For Clarence Thomas, Another Invitation and Another Flap
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 18, 1998; Page A06
Two years ago, officials in Prince George's County invited, disinvited, then reinvited Justice Clarence Thomas to speak at a school ceremony. Last year, the Maryland NAACP protested and derailed a speech Thomas was to give at a youth festival. And now some members of the nation's largest organization of black lawyers are trying to withdraw an invitation to the Supreme Court's only African American justice.
Seven years after Thomas was appointed to the high court, the ambivalence and animosity the now-graying justice engenders continues unabated. It has become almost ritual: A predominantly black group attempts to recognize Thomas, and a vocal faction rises up in protest.
To his critics, the reason is simple. Thomas is an African American who holds one of the nation's top offices, yet he uses that position to dismantle affirmative action and other civil rights initiatives that the late justice Thurgood Marshall helped to build a generation earlier.
"He is not a hero to us," said U.S. District Judge U. W. Clemon, among the members of the National Bar Association who is protesting Thomas's invitation to speak. "On issues affecting black people, Mr. Justice Thomas has provided the crucial vote against what many of us consider the interests of black people," Clemon said.
Despite the voices of protest, as it stands now, Thomas remains an invited speaker at the bar association's July 29 banquet in Memphis. And people who have spoken with Thomas say he intends to go.
U.S. Appeals Court Judge Damon J. Keith who, like Clemon, is a longtime member of the black bar group, said its offer to Thomas cannot -- and should not -- be withdrawn.
"Lawyers and judges, above all, should not be afraid to hear people speak," said Keith, of Detroit. "When he was invited, they knew about his opinions. There is nothing new about Justice Thomas that these people didn't know before."
Indeed, the sentiment and rhythm of Thomas's opinions is as consistent as the outrage he begets. Appointed by George Bush in 1991 to succeed Marshall, the first black justice, Thomas opposes affirmative action and believes remedial programs that take account of race only deepen the nation's prejudices.
"In my mind, government-sponsored racial discrimination based on benign prejudice is just as noxious as discrimination inspired by malicious prejudice," Thomas, who will turn 50 at the end of the month, wrote in a 1995 case.
It is Thomas's rejection of traditional government solutions for discrimination and desegregation -- the policies Marshall championed -- that provokes his critics. That he is black and knows what it is like to be shut out because of blackness deepens the anger among his detractors.
"I would not be as upset with him if he were white," said Clemon of Birmingham. "The position that Clarence Thomas filled on the Supreme Court is a black seat."
Thomas was invited to be the keynote speaker for the bar group's annual convention by Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Bernette J. Johnson, chairman of the group's judicial council, who traditionally has chosen the speaker. Soon after, some members of the council began protesting her choice.
Driving much of the criticism is retired U.S. Appeals Court Judge A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., who wrote to Johnson on May 27, "By the very nature of your invitation, you give [Thomas] an imprimatur that he has never had from any responsible organization within the African American community or any non-conservative groups of whites in America."
Higginbotham, now a professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, has been one of Thomas's most outspoken critics.
A majority of the board of the judicial council voted to withdraw the invitation to Thomas, but the council acknowledged in a letter to Thomas that Johnson did not agree with the vote or believe the invitation was canceled.
"The protocol is the chair determines who the speaker is going to be," said Benjamin Logan, a district court judge in Grand Rapids, Mich., who thinks the invitation should stand. "I don't necessarily agree with his decisions . . . but I am disappointed that there is a faction that is trying to deny him an opportunity to speak." Johnson, who did not return a reporter's call yesterday, said in an interview on NBC's "Today" show earlier this month that she thought a speech by Thomas would be "thought-provoking."
People close to Thomas say the justice does not consider the invitation to have been rescinded, and intends to speak to the group.
It won't be the first time he showed up amid such controversy. In 1996 a parent-teacher group in Prince George's County invited Thomas to speak. Soon after, the request was withdrawn, but then a backlash developed and Thomas was awkwardly reinvited. He appeared and spoke to the crowd.
Last year, however, after the Maryland NAACP protested a speech Thomas was to give at a youth festival in Delaware, the justice canceled his appearance to avoid a demonstration that he feared could spoil the event.
Keith, who has been assigned to introduce Thomas in July, said yesterday, "If there's nobody up there but me, Justice Thomas and [the bar dignitaries], I am going on with it. We aren't going to be bullied and intimidated by a few people."
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