One of the best contemporary memoirs I’ve read in the last decade is My Grandfather’s Son, which was published in 2007. In his tale that ended with the fierce 1991 confirmation battle for his seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas told a remarkable story of his journey from being raised by a single mother in Jim Crow-era Georgia poverty to taking a place at the top of the nation’s judicial branch. It’s a fascinating and truly all-American story of an important figure on the Court.
The necessity of saying that he is important is truly a sad fact. Despite the popular but racist liberal slurs (sometimes said, sometimes illustrated in cartoons) about how Justice Thomas was simply a “sock-puppet,” “lawn jockey,” or shoeshine boy for the late Justice Antonin Scalia, those who follow legal and political philosophy know that Justice Thomas, though voting with Justice Scalia quite often, has a somewhat different judicial philosophy. His originalism differs in several ways from Scalia’s (which interested readers can explore in detail in book-length works by Ralph Rossum and Paul Scott Gerber), but the most important is that Justice Thomas takes into account not merely the texts of the Constitution and laws at hand, as did Justice Scalia the textualist. Justice Thomas’s jurisprudence is based on taking seriously the natural law principles in the Founding, most prominently the political equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. Hence the title of Michael Pack’s excellent new documentary on Justice Thomas being shown in select theaters across the country: Created Equal: Clarence Thomas In His Own Words.[*]
In addition to being a producer and director of thirteen documentaries, Mr. Pack is a former president of the Claremont Institute, whose conservatism takes its starting point and its focus from the American Founding. It is therefore not surprising that the film connects Justice Thomas’s roots in a time and place when black Americans were denied the dignity of equal treatment under the law with his eventual embrace of a natural rights and natural law philosophy that he adopted in part through the influence of John Marini and Ken Masugi. Both worked for Justice Thomas in the eighties and are now senior fellows at the Claremont Institute. During most cuts in the film, an image of the Declaration’s lines about all men being created equal runs across the screen.
To Mr. Pack’s credit, however, the movie never descends into a con law lecture. It’s an opportunity to hear the story of an amazing but winding journey from the standpoint of Justice Thomas and, to a lesser extent, his wife Virginia. Mr. Pack recorded thirty hours of interviews, including some recordings of Justice Thomas reading the most beautiful passages from his memoir. Laced through the movie are scenes of a small boat seen from above navigating the maze-like wetlands around Pin Point, Georgia, the site of the Justice’s earliest memories. The movie’s original score by Charlie Barnett is beautiful and often plaintive.
With his brother and their somewhat erratic mother, Justice Thomas spent his first few years in Pin Point, where the poverty experienced by his Gullah family and neighbors was livable and off-set by the tight-knit community. His father abandoned the family when he was two, and his mother was able to survive for a while on hard work. When she moved Clarence and his brother to Savannah after a fire destroyed their home, they found the urban poverty much more unbearable. Justice Thomas recalls the sewage from tenement toilets being flushed out into the yards. Archival photos of the city show the boards that denizens would position from the street to their porches to avoid walking through the waste.
When young Clarence was seven, his mother asked her own parents, Myers and Christine Anderson, to take in her two young boys. While Christine was a comforting figure, Myers was nearly illiterate, but a fiercely independent thinker whose memorization of swaths of the Bible had led him to be a Republican and also convert to Catholicism in the late 1940s. This unbending disciplinarian believed that the curse of the fall relating to working by the sweat of one’s brow was best embraced as a reality. He greeted the boys with a warning: “The damn vacation is over.” It was not an act. The young boys were required to help out their grandfather on the truck he used to sell fuel oil and ice every day after they came back from the segregated parochial school they attended. In the summers, Anderson had them working all day on a small farm property he possessed. Justice Thomas recalls with relish the reply to the boys’ occasional pleas that they were unable to do a job: “Old man can’t is dead; I helped bury him.”
An excellent student and one who took the faith seriously, Justice Thomas asked to enter St. John Vianney Minor Seminary in the middle of high school. His grandfather told him that he could do this, but he couldn’t quit seminary. Justice Thomas loved the liturgy (he mentions his love of Lauds, Vespers, and Gregorian chant especially) and he excelled in his studies—an image from his yearbook reveals the legend below his picture: “Blew the test! Only a 98”—but found it difficult to be the only black student at the seminary. He is grateful now for the suggestion by one teacher that he learn standard English—his speech at the time was, he says, a mixture of the Gullah dialect and southern English—but it was somewhat alienating. After passing on to Conception Seminary College in Missouri, the disconnect became unbearable as the Civil Rights movement marched on and Catholic bishops were nearly uniformly silent. The breaking point came when he entered his dormitory on April 4, 1968, only to hear a fellow seminarian respond to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s shooting, “Good. I hope the son of a b— dies!”
Justice Thomas left the seminary at this point, which prompted his grandfather to say that he would have to live on his own now since he was making “a man’s decision.” After briefly moving back in with his mother, Justice Thomas was accepted to Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts for the fall. Stinging from the betrayal of the Church and his grandfather, Justice Thomas embraced the view that race “explained everything” and formed a radical left-wing substitute for the religion he’d left behind. After two years of radicalism, Justice Thomas participated in a riot in Boston whose violence rattled him. Returning to Holy Cross in the wee hours of the morning, he entered the chapel and prayed for the first time since he’d matriculated.
At that point, though still embracing progressivist views, he started to live out some bourgeois values. He married a fellow student at the end of college and continued on to Yale Law, where he started to shift to what he calls a “lazy libertarian” viewpoint. His main concern was his own autonomy. Upon graduation he went to work for the Republican attorney general of Missouri, an Episcopal priest named John Danforth. This work started to break down some of his recently-formed views about white racism as the main problem for blacks. His discovery that black victims of crime overwhelmingly suffered at the hands of black criminals shook his race-based worldview. After a stint in the business world, Justice Thomas came to Washington to work for his old boss, now a senator. His views of the world were slowly moving back to the ones instilled in him by his grandfather, especially as he discovered black intellectuals such as Thomas Sowell who didn’t toe the left-wing line. A young Juan Williams outed him as a conservative in a column that expressed the commonplace view that blacks with views like his are somehow incomprehensible traitors or suck-ups to the white power structure.
At the same time, the grind of the Washington world helped lead to the breakdown of his first marriage, a subject on which Justice Thomas is noticeably much more reticent than other topics. This is natural, and like the other emotions that are visible on his face, they lend humanity to a man who has too often been caricatured. His mother’s comment about him that he was “too stubborn to cry” may be true, but the moist eyes and the movements of this great man when remembering his grandfather or raising his son, Jamal, or the difficult times in public life, led to a number of sniffles in the theater I was in. Justice Thomas is also visibly moved when he describes his second wife, Virginia, as a gift from God he could not refuse.
His time in the Reagan administration chairing the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission led to an appointment in the federal judiciary. Though enlivened by his discussions with Masugi and Marini about the Constitution, he initially resisted an appointment to the bench because he thought that being a judge was something for old people. Convinced that he could resign, he embraced the work and found that he liked it.
In 1991, President George H.W. Bush nominated him for the Supreme Court, bringing out the long knives of the abortion industry and the left. Archival footage shows us feminists declaring flatly that they will “bork” this man. Virginia Thomas speaks for this viewer in holding a special anger at the absurd prospect of Teddy Kennedy sitting in judgment over claims of “sexual harassment” by Anita Hill. The footage of Senate Judiciary Chair Joe Biden is yet more evidence of the oily confidence without merit he has always demonstrated. Senator Orrin Hatch asks the questions about how it is that a woman who was harassed would not only follow her harasser from one job to the next but then continue to contact him a dozen times over the years after their time working together.
Justice Thomas’s memoir ended with his survival of the nomination process. Created Equal gives us some sense of the man’s work, noting that though detractors often attribute his silence from the bench to some lack of intelligence, Justice Thomas’s own view is that he is not there to verbally joust with lawyers but to hear their cases and decide. Rather than being a simple follower of others’ opinions, Justice Thomas has written over six hundred opinions, thirty percent more than any other sitting Supreme Court justice.
The film ends with a happy judge. It seems clear he has returned to the Catholic faith he abandoned in 1968, but this is not explained. His vacation time is spent traversing what he calls “the regular parts” of the U.S. in his RV, and his work time is spent with clerks who get labeled “third-tier trash” since they come from colleges in those regular parts. Justice Thomas clearly gets on with people like himself who are overlooked and undervalued because of their race or their economic class. He is more comfortable with them than other D.C. denizens, perhaps due to his belief that they too, by God, are created equal.
This essay first appeared here in February 2020.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
[*] For information on the movie, including a list of screenings, see here.
The featured image is a still from Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words (2020).