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To Cite a 'Mockingbird'
Justice Thomas Casts His Ordeal in a Literary Light

By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 1, 2007

For a peek into Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's roiling state of mind, go directly to Chapter 9 of his memoir, "My Grandfather's Son," which is officially being released today as the court opens its new term. The chapter's very title, "Invitation to a Lynching," conjures up one of the vilest periods in American history and makes clear that Thomas sees himself as a persecuted black man who was hunted by white enemies.

If there was any remaining mystery about whether Thomas has gotten over the confirmation hearings and sexual harassment allegations that humiliated him 16 years ago, the justice makes plain he hasn't. His words speak to a level of bitterness that he previously has not communicated during his tenure on the court. What is perhaps most revealing, however, especially in the last two chapters of the book, is how Thomas has come to define his racial identity through the prism of literature.

In Thomas's eyes, he is both Richard Wright's tragic Bigger Thomas in "Native Son" and Harper Lee's doomed Tom Robinson in "To Kill a Mockingbird," two of the most powerful portrayals of racial division in American literature. Lee's Pulitzer-Prize winning novel is set in the Deep South of the 1930s and features a courageous white lawyer, Atticus Finch (played in real life by former Sen. John Danforth in Thomas's rendering), who defends a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman.

Thomas's accuser, Anita Hill, was not a white woman but a black, Yale-educated law professor who had worked for him at two federal agencies. She testified that Thomas repeatedly made lewd, graphic sexual comments to her while trying against her wishes to pursue a romantic relationship. Thomas, who denied the allegations, writes that it was in conversation with Danforth, right before he was to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on his nomination to the Supreme Court in 1991, that he came up with the phrase "high-tech lynching." He scrawled it on a pad under his list of talking points.

"Somewhere in the back of my mind," Thomas writes, "I must have been thinking of To Kill a Mockingbird, in which Atticus Finch, a small-town southern lawyer, defends Tom Robinson, a black man on trial for the rape of a white woman. He was lucky to have had a trial at all -- Atticus had already helped him escape a lynch mob's rope. The evidence presented at the trial shows that Tom's accuser had lured him into her house, then kissed him, after which he fled. The case against him is laughably flimsy, but in the Deep South you didn't need a strong case to send a black man to the gallows, and it is already clear that Tom will be convicted when Atticus goes before the jury to make his closing argument."

Thomas then quotes Finch's courtroom remarks about white racists' "evil assumption -- that all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings, that all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women, an assumption one associates with minds of their caliber."

Thomas then writes: "I knew exactly what Atticus Finch was talking about. I, too, took it for granted that nothing I could say, however eloquent or sincere, was capable of overcoming the evil assumptions in which my accusers had put their trust. I had lived my whole life knowing that Tom's fate might be mine. As a child I had been warned by Daddy [grandfather Myers Anderson] that I could be picked up off the streets of Savannah and hauled off to jail or the chain gang for no other reason than that I was black."

Thomas's embrace of victimhood is extraordinary for a man of his achievement, and especially for someone who has often spoken publicly against self-pity. During a 1998 appearance before a group of black conservatives, Thomas was asked what would be "the best way to help our young people overcome the tag of victimization."

"We've got to stop whining and get up and go do it," he said, invoking his grandmother and neighborhood women who worked as maids and suffered under segregation "without a complaint except a little ache and a pain."

But in explaining his own pain and anger, Thomas cites Bigger Thomas, the central character in Wright's groundbreaking 1940 novel. Bigger, who grew up poor, gets a job as a chauffeur for a rich white couple and accidentally suffocates their drunken daughter with a pillow, burns her body in a panic that he will be charged with her murder, and eventually flees, touching off a massive police manhunt. Bigger is ultimately tried and convicted of murder and rape, becoming the savage archetype feared by white America.

"Reading Richard Wright's Native Son had made the strongest possible impression on me as a college student," Thomas writes. "What had happened to Bigger Thomas, I knew, could happen to any black man, including me."

As he tried to combat Hill's charges and sort out why he was in his predicament -- "How could someone I had tried to help turn on me so viciously?" -- Thomas again thought of Wright's character.

"After a lifetime of struggle and achievement," Thomas writes, "I'd been thrust back into Bigger Thomas's world, a dark, cramped hell devoid of hope."

Bigger Thomas is a recurring figure in Thomas's own narrative of his life. Back when he was saying very little about his confirmation ordeal -- stewing privately, according to some friends -- he read an article that he later recommended as the most dead-on critique ever written about him.

Titled "Native Son: Why a Black Supreme Court Justice Has No Rights a White Man Need Respect," it was written by the late Edith Efron and published by Reason magazine in February 1992, a few months after Thomas joined the court. The article had not left Thomas's consciousness nearly a decade later when he ran into Efron's editor, Virginia Postrel, after a speech in Washington. No one else, he told Postrel, had been able to see so clearly into his mind.

Though plenty of black organizations and politicians opposed his nomination -- including the NAACP and the National Bar Association -- Thomas has chosen to frame his fight for a seat on the court in racial terms. Repeatedly in his memoir, summoning powerful images of bigotry from the Jim Crow era, he positions himself as a besieged member of his race, and not the estranged, despised figure he is among many African Americans today.

Thomas's autobiography comes as the high court begins its new term, a court sharply divided ideologically and still forging its identity under Chief Justice John Roberts. Justices never want their institution embroiled in political controversy, but by dredging up a fight he long ago won, Thomas's memoir may serve as a reminder of the fierce political battles that are at the heart of who becomes a justice. While "My Grandfather's Son" doesn't delve into the workings of the Supreme Court, it is a highly unusual memoir for a sitting justice. It takes aim at senators and others who operate in political Washington, and has a partisan edge that most contemporary books by Supreme Court justices do not. Thomas was paid a reported $1.5 million for his book, far more than any other justice in history.

Attempts to reach Anita Hill for comment yesterday were unsuccessful, but Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, who served as her lead attorney during the Thomas confirmation hearings, said that he found Thomas's depiction of himself as a persecuted black man remarkable, given his "persistent jurisprudence that strikes a colorblind tone. And yet he talks in racial terms to define his own plight."

However the public assesses "My Grandfather's Son," for Thomas it was "a catharsis," according to commentator Armstrong Williams, a former Thomas aide who is throwing a book party for the justice this week. "He's definitely free, I can tell you that. You have to feel free to write something like that."

Kevin Merida, along with Michael A. Fletcher, is the co-author of "Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas."

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