Nominee is no stranger to segregation, hardships

July 02, 1991|By Dan Fesperman and Lyle Denniston | Dan Fesperman and Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The SunWashington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- At the age of 6 Clarence Thomas was dressing in hand-me-downs, and even on the coldest of Georgia mornings his path to the bathroom led outdoors. Home was a single room, and school was a place to be avoided when possible.

As if those considerations didn't make his future gloomy enough, there was the hard truth of mid-1950s racial segregation, when stubborn boundaries of black and white seemed to block all paths that might lead upward from Pinpoint, Ga.

Yet, now that Judge Thomas stands on the verge of becoming a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, the chief obstacles blocking his last, highest step are these: liberal Democratic senators, black political leaders and civil rights activists.

The seeming paradox speaks volumes about the complex character of Judge Thomas, who in rising to the top has often alienated the very forces that sought to ease his way. Democratic Party Chairman Ronald H. Brown, also a black man, spoke for many opponents when he called the president's choice "yet another step in the ideological hijacking of the Supreme Court by the radical right wing of the Republican Party."

Those who dismiss Judge Thomas as a one-dimensional conservative ideologue seem to focus mostly on his stand on affirmative action. He opposes it, and seems to echo former President Ronald Reagan when he says that racial quotas are demeaning to blacks.

But on other occasions, seen from his speeches and past interviews, Judge Thomas just as readily quotes from Malcolm X from Mr. Reagan. And when he talks of racial inequality, he speaks from the experience of his own painful past.

Thus was Judge Thomas moved to the point of tears as he accepted the nomination yesterday, as the president stood at his side.

"As a child, I could not dare dream that I would ever see the Supreme Court," he said, "not to mention be nominated to it. In my view, only in America could this have been possible."

To understand him best, those who know him say, one must trace Judge Thomas back to the turning point of his life, at age 7, when he and his brother moved into their grandparents' home in Savannah. His mother had remarried to a man who did not want to live with children from her previous marriage.

Not only did they have indoor plumbing and plenty to eat for the first time, but they also came under the iron rule of his grandfather, a hard-working man who delivered ice and oil, and who believed that there was nothing worth getting if you couldn't get it yourself.

School attendance became mandatory, and his strict Roman Catholic upbringing, he said in a speech a few years ago, became "far more conservative than [that of] many who fashion themselves conservatives today. God was central. School, discipline, hard work and 'right-from-wrong' were of the highest priority. Crime, welfare, slothfulness and alcohol were enemies."

Judge Thomas often uses such lessons from his past to tweak liberals, and in the same speech he said, "Those who attempt to capture the daily counseling, oversight, common sense and vision of my grandparents in a governmental program are engaging in sheer folly. Government cannot develop individual responsibility, but it certainly can refrain from preventing or hindering the development of this responsibility."

Although it seemed Judge Thomas was preaching to the choir in that speech to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, he also directed some biting words at his audience.

"Black Americans will move inexorably and naturally toward conservatism when we stop discouraging them; when they are treated as a diverse group with differing interests; and when conservatives stand up for what they believe in rather than stand against blacks."

He later added that for a black to be accepted as a conservative often seemed to mean that "a black was required to become a caricature of sorts, providing side shows of anti-black quips and attacks."

Such is the lonely plight of the black conservative, he said, to be "welcomed by those who dangled the lure of the wrong approach" while being "discouraged by those who have the right approach."

Judge Thomas has never seemed to be far from such feelings of alienation, and there has never seemed to be a shortage of whites willing to reinforce them.

Entering the 10th grade, he was enrolled by his grandfather as the only black student at a Catholic boarding school in Georgia, St. John Vianney Minor Seminary.

Despite sterling grades and a starring role as quarterback on the school football team, he burned from slights and slurs.

"After lights out someone would yell, 'Smile, Clarence, so we can see you,' " he told the Atlantic magazine in 1987. "The statement wasn't the bad part, it was no one saying, 'Shut up,' " Judge Thomas said.

And when fellow students went to dinner or to the movies, segregation meant that he couldn't go along.

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