the revenue and taxation division. Retrospectively, Thomas considers Assistant Attorney General the best job he has ever had. When Danforth was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1976, Thomas left to become an attorney with the Monsanto Chemical Company in St. Louis, Missouri. He moved to Washington, D.C. and returned to work for Danforth from 1979 to 1981 as a Legislative Assistant handling energy issues for the Senate Commerce Committee. The two men shared a common bond in that they had studied to be ordained (although in different denominations). Danforth was to be instrumental in championing Thomas for the Supreme Court.
In 1981, he joined the Reagan administration. From 1981 to 1982, he served as Assistant Secretary of Education for the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education. From 1982 to 1990, he was Chairman of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). Journalist Evan Thomas characterized Thomas as “openly ambitious for higher office” during his tenure at the EEOC. As Chairman, he promoted a doctrine of self-reliance, and halted the usual EEOC approach of filing class-action discrimination lawsuits, instead pursuing acts of individual discrimination. He also asserted in 1984 that black leaders were “watching the destruction of our race” as they “bitch, bitch, bitch” about President Reagan instead of working with the Reagan administration to alleviate teenage pregnancy, unemployment and illiteracy.
On October 30, 1989, Thomas was nominated by President George H. W. Bush to a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit vacated by Robert Bork, despite Thomas’s initial protestations that he would not like to be a judge. Thomas gained the support of other African Americans such as former Transportation Secretary William Coleman, but said that when meeting white Democratic staffers in the United States Senate, he was “struck by how easy it had become for sanctimonious whites to accuse a black man of not caring about civil rights.”
Thomas’s confirmation hearing was uneventful. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on March 6, 1990, and received his commission the same day. He developed warm relationships during his 19 months on the federal court, including with fellow federal judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Supreme Court Nomination and Confirmation
Main article: Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination
After Justice William Brennan stepped down from the Supreme Court in July 1990, Thomas was one of five candidates on Bush’s shortlist for the position and Bush’s favorite of the five. Ultimately, after consulting with his advisors, Bush decided to hold off on nominating Thomas, and nominated Judge David Souter of the First Circuit instead. Thurgood Marshall announced his retirement, and on July 1, 1991 President Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to replace him. Marshall had been the only African-American justice on the Court. In announcing his selection, President Bush called Thomas the “best qualified nominee at this time.”
U.S. presidents of that era submitted lists of potential federal court nominees to the American Bar Association (ABA) for a confidential rating of their judicial temperament, competence and integrity on a three-level scale of well qualified, qualified or unqualified. However, as noted by Adam Liptak of the New York Times, the ABA has historically taken generally liberal positions on divisive issues, and studies suggest that candidates nominated by Democratic presidents fare better in the group’s ratings than those nominated by Republicans. Anticipating that the ABA would rate Thomas more poorly than they thought he deserved, the White House and Republican Senators pressured the ABA for at least the mid-level qualified rating, and simultaneously attempted to discredit the ABA as partisan. The ABA did rate Thomas as qualified, although with one of the lowest levels of support for a Supreme Court nominee. Ultimately, the ABA rating ended up having little impact on Thomas’ nomination.
Some of the public statements of Thomas’s opponents foreshadowed the confirmation fight that would occur. Both liberal interest groups and Republicans in the White House and Senate approached the nomination as a political campaign.
Attorney General Richard Thornburgh had previously warned Bush that replacing Thurgood Marshall, who was widely revered as a civil rights icon, with any candidate who was not perceived to share Marshall’s views would make the confirmation process difficult. Civil rights and feminist organizations opposed the appointment based partially on Thomas’s criticism of affirmative action and suspicions that Thomas might not be a supporter of Roe v. Wade.
Thomas’s formal confirmation hearings began on September 10, 1991. Thomas was reticent when answering Senators’ questions during the appointment process, recalling what had happened to Robert Bork when Bork expounded on his judicial philosophy during his confirmation hearings four years prior. Thomas’s earlier writings had frequently referenced the legal theory of natural law; during his confirmation hearings Thomas limited himself to the statement that he regards natural law as a “philosophical background” to the Constitution. Thomas himself later asserted in his autobiography that in the course of his professional career, he had not developed a judicial philosophy.
Anita Hill Allegations
Toward the end of the confirmation hearings, an FBI interview with Anita Hill was leaked. Hill, a black attorney, had worked for Thomas at the Department of Education and had subsequently moved with Thomas to the EEOC. After the leak, Hill was called to testify at Thomas’s confirmation hearings. She testified that Thomas had subjected her to comments of a sexual nature, which she felt constituted sexual harassment or at least “behavior that is unbefitting an individual who will be a member of the Court.” Hill’s testimony included lurid details, and some Senators aggressively questioned her.
Thomas denied the allegations, saying:
“This is not an opportunity to talk about difficult matters privately or in a closed environment. This is a circus. It’s a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a black American, 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.
Hill was the only person to testify at the Senate hearings that there had been unsolicited sexual advances. Angela Wright, who worked under Thomas at the EEOC before he fired her, decided not to testify, but submitted a written statement alleging that Thomas had pressured her for a date and had made comments about the anatomy of women. However, she said she did not feel his behavior was intimidating nor did she feel sexually harassed, though she allowed that “Some other women might have.” Also, Sukari Hardnett, a former Thomas assistant, wrote to the Senate committee that although Thomas had not harassed her, “If you were young, black, female and reasonably attractive, you knew full well you were being inspected and auditioned as a female.”
Other former colleagues testified on Thomas’s behalf. Nancy Altman, who shared an office with Thomas at the Department of Education, testified that she heard virtually everything Thomas said over the course of two years, and never heard any sexist or offensive comment. Altman did not find it credible that Thomas could have engaged in the conduct alleged by Hill, without any of the dozens of women he worked with noticing it. Senator Alan K. Simpson questioned why Hill met, dined, and spoke by phone with Thomas on various occasions after they no longer worked together.
According to the Oyez Project, there was a lack of convincing proof produced at the Senate hearings. After extensive debate, the Judiciary Committee split 7–7 on September 27, sending the nomination to the full Senate without a recommendation. Thomas was confirmed by a 52–48 vote on October 15, 1991, the narrowest margin for approval in more than a century. The final floor vote was: 41 Republicans and 11 Democrats voted to confirm while 46 Democrats and two Republicans voted to reject the nomination.
Thomas received his commission and took the two required oaths several days after the Senate vote; this process was delayed by the death of Chief Justice Rehnquist’s wife, but the delay was reduced at the request of Thomas. He indicated that he was eager to get to work, and an additional reason for reducing the delay was to end further media inquiry into Thomas’s private life. Reporters largely stopped such inquiries after Thomas joined the Court. Throughout this episode, Thomas defended his right to privacy, refused to describe discussions that he may have had outside the workplace regarding his personal life, and promised that he would not allow anyone to probe his private life.
Clarence Thomas wrote an autobiography addressing Anita Hill’s allegations, and she also wrote an autobiography addressing her experience in the hearings.