PBS’s Frontline featured a two-hour special on Clarence and Ginni Thomas a couple of weeks ago. I am a big fan of Frontline and recommend viewing the program on Clarence and Ginni Thomas if you have not already seen it. You can probably find it in the Frontline archives. It is extraordinary. The program consisted mainly of interviews with people who have known them over the years. As you may guess, I have never been a Clarence Thomas fan, but now have a better understanding of the man. Here are my takeaways:
I now know a lot more about the guy than I did before (from the program and from Wikepedia). Clarence was born in 1948, the height of Jim Crow laws and overt racism in the South. He grew up in modest circumstances in Pin Point, Georgia, a tiny village, almost entirely African American, near Savanah where the primary language of most residents was Gullah, a language from the days of slavery. Gullah was the first language Clarence spoke. “Modest circumstances”, however, does not begin to capture the situation. He grew up in abject poverty. His father abandoned the family when Clarence was two, and his mother, a maid, struggled to make ends meet and provide food for the family. The house they lived in had no indoor plumbing. Unable to cope, his mother gave up her three children to her own father and mother, who lived in Savanah. Clarence’s maternal grandparents, Myers and Christine Anderson, raised their three grandchildren. Myers Anderson owned a modest fuel oil and coal business, which provided a living income but was a hard driving and demanding substitute father. An ardent Catholic, he sent Clarence off to a Catholic boys’ schools and later to high school at a seminary where Clarence studied to become a Catholic priest. He was one of only a handful of Black students and subjected to brutal harassment and racist bullying. He left the seminary early, to the displeasure of his grandfather, to attend Holy Cross College on a full scholarship and then on to Yale Law School.
Now think about this for a moment. An African American man who was born into poverty during the time of the most rampant racism in the South ends up becoming a Supreme Court Justice in what is now referred to as “the Thomas Court.” Good heavens! Talk about a Cinderella story. Has anyone on the Court ever come from circumstances as humble or challenging as this? Thomas was dealt a tough hand. How did he do it? And how and why did he become one of the most conservative Justices in the history of the Supreme Court? This is the question Frontline tries to answer.
The main takeaway for me was that what made this possible was Thomas’s driving ambition to be respected and to overcome personal insecurity. Being an African American in the Jim Crow South affected him greatly as did his early years living in poverty and the continuing racism he experienced. Hurtful racist experiences continued throughout his life– at the mostly white Holy Cross College and the mostly white Yale Law School where he often felt dissed by white students and professors.
What I did not know –and I suspect that what most do not know– was that as a young man Thomas was a civil rights activist. At Holy Cross Clarence was part of the Black Power Movement, a fan and devotee of Malcom X, and a student radical. My goodness, how do you go from a Black radical to Black conservative in only a few years?
Thomas began to change when he was at Yale. He was influenced by several conservative professors and some conservative friends. His goal was to land a job at a prestigious law firm. When Clarence did not get the plum law firm offers that most of his classmates were getting, he was crushed. He had made good grades, worked very hard and yet felt dissed again. Oddly in my view, he attributed the situation to affirmative action: He believed the fancy law firms did not hire him because they had concluded that the only reason he had gotten into an elite law school was because he was Black, not because he was smart or had earned it.
This was a pivotal moment for Thomas. He switched from Plan A to Plan B, which was to become a government attorney and work his way up the bureaucratic ladder to the top. He also observed there were a whole lot more Black people in the Democratic line to get the good government jobs than in the Republican line. According to friends interviewed on the show, his choice was not so much ideological as practical. He concluded it would be a lot easier to succeed as a Black Republican than as a Black Democrat.
He also was aware that the Republican Party was becoming much more conservative. To succeed not only did he have to be a member of the party, to tow the ideological line, he had to stand out from the crowd. The more conservative the better. This would seem to be another practical decision and explains the shift from the campus radical he was at Holy Cross to his bona fides that made him a rising star among Republicans. Promotions came quickly and with some lucky breaks —serving under Reagan as head of the EEOC at one point and making the right connections with elected officials and the Republican elite– he got his chance. The rest is history. In 1991 he was nominated by President George H. W. Bush and sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice at age 43.
But his success had come with a price. Clarence went through two failed marriages, and at one point had a serious drinking problem. In many of the film clips on the show, he seemed to be anything but a happy camper. The Anita Hill testimony during the nomination hearings about his sexual harassment history was said by his friends to have devastated him. His denial of the charges was vehement, but no one interviewed on the Frontline program said they doubted that Anita Hill was telling the truth.
The unanswered question for me is why he continued to move farther to the right after his appointment to the Supreme Court. Did he really believe all Republican talking points when voting against things like equal opportunity and affirmative action? Was he aware that many of his votes would hurt low income people of color? Why didn’t he move toward the middle? With a guaranteed job for life and the prestige that went with it, what did he have to lose by being true to values of fairness and opportunity that he had benefited from himself? What were his values when he was involved in civil rights protests in the 1970s? The Frontline show never really answers this question though his marriage to Ginni Lamp in 1987 might have played a part.
Ginni Lamp was an ambitious Republican operative from Nebraska, nine years younger than Clarence, and whose wealthy parents at the time were in the John Birch Society. They were extreme rightwing conservatives. That she is white and from a very wealthy family adds complexity and irony to the Clarence Thomas story. Since their marriage they have been what I would call “partners in crime.”
The program also touched on the current scandal of having a long term, unreported relationship with Harlan Crow, the billionaire son of the real estate developer Trammel Crow. Over a long period, they have wined and dined in expensive restaurants with Harlan Crow, accompanied Crow on his mega yacht for cruises to exotic places, and with Crow, visited luxury resorts, all bills paid. Crow is a mega donor to the Republican Party and rightwing causes. Are we to believe that politics and legal issues were never discussed, and that Crow never introduced the Thomases to his rightwing friends?
The conundrum is whether Thomas is a sellout without principles or strong values other than personal success, who changed colors in order to succeed in his career, or whether he is a converted, true believer in “conservative” values and principles. Does he have a moral compass? Did he ever have one?
One of his friends interviewed said that “Clarence became a Republican so he could get a job. Now he is one of them.”
Ok, I get this. I can understand why the need for respect is important and why personal insecurity is a motivator, for better or for worse. While I do not “like” him, and will likely never agree with him, I think I now can begin to understand him. The humanity of the man came through in the Frontline program. He seemed to me to be something of a lost soul. But I also have to confess that there is something to admire about the journey of the flawed man from Pin Point, given his start in life. But on the other hand there is no question that our country would have been far better off if Clarence Thomas had gotten his dream job working for a prestigious New York law firm.