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17 Years Later

Hard to believe it’s been 17 years since the Senate confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas’ position on the Supreme Court, which he famously called “a high tech lynching” in one of the more dramatic moments in television history. There’s been a spate of books about Thomas recently, including his own My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir, and The Claremont Review of Books has a nice overview of them in the latest issue, now available online. It’s pretty inspiring stuff:

Only Thomas can really tell the story suggested by his book’s title, which centers on the man who raised and molded him: his maternal grandfather, whom he called “Daddy.” Myers Anderson, the relentlessly disciplined, hard-working, Catholic convert and ultimate tough-love parent—”dark, strong, proud”—was “the one hero in my life,” writes Thomas. “What I am is what he made me.” Thomas’s biological father merely “sired” Clarence and his two siblings; their mother divorced M.C. Thomas in 1950, two years after Clarence was born. After their shanty in Pinpoint, Georgia, burned down when Thomas was six, he moved with his mother to a tenement in Savannah, which he describes as “hell”: “[o]vernight I moved from the comparative safety and cleanliness of rural poverty to the foulest kind of urban squalor.” Earning ten dollars per week for housekeeping, receiving zero child support, and refusing to go on welfare, Thomas’s mother decided to send her sons to live with her father and his wife, who lived in a cinder block house painted a “gleaming white.”

Daddy told the boys that if they learned how to work, they could live as well as he did, and that would be their “inheritance.” The boys’ first job, he said, was to get a good education. “It would be too generous,” Thomas writes, to call Daddy himself “semiliterate”; he “struggled mightily with the newspaper and the Bible, and once he mastered a passage of Scripture he would read it over and over again.” But Daddy’s self-reliance is a piece of the segregated South that liberals today like to forget. He exhorted the young Clarence to learn, keep the faith, never give up, and never mind what other people do, say, or think. His staunch refusal to view himself as a victim was summed up in his advice to Thomas to “play the hand you’re dealt.”

Regarding the nomination hearings themselves … well, not so inspiring. I was surprised to read the following:

[No] one knew the ferocity with which liberals would attack a black man who strayed from the ideological plantation. Thomas met with board members of the NAACP—”a waste of time,” he notes—and the organization, predictably, announced its opposition to his nomination quickly thereafter, “apparently at the insistence of the AFL-CIO.” The NAACP “was in effect giving a green light to the various groups that opposed my nomination, tacitly assuring them that it was now all right for them to smear a black man.”

The post-nomination courtesy calls with senators revealed a similar dynamic at work. Alabama’s Howell Heflin (who was commonly referred to as “courtly,” but whose manner reminded Thomas of “a slave owner sitting on the porch of a plantation house”) asked Thomas to return for further meetings, “but it soon became evident that his sole purpose in continuing to meet with me was to find reasons to vote against me.” Bob Packwood was “direct,” saying he simply could not vote for Thomas because the senator’s “political career depended on support from the same women’s groups that were opposing” the nomination. Al Gore said he’d vote for Thomas “if [Gore] decided not to run for President.” And Fritz Hollings confessed that in order to support Thomas he’d first have to resolve “a political problem with the NAACP in his home state of South Carolina.” Thomas recalls, “Strange as it may sound, I appreciated that kind of honesty” from senators who would “admit their real reasons for voting against me instead of making up some transparent excuse.”

That’s more than enough quotation for one blog post, but the entire article is well worth reading, as are the books discussed therein, I’m sure. The scandal surrounding Anita Hill (remember that?) is well covered, and also included is a nice overview of Thomas’ career on the Court.

I’ve put Thomas’ memoir in the Library queue (#6) as well as Greenberg (#5), which means I need to get going on that Kierkegaard biography.

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