Having been nominated in 1991 by President George H. W. Bush to succeed Thurgood Marshall, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is an interesting study in modern day conservatism. An avowed black nationalist Marxist and Malcolm X admirer while in college, Thomas later made a shift to the Right, the views of which have guided his decisions on the court.
As a black American, he has long asserted that hard work and self-reliance are key to transcending the evils of racism. While typically private about his political party (he is widely considered to be a Republican) he has publicly admitted in the past to “some very strong libertarian leanings.”
All this being said, Thomas is despised in many liberal and black quarters, an animus with vestiges back to the 1991 confirmation hearing where he was accused of sexually harassing Anita Hill. Thomas countered at that hearing that the vitriol he experienced from the Left was the result of “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.”
Of those still inclined to throw shade on Thomas, few have taken the time to examine the deeper story of his life. Born into poverty in the tiny Southern town of Pin Point, Georgia, Thomas was abandoned by his father at age 2. The home where he was raised by his single mother burned to the ground when he was 7.
Thomas was later taken in by his maternal grandparents who raised him on a steady diet of self-discipline, hard work, and rugged determination. Raised Catholic, he attended Holy Cross College before moving on to Yale Law School where he graduated in 1974.
In his well-written autobiography My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir Thomas is refreshingly vulnerable about his journey with the Supreme Court, amid what seems like an unending barrage of scrutiny, controversy, and vilification fueled by the Left. Throughout the book’s pages, Thomas sounds off, revealing esoteric elements of his life that he holds dear. As author, columnist, filmmaker and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution Shelby Steele notes in the book’s credits, My Grandfather’s Son is…
“…. A lesson on how to live in freedom—a lesson that begins with a description of poverty on a par with Richard Wright’s portrait of poverty in Black Boy. . . Thomas is now an archetype that will inspire others. I can think of no greater achievement.”
Here are a few brief excerpts from the book that offers context to the life of Justice Thomas:
On Growing Up in Savannah Georgia
“When I was a boy, Savannah was hell. Overnight I moved from the comparative safety and cleanliness of rural poverty to the foulest kind of urban squalor. The only running water in our building was downstairs in the kitchen, where several layers of old linoleum were all that separated us from the ground. The toilet was outdoors in the muddy backyard. The metal bowl was cracked and rusty and the wooden seat was rotten. I’ll never forget the sickening stench of the raw sewage that seeped and sometimes poured from the broken sewer line.”
On His Early Views of Southerners
“At least southerners were up front about their bigotry: you knew exactly where they were coming from, just like the Georgia rattlesnakes that always let you know when they were ready to strike. Not so with the paternalistic big-city whites who offered you a helping hand so long as you were careful to agree with them, but slapped you down if you started acting as if you didn’t know your place.”
On Thomas Sowell
“If a distinguished scholar like Thomas Sowell could be dismissed as not really black for daring to challenge the liberal orthodoxies on race, what would happen to me if I dared to agree with him? I knew that until I was ready to tell the truth as I saw it, I was no better than a politician—but I didn’t know whether I would ever be brave enough to break ranks and speak my mind.”
On Other Black Conservatives
“Walter Williams, Thomas Sowell, and Jay Parker were all smart, courageous, independent-minded men who came from modest backgrounds. Politics meant nothing to them. All they cared about was truthfully describing urgent social problems, then finding ways to solve them.”
On His Detractors
“Throughout my life I’ve often found truth embedded in the lyrics of my favorite records. At Yale, for example, I’d often listened to “Smiling Faces Sometimes,” a song by the Undisputed Truth that warns of the dangers of trusting the hypocrites who “pretend to be your friend” while secretly planning to do you wrong.”
On His Supreme Court Nomination Process
“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.”
On Navigating a Life That’s Not Always Fair
“All you can do is put one foot in front of the other and “play the hand that you’re dealt,” as my grandfather so often said. That’s what I did: I did my best and hoped for the best, too often fearing that I was getting the worst. In fact, though, I got everything I needed. Much of it came from two people, my grandfather and grandmother, who gave me what I needed to endure and, eventually, to prosper. They are the glue that held together the disparate pieces of my life and holds them together to this day.”
Diamond-Michael Scott is a writer and chief curator of “Great Books, Great Minds” a global community that ignites world-class book experiences featuring non-fiction authors and reading evangelists. A long time independent journalist, his work had appeared in Libertarianism.org, Nasdaq.com, and Comstock’s Magazine among many others.