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New Controversy for the Lone Justice

Supreme Court: Clarence Thomas, odd man out on the bench, is forced to cancel school appearance due to objections by parents.


WASHINGTON — The lonely saga of Justice Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court's only African American, took another odd turn Wednesday when he was forced to back out of a planned appearance at a suburban school because of protests from some black parents.

The conservative justice "has done everything he can to undermine things that are important to people. . . . There's no place for Clarence Thomas anywhere in my district," said Kenneth E. Johnson, a school board member from Prince George's County, Md., who said that he would lead protests if Thomas showed up at a graduation ceremony June 10.

Other parents said they were ashamed and angry that the justice's visit to Thomas Pullen Creative and Performing Arts School in Landover, Md., had been turned "into a political thing." Though Thomas, 47, rarely speaks to law school classes, he has been more willing than any other justice to speak to visiting schoolchildren.

Last fall, Thomas spoke to students from Thomas Pullen, where about 70% of the students are black.

"He was just wonderful," said Mary Modderman, Parent Teacher Assn. president for the school. "He spent an hour and a half with the children. He was so personable, and they came away so impressed with him."

Afterward, the eighth-graders invited him to their graduation ceremony. "We were thrilled that he accepted," Modderman said.

But the invitation was withdrawn this week after top school officials learned of the planned protests. Thomas refused to comment.

Now in his fifth year on the high court, Thomas remains an up-from-poverty hero to many and a villain and traitor to many others.

Though opinion polls have found most black Americans supported him during his 1991 confirmation battle, recent surveys have suggested that he is now viewed unfavorably by most blacks.

Last year, Thomas cast the deciding fifth vote to outlaw affirmative action programs that gave preferences to minority-owned firms bidding on federal contracts and to dismantle a Georgia congressional district that had been drawn to favor the election of a black representative.

A staunch conservative, Thomas said that he stands up for the principle that the government cannot make distinctions based on race, whether they help or hurt blacks.

"I disagree with the prevailing point of view that special treatment for blacks is acceptable," Thomas told a group of visiting black journalists a year ago.

"I am not an Uncle Tom," he told the journalists, according to the Washington newspaper Afro-American. "One of the problems we have as black people . . . is we don't allow differing views."

Afterward, Thomas was singled out for attacks as a "pimp" and a "traitor" at last year's NAACP convention. Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, called him a "Benedict Arnold" and a "Judas Iscariot."

Not surprisingly, Thomas has confined most of his speaking engagements to conservative white audiences.

Two weeks ago, he gave the commencement address at Liberty University, a conservative Bible college headed by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Two years ago, he spoke at North Carolina's Wingate College, where he was enthusiastically introduced by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).

But most of the time, Thomas leads a lonely and confined life. He drives to work early, arriving before 7 a.m., and exercises in the court's gym. He spends most of his day in his chambers on the second floor of the Supreme Court building.

Unlike the other justices, Thomas seldom gets invited to speak at prominent law schools or to teach summer classes in Europe.

Law clerks and loyal friends in his small circle say that Thomas loves his work and is at peace with himself. One former clerk who visited the justice recently said: "He lit up a cigar, leaned back in his leather chair and talked, and I heard the usual bellowing laugh."

But at some public events, he seems nearly overcome with emotion when his confirmation ordeal comes up.

He was once asked at an elementary school if he thought of quitting. "A thousand times a day," Thomas answered. Sometimes, he said recently, he has to pray "to get through the next 15 minutes. Not the next hour or the next day, but the next 15 minutes."

But Thomas quickly dispelled any thoughts that he plans to resign, repeating his statement that he plans to serve 40 more years.

"Quitting is not a real option," he said. "In my heart of hearts, I would prefer to die standing up rather than quitting. Quitting, in my view, is a form of suicide."

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