It was 8 a.m. when the phone rang in his Westin Hotel room. Clarence Thomas had finished breakfast and had several hours to burn before his luncheon speech to the Savannah Bar Association.
"What're you doing?" asked Lester Johnson when he reached the justice that day last spring.
"I'm just coolin' out," Thomas said.
Johnson, an old friend and a prominent local attorney, figured Thomas would enjoy a quick tour of the renovated Bull Street Library, the main branch downtown that wouldn't admit blacks until 1963. When Thomas was growing up, he spent most of his free time in the Carnegie Library, on the black side of town. It wasn't until he was a teenager that integration gave him access to the Big Library, as he called it, but once access was granted Thomas took advantage of it.
The justice notified his security people and met Johnson
in front of the library. Johnson had promised Thomas the tour would take 15 minutes, but once Savannah's most famous son planted himself among the historical texts and old city maps, once he started reminiscing about "story hour," once he started introducing himself to the genealogy specialist and the security guard and posing for photos, it was hard to drag him away. For two hours.
He spotted a group of fourth- and fifth-grade boys and, hoping to inspire them, sidled over. When he was a kid, Thomas told them, the library was how he expanded his world, using books to visit places that were beyond his reach. The kids, however, were having too much fun working with the computers to pay close attention to a Supreme Court justice they didn't recognize. Johnson, who was more distressed by this than Thomas seemed to be, had a library staffer make 12 copies of Thomas's bio and instructed the students to tell their parents about the man they had met.
Johnson had long admired Thomas, who is five years his senior. Both came up through the Catholic school system in Savannah, both went to Holy Cross College in Massachusetts. Thomas the mentor had implored Johnson to avoid easy courses in college, to prepare for life's later competitions. ("Let them white boys go out and get drunk. You need to be staying on campus and hitting those books.")
The tour continued. Upstairs, Thomas and a childhood acquaintance were recalling youthful pastimes such as "pluffer," shooting chinaberries at each other through a tube of cane. But the laughter was interrupted when Abigail Jordan, a retired educator and local activist, eyed Thomas.
There was something in the portrait of Thomas and his friends, yukking it up, enjoying themselves, that compelled Jordan to move toward the group, close enough, as she would later say, "to be kissed" by Lester Johnson. She stood before the assembled, stared and then abruptly said: "I just wanted to see what a group of Uncle Toms look like." Then she walked away.
Apparently, just being in the company of Clarence Thomas is enough to damn you.
'What's Anita Doing Now?'
To call someone an Uncle Tom is among the most searing insults a black American can hurl at a member of his own race, a synonym for sellout, someone subservient to whites at the expense of his own people. That the lone African American on the Supreme Court would provoke such a cutting slur should be astounding.
In what other corner of America does someone of such achievement face withering contempt from people who look like him and grew up like him? "I hope his wife feeds him lots of eggs and butter and he dies early, like many black men do, of heart disease," Julianne Malveaux, the liberal commentator, once cracked on a talk show.
Thomas likes to say the cuts don't bleed, but his anger, his resentment, his hurt are hard to mask. "I've been called names. I've been accused of things that didn't happen. Fine, but I'm still here," he told a group of black conservatives in 1998.
If Thomas is unbothered by the harsh judgment of him, why does he spend so much time talking about it? The depiction of himself as a victim, a man under unfair siege, is a staple of Thomas's speeches.
"It would affect anybody if you got criticism all your life," suggests Abraham Famble, a childhood friend who visits Thomas at his Fairfax home every summer.
It has been nearly 11 years since his bitterly contested ascension to the high court. In that time, he has put considerable distance between himself and the sensational sexual harassment charges that transformed his confirmation hearing into a national soap opera. Nothing has emerged--no explosive revelation--to change the historical record. Some will continue to believe Anita Hill's allegations, others Thomas's steadfast denials. But the whole tawdry affair, with its salacious talk of porn star Long Dong Silver and of pubic hair on Coke cans, has mostly receded into history.
According to friends and former law clerks of Thomas, the subject is not taboo with the justice, though it is always broached gingerly. Famble recalls taking a spin with Thomas in his vintage black Corvette a couple of years ago in Washington when a thought occurred to him: "Clarence, what's Anita doing now? You don't hear much about her no more."
"That's over," Thomas replied. "You ain't going to hear nothing about her. That's it."
These days, Thomas is mostly judged by his record on the court. There, he is a constitutional purist who has proved to be a sure vote against school busing, race-based affirmative action programs and minority voting districts. In most circles, that makes him a conservative. To some, a right-winger. But among African Americans, it is rarely left at that. The mere mention of Clarence Thomas often prompts emotional reactions at barbershops, cocktail receptions, gyms, anywhere African Americans congregate.
Here in Washington, he has carved out a life for himself that is full, but sometimes lonely. He and his wife, Virginia, live on a secluded, wooded property in Fairfax, their home invisible from the street. Socially, their appearances on the town are rare and usually at conservative-friendly events. They prefer small, intimate gatherings with friends. Ginni, a Heritage Foundation executive, met Thomas in 1986 while working for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; they married the following year. She is fiercely protective of her husband, once calling a local radio talk show to defend him.
Other than Ginni, the main joy in Thomas's life is his great-nephew Mark, whom he is raising as a second son. Thomas assumed custody after Mark's father was sentenced to prison in 1997 in connection with drug charges. Thomas, who was raised by his grandfather, has said he felt the need to do for Mark what had been done for him.
He also meets regularly with a group of young drug addicts and with fifth-graders in an after-school program in Staunton, Va.
As justices go, he is known for his informality, and is a favorite with court police and janitors. He is familiar with MTV, knows his way around the Internet and is an ardent football fan--especially of the Washington Redskins' arch-rivals, the Dallas Cowboys.
In his home office, Thomas has a kneeler, and before writing opinions he prays. "He really thinks there needs to be inspiration from a greater being," says a friend, "that man should be humble in his approach to the Constitution."
Now that the court is out of session, Thomas has taken to the road in his 40-foot custom-built motor coach. With its plush leather furniture, satellite television and onboard galley, the 1992 bus is a "condo on wheels," as Thomas once described it.
"When he's out on the road in his bus," says one close friend, "it's like he's off the record with himself." He'll pull into a Wal-Mart parking lot, cap on, sometimes unrecognizable in middle America. Polishing the bus with a rag, he'll engage folks in conversation about different waxes and oils, and drink lemonade. The homey atmosphere at RV parks and campgrounds--not to mention the anonymity he enjoys--is a welcome respite, he tells friends.
And yet Thomas remains a Washington player.
Early profiles of Thomas the justice cast him as a man who had tuned out his tormentors, who didn't read newspapers, who had retreated from the political culture. That seems overstated.
Thomas blames most of his image problems on the media. But like many others with influence in the capital--senators, Cabinet officers, lobbyists--Thomas isn't shy about working the media he says he disdains. He is known to phone columnists and other commentators to offer critiques of their work and advice. Essayist Debra Dickerson received one of Thomas's calls after an op-ed column she wrote for The Washington Post about the "conundrum" Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice present as powerful African Americans whose achievements merit admiration but whose Republican stripes often put them at odds with the majority of blacks.
Thomas liked the column, he told Dickerson, and talked about how difficult it is for blacks in public life with nontraditional views. He laughed and did 90 percent of the talking, keeping her on the phone so long that Dickerson thought, "He's a lonely guy."
"I think he would clearly love his relationship with the black community to be different . . . There is a wistfulness there. You can't be outside of the fold and not feel it," she says, speaking as an unpredictable black voice herself. "He is the lowest of the low in sort of official blackdom. It's unfair, and it's got to hurt."
'A Big, Fat Cigar'
Michael Rosier, an Oxon Hill attorney and outgoing president of the National Bar Association, was at a lounge in the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia some years ago when Thomas walked in and greeted him: "Hey, how you doin', bruh?"
Though it's common for black men--even strangers--to greet each other with such casual familiarity, Thomas's approach bothered Rosier. He felt the justice was being hypocritical: Here he is calling me a brother, acting like we share something in common, but when he gets inside those chambers he doesn't act like we share something in common.
As the night progressed, the black men who stopped in for a drink or to listen to the DJ spin oldies all found themselves congregated on one side of the club--that is, all but Thomas, who had moved to the other side of the room, surrounded by whites, people he knew. "Smoking a big, fat cigar," Rosier recalls. "The symbolism was eerie."
That a routine encounter would trigger such a reaction in Rosier might strike some as odd. But it happens often.
Emerge, a since-departed African American-oriented newsmagazine, twice parodied Thomas on its cover--once wearing an Aunt Jemima-style headscarf and another time as a lawn jockey. The editions were among the magazine's bestsellers. For the past six years, Ebony magazine has not listed Thomas among its 100 most influential African Americans.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii proposed inviting Thomas to participate in an upcoming debate on affirmative action. In previous years, the group had featured other conservatives, including political organizer Ralph Reed and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. But when Thomas's name came up, a new threshold had been crossed.
Having Thomas debate affirmative action would be no different from "inviting Hitler to come speak on the rights of Jews," said Eric Ferrer, one of the Hawaii group's three black board members. The ACLU initially decided not to invite Thomas but later reversed itself. Ferrer and another black board member resigned.
Even in academia, where philosophical debate is supposed to be encouraged, Thomas can never count on a positive reception from blacks. This spring, five black law professors boycotted his visit to the University of North Carolina. Though the professors had not protested visits by Justices Scalia and Sandra Day O'Connor in preceding years, they noted that Thomas was more than just a jurist with whom they disagreed. In a nation "in which African Americans are disproportionately poor, undereducated, imprisoned and politically compromised," the professors wrote in explaining their position, "identity--racial identity--very clearly matters. Were that not the case, Justice Thomas, for all his claims to the contrary, could not have declared himself the victim of a 'high-tech lynching' during the heated opposition to his appointment to the Supreme Court."
Some have gone so far as to suggest that Thomas suffers from a twisted hatred of his own blackness. The insult leaves his friends in disbelief. "We have fought too long and hard against people who believe we all look alike," says Larry Thompson, the deputy attorney general of the United States and one of Thomas's closest friends. "We should not allow people to believe we all think alike."
Last summer, the Savannah library board was given a proposal that few thought it could refuse. Harlan Crow, the Texas development magnate and a friend of Thomas's, inquired about making a substantial donation to complete the long-stalled renovation and expansion of the once-all-black Carnegie Library. One stipulation: The renovated structure had to be named for Thomas. Crow was told that wasn't possible, but something more modest might be.
Robert Brooks wanted no part of any deal. Brooks, who had boarded buses in Savannah for the long ride to Washington to support Thomas during the confirmation fight in 1991, felt betrayed by the justice's record. He called other community activists, who protested the proposed gift for nearly three months until the library board finally accepted a $150,000 donation in exchange for naming a wing of the library after the Supreme Court justice.
"We didn't want him held up as a role model," Brooks says. "If I call him the Benedict Arnold of our age, if I declare that he is our Judas . . . that's not taking it to a personal level." Adds Brooks, a Savannah radio talk show host and a former member of the library board, "It's just fact. I know his public record, and it's horrendous. It'll take 100 years to undo what he is doing on the court."
Thomas followed the flap from afar, friends say, incredulous that there would be such furor over his views, enough to compel citizens to want to turn down a generous gift. "It's ridiculous," Thomas told Lester Johnson, "that so-called black leaders in Savannah would jeopardize the future of young black children because they don't like me or my political leanings or my decisions."
W. John Mitchell, a community leader in the neighborhood where the library is located, concurs. "I disagree with Clarence Thomas, but I'm not going to shoot myself in the foot . . . I'm not so angry with him that I'm going to pass up something fabulous for children to come."
Lester Johnson is more pointed in his assessment of Thomas's hometown critics: "We still have these folks who have never left Savannah and who believe that to be black you've got to be a Baptist, you've got to eat fried chicken, you've got to believe in the civil rights movement, you've got to support Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and believe in everything they do, and that you've got to be liberal."
'So Many Scoundrels'
Five attempts were made to persuade Thomas to grant a formal interview for this article.
One came at the 8th Circuit Judicial Conference in St. Louis last year. Thomas was approached at a reception, where he was helping to dedicate the rotunda of a new federal building. In the receiving line, an introduction was made. Thomas said he had received the first of two letters soliciting an interview. "Very kind letter. I wish you all the best. Good luck."
He noted that he had wanted to be a journalist at one point, but had come to see the media as "malicious" and so he does not do interviews. Which is almost precise. Thomas does do selected interviews--for biographies of friends (Sen. Orrin Hatch) or articles of tribute to friends (TV pundit Barbara Olson). He consented to an interview with Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) for a book the senator was writing that would include the confirmation fight. It was Specter who aggressively led the GOP's questioning of Anita Hill during Thomas's confirmation proceedings.
Journalists writing about Thomas have not been so fortunate. He has not done a major print or broadcast interview since coming onto the court in 1991. In St. Louis, over several days, Thomas was pleasant and accommodating in a series of informal conversations. He spoke of raising his oldest son, Jamal, as a single parent. (After Thomas's first marriage, to college sweetheart Kathy Ambush, collapsed in 1981, Jamal came to live with him.) He said he stopped caring long ago about how people regarded him, determined that "nobody was going to tell me how to think." One night he continued to chat, even though he was bone tired, holding a bottle of almost-finished Evian, desperate for the elevator to arrive so he could retire to his room. But throughout the conference, he kept returning to a refrain, saying over and over, "You're in a tough business." Meaning the media. Meaning no formal interview. Nothing personal. "I wish you luck."
Thomas has a long memory. He cited an article off the top of his head, written by Ernest Holsendolph, then of the New York Times, published July 3, 1982. Thomas nailed the exact date. He called the article "the most unfair thing ever written about me" and urged that it be looked up. The story, 982 words, ran on Page 5 of the Times's main news section and begins this way:
Clarence Thomas says that, as a youngster growing up in the Deep South in the 1960s and 1970s, he benefited from scholarships and other special programs provided for minorities.
But now, in his new role as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the 34-year-old Mr. Thomas says he is opposed to aggressive "affirmative action" plans for minorities because they often place young people in programs beyond their abilities, especially in schools.
The piece quotes Thomas extensively, but also quotes several critics. By most standards, it was a routine story. Which raises the question: Why would a public figure be so wounded by such everyday journalism? Thomas did not specify--the only certainty is that two decades later this single article is still etched in his mind.
On matters beyond his image and portrayal, Thomas appears at ease. Observing him among the judges and attorneys who practice in the Midwest's 8th Circuit, which Thomas oversees, is like watching the milkman. No standoffishness. No pomposity. No pretension. "He wears his position lightly," says U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Richard Arnold of Arkansas, who himself has been on the short list for Supreme Court nominations. "I know that some lawyers and judges in this part of the country think more highly of him now that they've gotten to know him."
During a panel discussion, "Cyberspace and Beyond," Thomas sat in the 11th of 14 rows, hunched over, scanning his program. Thomas fills up a chair, bigger than he looks at first glance. He has a full face, a wide grin, a deep voice. He speaks clearly in a steady cadence that conveys humility. He enjoys a good joke or a good story, as anyone in listening range can tell from his booming laugh.
After Thomas delivered the closing address of the conference, he asked for questions. No hands went up. There was a long, uncomfortable silence. And then Thomas said: "To the extent that you are reluctant to ask questions, I would just encourage you to overcome that. There are no bad questions if you want an answer."
And so the questions came. One of the questioners noted that Thomas himself is one of the least active questioners--actually, the least active--in oral arguments. What does that reflect?
"It reflects that Justice Blackmun left the court because he was the least active before," Thomas quipped, before adding: "I think it's much to-do about nothing. People yak, yak, yak."
After the conference adjourned, Thomas lingered, shaking hands, answering questions, signing autographs. Kim Lewis, an assistant in the 8th Circuit executive's office, got an autograph for her eighth-grade daughter. Lewis told Thomas that the girl already was in a gifted-and-talented program. "I'm looking for law clerks," Thomas said as he signed, "but you've got to stay on her."
After everyone had left, Thomas was asked one final time to consider an interview. But he returned to his contempt for the media. "You've got some scoundrels in your business," he said. "Why do you have so many scoundrels?"
'The Right Kind of Affirmative Action'
Thomas was born on June 23, 1948, in a poor, mostly black Georgia town as tiny and downtrodden as the name Pin Point implies. After the family house burned down when he was 6, the result of his younger brother playing with matches, his mother, Leola Anderson, rented a small apartment in Savannah. The following year, she sent the brothers to live with her father, Myers Anderson, a Savannah businessman who provided them some middle-class comforts. Thomas's own father was long gone, having bolted when Thomas was a year old, settling in Philadelphia.
"He had everything he needed when he got with his grandfather, which he didn't have out there" in Pin Point, says Sam Williams, a family friend. "His grandpa didn't think much of Pin Point. Whenever he'd get angry at Clarence, he'd say, 'Oh, you from Pin Point.' "
Thomas's grandfather sent him to Catholic schools and taught him about hard work and self-reliance. Anderson owned a fuel oil business that also provided ice, and Thomas would often tag along, helping his grandfather with deliveries.
Anderson believed in discipline ("You are destined to work from sun to sun") and strict rules ("The teachers are always right"). He could break down a car engine and do his own plumbing--he taught himself. His message to his grandson: Don't rely on anybody else for your success, least of all the government.
Anderson expected his grandson to deliver good grades, which Thomas did, sometimes as the only black student in school. He also read for hours and hours in the library. His favorite author was Richard Wright, and Thomas lists Native Son and Black Boy--books that explored what it felt like to be black and poor and hemmed in by racial prejudice--as crucial to his early development. At times, Thomas has turned to Wright's work to understand himself. Such was the case following the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. One year out of high school, Thomas was one of few blacks in his class at Immaculate Conception Seminary in Missouri. Though anguished about disappointing his grandfather, who encouraged his pursuit of the priesthood, Thomas was becoming disillusioned with Catholicism. Then King was assassinated, and the unsympathetic response of some of the white seminarians made him feel even more isolated, angry and out of place.
"Just as Richard Wright's Bigger Thomas had been consumed by the conflagration of prejudices, stereotypes and circumstances beyond his control and understanding, I felt myself being similarly consumed," Thomas later said in a speech. "I stood at the brink of the great abyss of anger, frustration and animosity."
Thomas transferred to Holy Cross College in the fall of 1968. By then, he was flirting with radicalism. At one point he had virtually all of the recorded speeches of Malcolm X. He became
secretary-treasurer of Holy Cross's black student union and sometimes wore leather berets reminiscent of those sported by militants such as Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton. Thomas was so far to the left in his thinking, he has said, that "I thought George McGovern was a conservative." In fact, while at Yale Law School, he voted for McGovern in '72.
Ten years later, he was Ronald Reagan's chairman of the EEOC and lamenting his rebellious streak as a slap to how he was reared. "The thing that bothered me in college was that I saw myself rejecting the way of life that got me to where I was," Thomas told Reason magazine in 1987.
Some believe, however, that the image of Thomas as black radical has been hyped. Supporters made much of this former radicalism during his confirmation hearings.
"That's garbage, all this radical crap," says Edward P. Jones, a writer who went to college with Thomas. "If something came along and it didn't interfere with whatever he was doing that day, he would do it . . . My recollection is he wasn't the rah-rah out-front guy others are portraying him to be."
What seems undeniable is Thomas's sense of independence. When the black student union voted to demand that the administration set up a black corridor in one of the dormitories, Thomas was the lone voice against it. He argued that blacks had not come to Holy Cross to segregate themselves from whites. But after the administration granted the union's request, Thomas ended up compromising on that principle: He moved to the black corridor but brought along his white roommate.
In 1975 Thomas read a book by economist Thomas Sowell titled Race and Economics, which, he says, changed his life. The book criticizes the wrongheadedness of government social reforms and trumpets the importance of individual initiative in overcoming circumstance. Suddenly, Thomas had an intellectual foundation for a worldview that was compatible with Grandpa Anderson's values. Practically speaking, it also was the beginning of Thomas's shift to the right.
In 1976, as a registered independent, he voted for Republican Gerald Ford. For those who now see Thomas as a hardened conservative--one who agrees with the court's most conservative justice, Antonin Scalia, 90 percent of the time--it's worth noting that he has long struggled with the label.
Ken Masugi, one of Thomas's aides at the EEOC in the '80s, spent many hours discussing ideas and ideology with Thomas. He recalls one such conversation in which Thomas posed this question: "Is there some way to be a conservative without being a Confederate?"
"He liked some things conservatives were saying," recalls Masugi, "but didn't like the implications--the race baiting . . . He was rather dissatisfied with the conservatives. He was probably more inclined toward the libertarians back then than he is now."
Evidence of these leanings can be seen in the influence of libertarian icon Ayn Rand on Thomas. In Rand's work, Thomas saw a model for independence and self-sufficiency. Dating back to his days at the EEOC, and continuing once he got to the Supreme Court, he would require staffers to watch the 1949 film version of Rand's best-selling book The Fountainhead. The plot centers on an architect's struggle to preserve his integrity against the voices of conformity.
It became clear that Thomas saw Rand's work as a crucial metaphor for his own experience as he rose through the ranks of government--a rise that, while meteoric, was turbulent.
In 12 years, he went from aide to Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.) to U.S. Supreme Court justice. It was during this period that his bitterness toward the media and the civil rights establishment hardened.
During his years in the Reagan administration, he publicly challenged civil rights leaders, once telling an interviewer that there was not a single area in which the NAACP was doing good work--"I can't think of any"--and at another time complaining that all civil rights leaders do is "bitch, bitch, bitch, moan and moan, whine and whine." In Thomas's view, he was only returning the fire he was subjected to as a black conservative, but the practical effect was to deepen his alienation from broad sectors of his own race.
It was also during this period that he became estranged from his grandfather, who was disappointed he had not returned to Savannah to practice law and use his good education to help other blacks, according to family friend Williams, who was Myers Anderson's confidant. "When he got with Reagan, he changed completely," says Williams.
Ironically, even as Thomas was having his spats with civil rights leaders, he was fighting his own battles inside the Reagan administration. He sometimes tried to soften policies that he knew would further isolate the Republican Party from blacks, but he often felt taken for granted, and a token.
In a signature episode, then-Assistant Attorney General Brad Reynolds raised a glass to toast Thomas's confirmation to a second term as EEOC chairman and lauded him as "the epitome of the right kind of affirmative action working the right way."
The irony is that Thomas had always said he would never take a race-based job and that he was "insulted" when he was asked by Reagan operatives first to take a position as the Department of Education's assistant secretary for civil rights and then to become EEOC chairman. "What other reason besides the fact that I was black?"
Despite his misgivings, friends persuaded him to get on the inside and make a difference. His own experiences aside, Thomas has repeatedly counseled peers and proteges not to get racially pigeonholed. Career suicide, he has told some, though it certainly didn't hurt Thomas.
Randy Jones heard Thomas expound on this firsthand when he sat down with him in his chambers in the fall of 1998.
At the time Jones was president of the National Bar Association, the 18,000-member group of black lawyers and judges, and Thomas had invited Jones and his family to visit him in Washington. For almost three hours, Jones and Thomas chatted. He found the justice engaging and solicitous. He was struck that "everything in his office points to the African American experience." Photos of Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois, black art. "I was pleasantly surprised."
Even so, Thomas told him that blacks needed to get over the past, to take responsibility for their actions. "It's not that I'm against the advancement of the race," Thomas said, "it's that our strategy for advancement has got to change." We need to prepare ourselves, Thomas told Jones. For instance, Thomas made a point not to study civil rights cases in law school because he didn't want to be limited.
But then Thomas carried his logic too far, Jones felt. He mentioned that he often advises students not to take African American and women's studies courses. The Supreme Court, Thomas told Jones, requires "forward thinking." The justice also suggested the dearth of black law clerks was attributable less to race and more to class, a point that bothered Jones.
When Jones finally left, though, he felt an odd sense of comfort with the justice--unsettled by some of the things he said, but not in a hostile way. "It was just like me having a conversation with the boys," remembers Jones. "That was the weird thing about it. With the exception of his opinions, he was cool."
Jones's experience was not unlike that of other blacks who've entered the justice's chambers uncertain, if not wary. Take Donna Brazile, a highly influential Democratic political operative. On a basement wall of her Capitol Hill rowhouse are autographed photos of the major public figures she has worked with--Jesse Jackson, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Coretta Scott King, Thurgood Marshall. But there's also room for a photo of Clarence Thomas. "I feel he belongs on the wall," she says. "I've never been ashamed of it."
This is the same Donna Brazile who managed the campaign of Al Gore, who lost the 2000 presidential election by a hair, whose fate was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court, whose 5-4 majority against continuing a Florida recount included Clarence Thomas. This is the same Donna Brazile who carried a sign during Thomas's confirmation process: "Hill told the truth; Thomas lied."
The relationship between Brazile and Thomas is among the more remarkable in Washington. It speaks to what often happens, Thomas supporters like to say, when African Americans get to view Thomas outside the public theater. In Brazile's case, it began with a 1994 meeting with Thomas and a small group of blacks in his chambers, arranged by conservative commentator Armstrong Williams in hopes of bridging the breach with many African Americans.
After the meeting, a cordial chat, she told Williams that "there's so much animosity and hatred toward Clarence Thomas as someone who has betrayed the race, I can't bridge that gap . . . But I can, as a human being, get to know him, meet him from time to time."
So Brazile and Thomas stayed in touch. He sent her the autographed photo that's on her wall. Last year, she sent him a birthday card. Brazile is raising her niece, and Thomas, who is in a similar position with his great-nephew, has taken an interest. "For a moment," says Brazile, "I forgot he was on the Supreme Court and has ruled against everything I'm for . . . That's not what I see when I see Clarence Thomas. I see a Southern black man."
Brazile is asked why there is such vitriol directed at Thomas.
"Because African Americans have bought into this whole notion that we need leaders, people to stand up for us. And Clarence Thomas is not looking to be a black leader. I'm sure he never applied . . . He will never fit in Thurgood Marshall's shoes. Those are not the shoes he wants to wear."
'Blinded by the Light'
Leonard Small has known Thomas since they were teenagers. He would run into the future justice when playing pickup basketball at Savannah's all-
black St. Pius X High School. He never
remembers playing against Thomas, whom he would see in passing at the gym. "He was kind of nerdy, that's what I remember," Small says.
Since then, Thomas has gone on to the Ivy League and the Supreme Court. Small, meanwhile, has had a different type of career. After a stint in prison and a long battle with drugs, he returned to school, eventually earning a PhD in psychology, and has since become a minister, antidrug counselor and one of Savannah's leading community activists.
He lives in a small wood-frame bungalow in a fraying neighborhood of shotgun houses and hand-built cinder-block homes, not far from where Thomas grew up. Remembering Thomas from his childhood, Small helped arrange the buses that journeyed from Savannah to Washington during Thomas's confirmation hearings.
Even then, he says, he had concerns about the conservative record Thomas had built. But he clung to the hope that Thomas's outlook would change once he joined the high court.
"Looking back, I guess most of us were blinded by the light. The idea that somebody from Pin Point would become a Supreme Court justice was just a sweet thought," he says.
Now, Small feels betrayed. He calls Thomas a turncoat who has forgotten where he came from. "He not only hates himself, he hates his history," Small says. "He wishes almost sociopathically to be white."
Asked to explain, Small thinks for a moment, before disappearing into a back room. Moments later, he emerges with a stack of papers. They represent some of Thomas's most controversial work on the bench. Small browses them for the things he says best explain the widespread anger toward Thomas.
The first is Missouri v. Jenkins, a 1995 case in which Thomas joined the majority in overturning a lower court's order to increase spending in Kansas City's predominantly black school system to foster integration by attracting more white, suburban students. The court majority ruled that the funding plan went beyond the scope of the city's long-standing desegregation order, but Thomas went further.
In a separate opinion, he criticized some of the rationale the court employed in the seminal Brown v. Board of Education decision, the 1954 case that effectively ended state-sponsored segregation. In reaching its decision in Brown, the court considered evidence of the psychological harm suffered by black school children as the result of segregation.
" 'Racial isolation' itself is not a harm; only state-enforced segregation is," Thomas wrote. "After all, if separation itself is a harm, and if integration therefore is the only way that blacks can receive a proper education, then there must be something inferior about blacks."
This leaves Small incredulous. "Segregation doesn't impact the psyche of blacks?" Small says. "That's a foolish notion."
Next, Small pulls out Hudson v. McMillan, a 1992 case in which Thomas dissented from a court majority that ruled the beating of a Louisiana inmate by three prison guards was cruel and unusual punishment.
The prisoner, Keith Hudson, had gotten into an argument with three guards at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. The guards shackled Hudson and took him to an isolated area where they kicked and punched him. The assault left Hudson with loosened teeth, facial bruises and a cracked dental plate.
In his dissent, Thomas said the beating, while deplorable, did not meet the constitutional standard of cruel and unusual punishment. "In my view, a use of force that causes only insignificant harm to a prisoner may be immoral, it may be tortious, it may be criminal . . . but it is not 'cruel and unusual punishment,' " he wrote.
"What does that mean? That guards have free course to beat on Negroes in prison?" Small says. "If that is not cruel and unusual punishment . . ."
In Adarand Constructors v. Pena, a 1995 case in which a Colorado company challenged a federal highway contracting program designed to help minority firms, Thomas made his distaste for affirmative action clear. In an opinion concurring with the court's vote limiting affirmative action, he wrote, "There can be no doubt that racial paternalism and its unintended consequences can be as poisonous and pernicious as any other form of discrimination."
As far as Small is concerned, his case is made. "People don't understand why we call people Uncle Toms," he concludes. "But in the novel [Uncle Tom's Cabin], Eliza ran from slavery and Uncle Tom stayed. While we are trying to run for freedom, Clarence Thomas is not only staying, he's telling."
But Thomas's defenders look at the justice's work and arrive at the opposite conclusion. Not only is Thomas consciously black, they say, he is charting a bold, if lonely, path that ultimately will be vindicated as the best for African Americans.
Thomas, far from ignoring his own blackness or forgetting his difficult childhood, consistently makes the point in speeches and legal opinions that African Americans are the equal of anyone--
a perspective he claims underlies his
jurisprudence when the issue is race.
Thomas joined the majority in United States v. Fordice, a 1992 ruling that Mississippi had not done enough to desegregate its colleges and universities. But he noted in a concurring opinion that increased university integration could diminish historically black colleges.
"It would be ironic, to say the least, if the institutions that sustained blacks during segregation were themselves destroyed in an effort to combat its vestiges," he wrote.
In a dissent from a court decision overturning a Chicago anti-loitering ordinance in Chicago v. Morales, Thomas underlined his view that police needed more power to curb gangs in crime-ridden neighborhoods.
"Gangs fill the lives of many of our poorest and most vulnerable citizens with terror that the Court does not give sufficient consideration, often relegating them to the status of prisoners in their own homes," Thomas wrote.
In a June opinion concurring with the high court ruling upholding an Ohio school voucher plan, Thomas again explained himself by invoking race. "While the romanticized ideal of universal public education resonates with the cognoscenti who oppose vouchers, poor urban families just want the best education for their children, who will certainly need it to function in our high-tech and advanced society," Thomas wrote. "As Thomas Sowell noted 30 years ago: Most black people have faced too many grim, concrete problems to be romantics."
Thomas says his critics twist his views simply because they disagree with them. Certainly, he says, he has never forgotten who he is, not when being ridiculed as a child by fellow blacks for his dark complexion, nor when as a seminary student he faced racial taunts from whites. "I knew who I was and needed no gimmicks to affirm my identity," Thomas told the National Bar Association. "Nor, might I add, do I need anyone telling me who I am today. This is especially true of the psycho-silliness about forgetting my roots or self-hatred."
The Home of the Myth
It is possible to miss this place as you're driving the Diamond Causeway, 11 miles from downtown Savannah, watching fishermen wade into shallow water in search of crabs. But then, all of a sudden, there it is, off to the right, a blue metal sign waving in the wind, inviting you down a back road: "Welcome to Pin Point. Birth Place of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas."
Pin Point, population 275, is a rural settlement founded by freed slaves after the Civil War. It is a mile wide and a mile and half long, and only recently have paved roads made their way there.
Pin Point has no gym, no swimming pool, no school--kids attend schools in a nearby jurisdiction--one church, one outdoor basketball court and a collection of trailer homes that sit on cinder blocks. Four out of every five residents are poor, but their lives are not joyless. And yet not all is the way it once was. In recent years, drugs have found their way to Pin Point in a big way; 14 young men from the community, including Thomas's nephew, are now serving time in prison for drug-
"The only generation that we haven't had no control over is this generation," says David McKiver, 65, a lifelong Pin Point resident who knew Thomas as a kid and used to shoo him home when it got dark outside. "This generation wants to be slick. You can't tell this generation nothing."
This is the place that was used to mythologize Clarence Thomas. His connection to Pin Point is the single most significant reason why Thomas is on the high court. His advisers, in fact, dubbed their plan to win confirmation the "Pin Point strategy," as it involved burnishing the image of Thomas as a man of humble origins in the Jim Crow South who managed to scale impoverishment and segregation to make something of himself.
How could someone of his background not be authentic?
A skeptical Vernon Jordan once called the strategy a "bootstrap myth," but its intention was both to humanize Thomas and to neutralize his critics, especially liberals (white and black) who wished to define him as a menace to his race. Thomas was all for dividing the larger black population, who he thought would embrace his story, and the civil rights establishment, which he thought would get caught up in Democratic politics.
From his confirmation hearings, no one would ever have guessed that Thomas left Pin Point when he was a small boy and had a thin connection there. But Thomas did draw closer to Pin Point during his confirmation hearings, moved by the busloads of Georgians who came to Washington in support of him. Since then, he has maintained only loose ties to his home town, and only through a small circle--his cousin Isaac Martin, his childhood friend Abraham Famble and his sister, Emma Martin.
"The truth is," says Charles Harris, president of the Pin Point Betterment Association, "we don't ever see him." And, Harris quips, "we were pretty good friends. I used to beat him up."
The Betterment Association was created to do things like buy flowers for the families of the deceased, keep the cemetery clean and sponsor youth sports teams. When residents can't help themselves, the association tries to chip in, raising money through fish fries and chicken dinners at Pinpoint Hall, the main community gathering place.
Clarence Thomas is a board member of the Pin Point Betterment Association. He signed on right after his confirmation fight, after Harris asked his sister and his sister asked him.
Has Thomas helped the community with money? No, Harris says, "but I'm not going to say it's his fault because we never asked him." Has Pin Point benefited by having Thomas on the board at all? "Not yet," says Harris, whose wife, Ethel, quickly chimes in: "I don't see him do one thing." Charles Harris, trying to be judicious, says the association plans to write Thomas "to see what he can do to help us."
Tour buses still come through Pin Point, as visitors to Savannah often want to see the spare beginnings of a Supreme Court justice. The community has been trying to get a historical marker erected, so an even bigger deal can be made of Pin Point. Harris figures that if Thomas only "talked more about it, we could have it done."
Maybe his older sister can help.
If there's anything America knows about Clarence Thomas's sister, it's that he once singled her out publicly as an illustration of what welfare dependence can foster. She is so dependent, Thomas told The Washington Post in 1980, "she gets mad when the mailman is late with her welfare check . . . What's worse is that now her kids feel entitled to the check, too. They have no motivation for doing better or getting out of that situation."
Thomas's insensitivity toward his sister was recycled by critics after the first President Bush nominated him to the court, and some blacks refuse to forget--even today.
Emma Martin, 55, is still in Pin Point. When young Clarence moved to Savannah, Emma stayed to live with her Aunt Annie.
The years have passed and Aunt Annie is gone, but Emma remains. Her house needs interior work. In the yard are a couple of skinny dogs on chains and an old car in need of repair. A pack of Doral cigarettes is on the coffee table. She is braiding one granddaughter's hair and trying to keep the peace between two other grandchildren she's baby-sitting. As she braids, she stares at her 52-inch Phillips color TV, which she won at a charity raffle. She is holding a plastic fly swatter.
Emma Martin's life is anchored in Pin Point. She doesn't go to movies or plays or restaurants or sporting events. "Too scared to go into the city," she says. Every now and then, she goes shopping. But mostly she works, each day rising at 5 a.m. to begin her duties as a $350-a-week cook at the Bethesda Boys Home, five minutes away. "The more I make, the more the government takes away from me. But I live comfortable. Money doesn't worry me."
She is often asked about her brother, but they are not particularly close, so she doesn't often have revealing answers. Has she tried to get him involved in solving the problems of Pin Point? She laughs. "Nah."
She continues combing and braiding her granddaughter's hair.
"The young kids don't know him and have their doubts," she says. And the adults? They try "to poison the kids' minds" with all their talk about his opposition to affirmative action. "Affirmative action, the young kids don't even know what that is." The way Martin sees it, affirmative action is a program that pits blacks against other blacks.
It is hard not to notice Martin's collection of praying hands--ceramic hands, plastic hands, hands praying on every wall, mantel and table. She began collecting them during Thomas's confirmation process in hopes that everything would turn out well for her brother.
But the confirmation was not just an ordeal for him, it was tough for her as well. "I hated that," she says. "I don't know why he wanted me up there." She didn't understand what her brother was doing--he would be all smiles with family members and an entirely different person before the Senate committee judging him. "Just like an alley cat or a leopard, he changed his spots."
Martin returns to the subject of her relationship with her brother.
"We still get along," she says. "I speak my mind and he speaks his. We do not mince words." They also don't talk about politics. "I don't like his view on politics. Like I tell him, 'I don't tell you how to vote and you don't tell me how to vote.' "
She's asked whether her brother's characterization of her more than 20 years ago, as some kind of welfare queen, still bothers her. "People ask me that question--this, that and the other. I was off public assistance at the time he said this."
Martin seems to want to dismiss the slight as much ado about little, and yet she seems to relish the chance to talk about it, to explain herself.
When she was on welfare, she says, she was not only taking care of her kids but had responsibility for her elderly aunt, who raised her, and an uncle. "I had a choice of taking care of these old people or keeping a job."
Martin wishes her brother would come to Pin Point more often, speak to the kids, try to influence them to make something of their lives. "We have to catch him when he doesn't have a function or something like that," she says.
"But he comes through sometimes," she adds. "Sometimes he don't . . ."
'He's Had a Rough Time'
In a private room at Morton's restaurant in Vienna, those who had been deeply involved in Thomas's confirmation struggle were called together last October to receive their 10th-
anniversary thank-yous. Thomas himself had carefully culled the invitation list, making a point, in emotional remarks, to say he could not have made it to the high court without the 50 or so people in that room.
Fred McClure was one of them. He had been a top White House staffer charged with shepherding the nomination through the Senate but had spent most of the last decade in Texas, away from government. Amid the table-
hopping and full-body hugs that marked the evening, McClure quipped to Thomas that he had seen a photo of him in Esquire, glowering, cigar butt hanging from his lips. But Thomas didn't think that was so funny. "Ah, I don't read Esquire," the justice grumbled.
McClure recalled thinking that night: "He's had a rough time." The hearings had ended in such bitterness, and the distance between Thomas and so many blacks had seemed to widen since 1991. McClure knew Thomas considered himself "a very proud black man" but wondered if the justice would ever become more popular among African Americans.
"I don't know if 20 years from now it's going to be any different," he said. "I don't know how you can get out from under it."
Kevin Merida is an associate editor of The Post. Michael A. Fletcher covers education for The Post. They will be fielding questions and comments about this article at 1 p.m. Monday on www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.