Don Williamson, who writes columns for the Seattle Times, once wrote that his grandfather used to say hard times could make a monkey suck red peppers.
For more than a decade, black America has endured hard times imposed by people calling themselves ''conservative'' who attack civil rights. Thus, it's not surprising that many would-be friends are urging blacks to grit their teeth and swallow a red pepper named Clarence Thomas as successor to Justice Thurgood Marshall.
It should not be surprising either, though President Bush does seem grossed out, that black leaders have rejected Judge Thomas. A man who has pegged his career advances to speeches and articles attacking the whole corpus of civil-rights rationale is by definition repugnant to the people who spent the best years of their lives at the barricades of segregation. That Mr. Bush and, for that matter, Clarence Thomas should expect such leaders to stand as quiet bystanders, politely waiting to observe Judge Thomas' performance before the lights and mikes at his Senate confirmation before saying what they think is ludicrous.
But maybe Clarence Thomas is the real pepper-sucker.
If his display of humility and seeming openness at his 1986 hearings for reconfirmation as head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is repeated, many people are likely to look no further for reasons to support him.
That would be too bad; people who know Judge Thomas say he's a personable fellow. But a man who would publicly castigate his own sister as a welfare slacker, neglecting to report that her husband had left her and the kids and that she had to care for their sick relative, is a brother with a few elements missing in his soul.
Moreover, a black candidate whose principal support comes from the people who made Willie Horton a household word is clearly in need of deep scrutiny. The makers of those ugly TV commercials attacking Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Biden and Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and Alan Cranston are no friends of civil rights. Judge Thomas has cast himself through speeches into their ideological lot, and his fitness for the court must doubly be questioned.
And there is much to question. Few lawyers could fill Thurgood Marshall's shoes as a defender of the downtrodden, but elevating a Class One pepper-sucker to his seat would be a first-class outrage.
We begin at the U.S. Education Department's Office of Civil Rights. There he stood in 1982, accused of refusing to carry out the federal court order in Adams v. Bell to investigate complaints, do compliance reviews and enforce the law within specific time frames. In open court, Assistant Secretary Thomas admitted ''grievously'' violating the court's order.
Can a man who blatantly disregards the dictates of law and courts when he doesn't like what they say be expected to rule correctly on such laws when he has a nearly unquestionable authority to trammel their legislators' clear intent? Not if he's a pepper-sucker.
At the EEOC, Mr. Thomas failed to investigate 13,000 age-discrimination complaints. Congress was twice forced to extend the statute of limitations. Next, Mr. Thomas failed to follow the law or his commission's own policy to protect pension rights for workers over age 65, costing them billions in denied benefits.
Also at EEOC, Mr. Thomas bitterly disparaged the Supreme Court's 1971 unanimous ruling in Griggs v. Duke Power and dismantled standards for statistical proof of discrimination, ''goals and timetables'' for redress of grievances and other objective, broad remedies for bias. Even President Bush now says the Rehnquist court has gone too far in overruling Griggs and weakening civil-rights enforcement, but does Mr. Thomas believe that?.
Clarence Thomas, who has disparaged integration and argues forcefully that blacks should fight to make black schools excellent, sent his son to an integrated private school. He thinks blacks should not work for ''the Man,'' but should form and support black businesses. Yet as a lawyer he passed up any chance to do so. He has said no black man can ever be accepted by whites, but he married across racial lines himself.
Here is a man who does not live by his own strongest pronouncements. He charmed Congress when challenged over his refusal to uphold laws it had written in 1986, but he has not demonstrated a meaningful change of heart. An analysis of his speeches and writing by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund shows that after 1986, he sharpened his attack on protections for society's downtrodden.
Is Clarence Thomas a pepper-sucker? When the cumulative evidence of bad behavior can only lead to one conclusion, an often-used judicial rule holds res ipsa loquitur: The facts speak for themselves.