Said, "My most vivid childhood memory of...


July 03, 1991|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

CLARENCE THOMAS said, "My most vivid childhood memory of the Supreme Court was the 'Impeach Earl Warren' signs which lined Highway 17 near Savannah."

I remember those signs vividly, myself. I also remember Thomas' neighborhood, E. 32nd Street, next to the railroad tracks. His grandfather built their house with his own hands and $600 worth of material. Tom Coffey, a columnist for the Savannah Morning News, recently informed me of that and jump-started my memory of the time and place.

E. 32nd Street wasn't quite as bad as it sounds, but it was a pretty unlikely place for a black kid to start out from for the Supreme Court or any other such success.

In 1954, about a year before Thomas and I moved to Savannah, Chief Justice Warren's Supreme Court ruled segregated public schools unconstitutional. Hence the billboards -- and what Thomas now refers to as "governmentally sanctioned bigotry." I'd call it plain old racist totalitarianism. Georgia and Savannah were good enough at this to keep their schools -- and libraries and lunch counters -- segregated for over a decade.

I saw E. 32nd Street and adjacent neighborhoods which were much worse as a police reporter on the Morning News. Sometimes detectives liked to prowl through those streets with a reporter along for the ride. They thought nothing of barging into blacks' houses randomly and routinely to search for illegal liquor or lottery (bolita it was called there then) slips.

"Uh, shouldn't you have a search warrant or something?" I naively asked once. The answer I got, parodying a line from a popular movie, was, "Search warrants? We don't need no stinking search warrants! Hahahaha."

And they didn't.

In those days, the Fourth Amendment's protection against warrantless search and seizure did not apply to the states, and Georgia had no state law against that sort of thing. Earl Warren's court would extend the Fourth Amendment to the states in 1961. It did so by ruling that evidence so collected could not be used in state courts. For the past generation, conservative justices have been chipping away at this so-called "exclusionary rule." (Will conservative Thomas join them? I wouldn't predict, but I'll bet he'll be the only justice in the court's conferences who has known people who have been the targets of such police misbehavior. A valuable asset for the court.)

Thomas said he wants "to be an example to those who are where I was and show them that indeed there is hope."

Tom Coffey told me that Thomas' high school nickname was "Cooz." His hero and inspiration was Bob Cousy, the white Holy Cross and Celtics basketball star. (Thomas would go to Holy Cross.) We will have just about made it in this country when Justice Thomas becomes a hero to poor white kids in slums, giving them hope and inspiring them to overcome enormous obstacles to make something of themselves.

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