The young man standing at my door that summer day in 1974 looked like an African prince. "Hello, I'm Clarence Thomas," he said. "I know," I replied. "I've been expecting you." And so began a friendship with someone I think of fondly as a second son.
I first heard of young Thomas (then almost 26) from his employer-to-be, Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.), who was attorney general of Missouri at the time. Mr. Danforth told me he had just hired a bright young law graduate from Yale and asked if I knew of a place the young man could live for the summer while studying for the Missouri bar. My own son, Robert, was then a law student with plans to work that summer in Washington. I invited young Clarence to stay in my son's empty room.
I don't recall seeing another young person as disciplined as Clarence Thomas. First thing, every day, he would exercise with my son's weights and then be off to his studies. I asked of him only one thing: I would prepare dinner, and he would show up on time. We would eat together every night, often with one or two friends or relatives and talk about any and all of the problems of the world.
We didn't always agree (Clarence was "conservative" even then), but I was impressed continually with one so young whose reasoning was so sound. I must also admit that his arguments, both legal and logical, forced me to rethink some of my own views. I know I sometimes made him see things differently, too, because Clarence Thomas knew how to listen as well as talk.
Across the years, I have kept in touch with Judge Thomas, and to this day I respect his integrity, his legal mind and his determination. Even when we disagree, I have found him to be a sensitive and compassionate person trying to do what is right, working to make the world a better place.
Back then I sensed that he would one day be in a position to have a larger impact, but I had no way of knowing that this determined young man might one day have the chance to tackle some of our country's problems on this nation's highest court.
Recently, the NAACP National Board took action opposing Judge Thomas's nomination. I wish it had withheld judgment until after the hearings, because the Clarence Thomas I have been reading about often bears little resemblance to the thoughtful and caring man I have know over these years.
Judge Thomas reflects the diversity and complexity of African-American thinking, but his views are not nearly as radical as his critics suggest. He has pushed for a new frontier in civil rights, and heaven knows we need one when one-third of African Americans are still in poverty as we approach the 21st century. He seeks a climate where African Americans and other minorities feel empowered to compete equally with their counterparts of other races, with rational support from government programs.
Some have said that despite his chairmanship of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for eight years, he has not been a champion of civil rights. Those people obviously don't know Judge Thomas or the real facts about his tenure with the EEOC. His record will speak for itself and will impress those willing to listen and look beyond misinformed rhetoric. On a personal level, he knows the struggle and hardship blacks and the impoverished of every race grapple with daily -- not to mention the plight of most families, since in my judgment the central issue of our time is that some 82 percent of the families in these United States have no discretionary income after bills and taxes are paid.
We didn't talk much about Judge Thomas's background that summer 17 years ago, so it is only recently that I have learned about his humble beginnings. The cramped house with no plumbing in rural Georgia, his wise but not learned grandparents, the Catholic nuns and the rest have only recently come into full view for me. To rise above the dual curses of poverty and discrimination requires tremendous individual effort from a special kind of person, help from others and luck. All these have been present in Judge Thomas's career.
Throughout the history of the U.S. Supreme Court, I don't believe any other nominee can claim to have come so far. In point of fact, Judge Thomas's unique perspective belongs not only on the Supreme Court but in the legislature, in the work place, at city hall and on our campuses.
No one can deny that Judge Thomas would differ with Justice Thurgood Marshall on some issues. I don't always agree with the justice myself. I do believe that both men show a common, fundamental belief in the inherent worth and rights of the individual. At one of his four previous Senate confirmation hearings, Judge Thomas said, "The reason I became a lawyer was to make sure that minorities, individuals who did not have access to this society, gained access. . . . I may differ with others on how best to do that, but the objective has always been to include those who have been excluded."
As young Clarence Thomas left my home at the end of the summer, he asked how much he owed for his stay. I told him that he owed me nothing, but I did want a promise from him. I asked him to promise that if he were ever in a position to reach out and help others that he would do it, just as some had done for me and as I had done for him.
He promised he would, and Judge Thomas has been keeping his word ever since, looking out for the vulnerable and victimized on the job, in the community and at the court. I know that as a Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas will continue to defend and protect the rights of the needy. He does not permit anyone to think for him, and he is intellectually honest.
When the history of these times is written, it will be interesting to see how historians view the position of the National Board of the NAACP -- an organization committed to advancing colored people, which is opposed, on ideological grounds, to this nomination of a black man to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Let the record show that the NAACP's former national board chair respectfully disagrees with its position.
The writer, an attorney in St. Louis, chaired the National Board of Directors of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from 1975 to 1984.