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31. Film Review: “Created Equal”

In his own words, Clarence Thomas tells his story of rising from childhood poverty to the Supreme Court. A controversial figure, not prone to public statements, he shares what it was like growing up among the barrier islands and low country of Southern Georgia. A descendant of West African slaves, he was born in Shipyard Creek in 1948 where oysters, crabs and fish provided a singular livelihood.

Most readers know him only through the contentious Senate Hearing for his confirmation as Associate Justice to the Supreme Court in 1991. But few know of his radical college days in the 1960’s as a Marxist revolutionary or earlier still of his vocation to the priesthood in a Catholic Seminary or as a young child making a long life-changing walk to stay with his grandpa when his own parents could no longer care for him. All this in the Jim Crow South.

This documentary follows his memories from rural poverty to urban squalor when at age six he had to move when the family house burned down and they went to live in Savannah where raw sewage lined the streets. But one Saturday morning his mother told him to pack everything he had into a brown paper bag and walk to his grandparents. That was the longest and most significant walk of his life for it changed his destiny forever. Although his grandpa was uneducated, he provided the needed structure and wisdom for a young Clarence. His grandpa was clear, “The vacation is over, from now on it’s rules and regulations. . . Today the door is swinging open, inward, but if you don’t behave it would swing outward and you’ll be asked to leave.”

Though functionally illiterate, his grandpa was moderately successful. They had indoor plumbing. Clarence and his younger brother were so enchanted with the new porcelain toilet they would flush it every time they walked by, for the thrill of it. “You’re running up my damn water bill,” echoed a stern voice through the house. Although grandpa had only gone to third grade he knew that education was the key. And because he had converted to Catholicism years earlier, he sent Clarence and his brother to Saint Benedict’s school where it was so orderly you could “hear a gnat tip-toeing across cotton.” Even though segregated, this was a good education made even better by outspoken Irish nuns who were against discrimination. But grandpa was very clear “You’re going to school every day, and if you die I’ll take your body for three days to make sure you’re not faking.” The value of education was leaving its mark.

“School ends at 2:30, so by three o’clock be dressed and ready to meet me at the oil truck.” His grandpa delivered fuel, but while driving he also became the professor. “You’re destined to work for everything because of what happened in the Garden of Eden . . .That’s biblical. Earn everything by the sweat of your brow.” In summer the classroom was on the farm where “doing it right and not quitting” was the main lesson. “You can give out, but not give up. . . Old man ‘can’t’ is dead. I helped bury him.”

All this did make Clarence more responsible. And since he had been one of the more dependable altar boys at St. Benedict’s, at age sixteen Clarence made his own life-changing decision when he felt a calling to the priesthood. This would be expensive and grandpa was not initially excited, so he took his grandson to the front porch for a talk. “You know if you go, you can’t quit.” So Clarence followed his vocation to the diocesan minor seminary. He loved the contemplative life of Gregorian chant with Lauds early morning and Vespers in the evening. And he had to learn to speak standard English because his dialect (not Southern accent) would prevent him from being academically equal to his peers.

In the school yearbook there’s a caption by his photo, “Blew that test, only a 98.” He knew that he had to achieve 100% in life. He was now in a foreign world. A predominantly all-white world. He would never be fully accepted into it. He would have to excel so as to give others no excuse to dismiss him. If he is unfairly targeted it will have to be because of their discrimination. He will not give them any other reason.

And that reason came, four years after entering the seminary. It was 1968. In April, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Comments and notes from other students showed they were glad it happened. Two months later in June, Robert F. Kennedy was shot dead on the night of his victory in the California Presidential Primary. It had become too much for Clarence Thomas. In his mind all he saw were the letters JFK, MLK, RFK. They all ended in . . . KKK! The world had been lost. Some of his own student peers celebrated it. All he could do is grieve. And leave.

Clarence returned home to his grandpa and said he had quit the seminary. Being a man of his word, his grandfather showed him the door. “Now it swings outward. You’ve made your decision as a man, be a man.” He had to leave his grandparents that very night. Walk out that door. His whole world had collapsed. Seminary. The Church. His Grandfather. Whatever he had of family or future vocation was gone as he stepped out into the dark of night. A man. Alone.

America also was descending into a summer of violence. Riots. Cities burning. Vietnam. It was all imploding. And so was Clarence Thomas. The only life raft left would be to continue his education. But where? Then he received an acceptance letter from Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts. The only one. Unlike Moses, no one followed him when he left his birthplace and migrated north to the promise of a better life. But he would wander in the desert for several years.

He enrolled in this Jesuit college in 1968 but his vocation had now radically changed. He associated with other Blacks, Marxists, wore used fatigues from the Army-Navy Surplus to exhibit the uniform of a militarized member of the coming “revolution.” He exchanged Gregorian chant for the mottos and rhetoric of Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown and Huey Newton. He wrote the newsletter for the Black Student Union. When he once visited home, a disappointed grandfather blamed those “damn educated fools in the North.” Even his younger brother, returning from Vietnam, agreed and told Clarence to leave the country if he didn’t like it. This all climaxed when he went to an anti-war rally in Boston in 1970 to demand freedom for all domestic political prisoners - like Angela Davis! Alcohol, tear gas, sirens. He no longer cared. “I was part of an angry mob.” He left Boston, broken and exhausted.

Arriving back on campus he found his way to a quiet chapel and prayed, “Take the anger out of my heart, and I’ll never hate again.” Hitting rock bottom, he could now begin to stand on his own two feet. In 1971 Clarence Thomas graduated from Holy Cross. The next day he married Kathy Ambush. That Fall he entered Yale Law School. He was emerging out of the desert. He saw the fallacy of public policy. For example, school busing ripped students out of their neighborhood and replaced one bad school with a worse school. Cosmetic. Not addressing real issues. When he proudly graduated from Yale, sadly no one from his family came. No grandpa, no brother. No one. All he had was Kathy and his son, Jamal. But no job!

A Yale Law Degree by a Black student was “discounted.” It had less value. Only one job offer appeared, assistant to Attorney General Danforth of Missouri. He promised “more work and less pay than anyone else.” But it got worse. “The hardest part of taking this job was that he was a Republican, and the idea of working for a Republican was repulsive at best. I was a registered Democrat. I was Left Wing . . . Putting that aside, I wound up going.”

By 1977 Thomas wanted a change of venue to work in a business setting, so he became employed by Monsanto in St. Louis. When he saw that Blacks were not equally being promoted he again gave up the financial security of the “golden hand-cuffs” and went to work for now Senator Danforth in Washington, D.C. The previous revolutionary aspirations of Clarence Thomas would collide head on with the Reagan Revolution. And Thomas began to see the value of conservative principles.

Enter the real Black Moses - Thomas Sowell. He became the thought leader for Black Conservatives searching for authentic policies to help the African-American community instead of keeping them shackled on the plantation of a welfare system that stripped away incentive, motivation and family stability. Thomas traveled to San Francisco to the Fairmont Conference by Thomas Sowell. While there, a Black journalist asked him why he’s there. Thomas explains how affirmative action, school busing and rent control do more damage than good. The article is published, using Thomas as an anecdotal face of Black Conservative thought. The author was Juan Williams. And now Clarence Thomas became a public figure, elevated by the media. This also made him a target. His opponents claimed, “He’s not Black enough!” He’s an Uncle Tom because he dares to think for himself. In the Reagan Administration, he became Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights in the Department of Education and then chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1982.

Amidst all this flurry of activity, his grandfather dies. No one had informed him that grandpa was sick. Clarence returns home to the funeral of his first and foremost mentor and breaks down sobbing in the church. He was never able to tell grandpa how much he meant to him, how much he loved and valued him. He can only honor his grandpa now by not being a quitter.

And the floodgates of destiny opened up. By 1987 he married his second wife, Virginia Lamp. President George Bush nominates him as a federal judge. Thomas’s first response is “that’s for old people, not me.” A close friend reminds him, “It’s not slavery. You can leave it.” Thomas accepts. And ends up loving it.

But then all hell breaks loose. In 1991 Justice Thurgood Marshall retired from the Supreme Court, the first Black Justice, who as a lawyer successfully argued for the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education. And Bush nominated Clarence Thomas. Relative to the coming storm, his life till now had been a cake walk. No one was prepared for the fury released in the attempt to destroy Clarence Thomas.

Contentious from the beginning, the first issue in the Senate Confirmation Hearing was the concern of women’s groups over abortion rights. Because of his Catholic education many were suspect how that might affect Thomas’s views on Roe v. Wade. After five days of questioning the hearings apparently ended.

But then the FBI visited Thomas at home. It had now been escalated into a war of words with the sexual harassment charges made by Anita Hill when she worked with Thomas at the EEOC. Alone again with the full force of the government bearing down on him, he saw their goal was not just to tarnish his name with doubt to prevent his confirmation, but to send a message: “This is the wrong Black guy, he has to be destroyed.” He was a Black Conservative and in their eyes an “Uncle Tom” or “not black enough.”

In this nationally televised soap opera of “he said-she said” there was no room for fact based evidence. It was a character assassination. The FBI interrogations found no corroborating facts whatsoever. After categorically denying the alleged charges, the only thing left for Thomas was to emotionally bare his soul for what he felt was really happening. This hearing was all about emotion, and no facts. In his mind’s eye Thomas saw the court scene from “To Kill a Mockingbird” in which the Black character Tom Robinson was unjustly convicted of raping a white woman. He was Tom Robinson. Exhausted by days and days of confrontation he would finally say what he really felt.

“This is a circus. It’s a national disgrace. And from my standpoint as a Black American . . . It is a high tech lynching for uppity Blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas. And it is a message that unless you kowtow to the old order this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the US Senate rather than hung from a tree. . . . I wasn’t harmed by the klan . . . I wasn’t harmed by the Aryan League . . . or a racist group. I was harmed by this process. . . I would have preferred an assassin’s bullet to this kind of living hell that they have put me and my family through.”

Acknowledging the righteous outrage that had been ‘channeled’ through Thomas’s closing statement, he was asked what advice his grandfather would give him today. He replied, “When I was being hammered and criticized in the public he (my grandpa) would have told me to stand up for what I believe in. Not to quit. . . not to cry uncle and not to give up until I’m dead. Give out, but never give up.”

When further questioned if he wanted to withdraw his nomination, he said, “I’d rather die than withdraw. If they’re gonna kill me, they’re gonna kill me. . . I’ve never run from bullies . . . whether I want to be on the Supreme Court or not.” After his dramatic testimony, 58% of polled Americans believed Judge Thomas. A Democratic controlled Senate narrowly confirmed him 52-48.

Justice Clarence Thomas has now served on the Supreme Court for thirty years. In his first ten years he was criticized for not asking a single question during Court presentations. His response is that he based his opinion on the written briefs. Judges should be judges and not advocates. It’s not his job to argue with lawyers. There are lawyers for both sides and the referee should not be a participant in the game.

Judge Clarence Thomas has written over 600 opinions for Supreme Court decisions. That’s 30% more than any other sitting Supreme Court Justice.

In his office there is a bust of his grandfather looking down on him. Grandpa was the most influential man in his life. Though illiterate, he was his wisest teacher. “He was uncorrupted by modern thinking. When you can’t read and write, you take in life as it is. . . I want to be able to say I lived up to my oath and did my best.”

The story of Clarence Thomas, like many others, is the story of America. Clarence Thomas is an American icon. And I guess that makes his grandfather one too.


“Created Equal” - Clarence Thomas in his own words

A Documentary Film in 2019 by Michael Pack 115 min.

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Catherine Torres
Catherine Torres
04 may 2021

“ We are at a disarray upon peace over the strength of bloodshed, save our justice of kindness.” -C.T

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