Perhaps the most striking theme of Associate Justice Clarence Thomas’s autobiography My Grandfather’s Son is just how many obstacles Thomas had to overcome to reach the high judicial position he currently holds. Thomas was born into poverty, abandoned by his father, and was raised in the segregated South all before achieving the American Dream. At the same time, it was Thomas’s poverty-stricken circumstances that would help propel him to a world of greater opportunity. Because of his mother’s poverty, when Thomas was seven, he and his brother were sent to live with his grandfather Myers Anderson, a no nonsense and self-disciplined man who announced upon their arrival, “The damn vacation is over.”
While I have never been a big fan of autobiographies, Thomas’s story is one that absolutely needs to be told, if for no other reason than to fully respond to the damaging allegations made by his former colleague Anita Hill. But there is so much here to think about, especially for somebody like myself who attended school at Ole Miss, an institution wrapped in the consciousness of race. In a Southern Studies class in college while discussing the history of lynchings, the professor asked if we could cite examples of any modern day lynchings. I immediately remembered Thomas’s quote about his confirmation hearings being a “high tech lynching” and offered Thomas’s name. Of course I knew this was perhaps the last name the professor wanted to hear, which is why I offered it, thereby getting out in front of and spoiling her liberal moralism of the day. She casually made a snide comment about Thomas and said “that doesn’t count.” I only smiled as I knew I had successfully pointed out that Thomas was in fact one of the few black men allowed to be aggressively attacked by white liberals in academia.
Growing up, his grandfather made sacrifices so Thomas and his brother could attend Catholic schools, this allowed him opportunities he might never have had coming out of the public school system. Thomas later turned his attention to studying for the priesthood. As a seminarian Thomas declared:
It seemed self-evident to both of us that the treatment of blacks in America cried out for the unequivocal condemnation of a righteous institution that proclaimed the inherent equality of all men. Yet the Church remained silent, and its silence haunted me. I have often thought that my life might well have followed a different route had the Church been as adamant about ending racism then as it is about ending abortion now.
After leaving seminary, Thomas transferred to College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts and experimented in left wing politics. Also Thomas found New England to be far less honest about race than in the American South, declaring, “I bristled at the self-righteous sanctimony with which so many of the northerners at Yale glibly discussed the South’s racial problems.” He also pointed out that it was in Boston, not Georgia, that he was first called a deeply offensive racial slur. Thomas left Yale Law School with a negative view of his alma mater. His intention at the time was to return to South Georgia to practice law.
Thomas however ended up on the staff of Missouri Attorney General and former U.S. Senator John Danforth in Jefferson City in 1974. Danforth, an ordained Episcopal Priest, who went on to become a U.S. Senator, would become a life-long mentor and a valuable ally during Thomas’s Supreme Court hearings. The stories Thomas tells of his own drinking problem and financial indebtedness are all fascinating. His first marriage turns out to not be successful, but he goes into little detail, which may be commendable just in keeping a private matter, just that.
Thomas also delves into the Anita Hill fiasco, describing her by his own account as a less than average employee, and somebody who virtually nobody liked. The chaotic nature of the hearings pushed Thomas back even closer to his faith and he noted:
The more hopeless things appeared and the more vulnerable I felt, the more I turned to God’s comforting embrace, and over time my focus became primarily God centered. The words of the Apostle Paul were not far from my mind: ‘Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then I am strong.’
He decides to end his autobiographical account during the day he is sworn at the U.S. Supreme Court, which might be disappointing to some of the more policy wonkish readers. After reading his unique account I was left with a couple profound thoughts. I had another professor in college who said to the class while we were reading Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick and Mark the Match Boy , that the stories were not really believable, but rather bad capitalist propaganda. The novel immediately came back to me after reading Thomas’s account, here is a man who overcame even so much more to rise to the very top of his field. Few stories can better personify the American dream, and very few stories provide better imagery of defying the odds.
Thomas’s book is at times inspiring, sad, yet ultimately triumphant. He had a very fractured relationship with the grandfather who raised him. Not until his grandfather’s death, did he ultimately appreciate the lessons, love, and discipline Myers Anderson taught him. It’s by only reading this book will you understand how somebody with a third grade education taught a Yale Law School graduate and Supreme Court Justice so much about life, and yes even conservatism.