Justice Clarence Thomas, who is reaching his 74th birthday today, is a success story of the postwar United States. His life is a perfect reflection of America, both its obstacles and its promises. Thomas’ story is that of a man who was born and raised in a profoundly unjust environment, yet managed to overcome the difficulties and made good use of the promise of the post-segregation America to become arguably the most influential black man in the American conservative movement.
Clarence Thomas was born in Pin Point, Georgia, a majority-black community that was founded by former slaves after the Civil War. Thomas’ childhood was not an easy one, his father abandoned him and he was sent to live with his grandparents in Savannah when he was just seven years old after a fire left him homeless. He went to a segregated catholic school, Justice Thomas’ childhood and early life were clearly marked by the hardships that millions lived at the time, he lived in his own flesh the injustices that many 21st century liberals talk about today.
From Facing Homelessness to Yale Law School
The advent of the Civil Rights movement changed America, ending segregation in the South and opening a new era in American life. Thomas took the opportunity and dedicated himself to his academic studies. He graduated from the College of the Holy Cross and then entered Yale Law School, where he graduated and obtained his J.D degree in 1974.
Thomas has recounted that during his years in college he had sympathized with many of the anti-war, radical movements that characterized the 1960s and 1970s. However, he slowly became disillusioned with these movements and began his approach toward conservatism, in part influenced by Thomas Sowell’s ideas.
Nomination to the DOE by Ronald Reagan
After graduation Justice Thomas worked for Missouri’s Attorney General John Danforth, who then was elected to the Senate to represent the state of Missouri. Thomas worked for a while at Monsanto’s legal department before moving to Washington D.C and working as a Legislative Assistant to Senator Danforth for two years, before President Ronald Reagan nominated him to be Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights in the Department of Education and the chairman of the Equal Opportunity Commission.
After a decade working in D.C, both in the Legislative and Executive branches, Thomas was nominated by recently-elected President George H.W Bush to fill a seat in the U.S. Court of Appeals of the D.C Circuit, one of the most important judicial circuits in the country. Soon after the retirement of Justice William Brennan, Bush nominated Thomas to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, the second black American to ever be on the bench after Thurgood Marshall.
Nomination to the Supreme Court
If Thomas’ trailblazer path marked the optimism of post-segregation America, his controversial confirmation to the Supreme Court was one of the predecessors of the hyper-polarized nature of current American politics. His confirmation was a highly contentious one after he was accused of sexual harassment by former employee Anita Hill, allegations that were strongly rebuked by Thomas and fellow women peers who testified in his favor. Although Thomas was confirmed in a tight, partisan vote, the Thomas confirmation was just the beginning of the highly politicized and scandalous nature of today’s Supreme Court confirmation.
Thomas has defined the course of conservative jurisprudence ever since he got confirmed as a Justice. While he is well-known for remaining mostly silent during the oral arguments, usually refusing to make questions to the plaintiffs, he has heavily contributed to the landmark conservative decisions of the last 25 years and his robust intellectual credentials and reasoning have been admired by both conservatives and liberals alike.
Clarence Thomas is a man who awakens very strong opinions. Liberals view his philosophy as remnants of a bygone time, while conservatives see him as an intellectual giant for the conservative movement. Clarence Thomas, a man who was born in the deep Jim Crow South and managed to ascend to become one of the most influential justices in the highest court of the land, is a poster child of the successes of America in overcoming its demons.
His success is the success of the Civil Rights movement, and it is something that all Americans should be proud of, even (especially) if you don’t agree with him.