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Justice Thomas Defined by His Roots, and Distance From Them

Though jurist hails from a humble background, he refuses to let his experiences influence his court decisions.

June 22, 1998|DAVID G. SAVAGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The struggle that is the life of Clarence Thomas passes another milestone this week when the Supreme Court's youngest, most reclusive and most vilified justice turns 50 on Tuesday.

Despite the passage of time, his defining experience remains his youthful fight to escape the poverty of the rural, black South and to succeed at an elite, white college in the North, according to a recent interview.

"You will have landed between worlds," Thomas told an 18-year-old black youth about to leave the projects of southeast Washington for an Ivy League college. "You just have to outwork them. That's the way you'll beat them. It was that way with me too. There was no safety net. No choice. To fail means to drop all the way to the bottom."

Thomas had read about the scholarly travails of young Cedric Jennings in the Wall Street Journal, and he invited the young man to come by for a chat before Jennings left for Brown University. The youth's visit to the Supreme Court turned into an emotional three-hour pep talk that offers a revealing glimpse of the court's most enigmatic justice.

"You won't ever really be able to go back. But you may find you're never fully accepted up ahead either," Thomas counseled Jennings. "That's the way I feel sometimes, even now, and it can make you angry. But you just have to channel that anger, to harness it."

Still not fully accepted as the replacement for Justice Thurgood Marshall, who was the high court's first African American justice, Thomas remains a uniquely combustible figure among black Americans, igniting controversy just by venturing outside the court.

Two years ago, he was invited, uninvited and then reinvited to speak at a high school graduation in suburban Maryland. Several black school board members had protested his appearance. Undaunted, Thomas showed up and gave a low-key talk about civility and good manners.

Leaders of the National Bar Assn., the nation's largest organization of black lawyers and judges, invited him to speak at their July 29 convention in Memphis, Tenn. Again, others protested the invitation and sought to have it revoked. Nonetheless, Thomas is expected to attend.

Within the closed confines of the Supreme Court, however, Thomas has quietly taken on another special role: mentor to the young. Sometimes, it is groups of students on trips to the nation's capital. Other times, it is a single promising black youth who is invited in for a heart-to-heart talk.

"He relates so well with kids. He always gives them lots of time," said conservative columnist Armstrong Williams, who has arranged some of the group visits.

"He is more gracious and generous with his time than all of his colleagues combined," said Stephen F. Smith, a former clerk to Thomas.

Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind, who first wrote about Jennings, has told the young man's story in a newly published book, "A Hope in the Unseen." In a rare move, Thomas agreed to speak to the reporter to recount his meeting with Jennings. That interview is included in the book and is excerpted in the July issue of Esquire.

"It was an extraordinary experience," Suskind said, recalling that he read Thomas a poem that Jennings had written.

"With torch in hand, he always runs into the sunset," the poem went. "Always alone, not knowing his destiny."

Thomas listened quietly and a tear came to his eye, Suskind said. "Oh yeah. I feel that way sometimes," the justice said.

The reporter said he was struck by the combination of bitterness and raw emotion from Thomas.

"He remembers indignities from 30 or 40 years ago with great precision. He felt the hurts deeply, and they have not healed," Suskind said.

In conversation, much of Thomas' anger focuses on the "liberal elite" and "multiculturalists."

The justice advised Jennings to avoid "that African American studies stuff," adding that he will not hire a law clerk who has taken such courses.

"You'll find a lot of classes and orientation on race relations. Try to avoid them," Thomas said. "Try to say to yourself, 'I'm not a black person. I'm just a person.' You'll find a lot of so-called multicultural combat, a lot of struggle between ethnic and racial groups wanting you to sign on, to narrow yourself into some group identity or other. You have to resist that, Cedric."

However, Thomas also stressed that because of his race, the youth would have to struggle even harder to survive.

"You're going to be up there with lots of very smart white kids, and if you're not sure about who you are, you could get eaten alive," he said.

*

Born into a single-parent family in tiny Pin Point, Ga., in 1948, Thomas was raised in Savannah by his grandparents. He credits the nuns at a Roman Catholic high school for pushing him to succeed.

He enrolled at a seminary in Missouri, but left for Holy Cross college in Massachusetts. In 1971, he entered Yale Law School, where his fellow students included Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham.

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