Two Journalists Tell Us What Makes Justice Thomas Tick

By Ciccolo, Angela | The Crisis, September/October 2007 | Go to article overview

Two Journalists Tell Us What Makes Justice Thomas Tick


Ciccolo, Angela, The Crisis


Two Journalists Tell Us What Makes Justice Thomas Tick

Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas

by Kevin Merida and Michael A. Fletcher (Doubleday, $26.95)

Perhaps no other prominent African American figure stirs such intense debate as does Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Catapulted to the high court after a heated and controversial confirmation hearing, Thomas firmly attached himself to the court's staunchest conservatives. He went on to demonstrate an ideological bent that makes him an enigma to many people in the African American community and the darling of Black conservatives and many Whites.

Supreme Discomfort is a scrupulous, even-handed attempt to examine Justice Thomas's life journey and his quest to assert strongly held personal views, while exploring the complexities of race. Kevin Merida and Michael A. Fletcher, Black Washington Post reporters, based their book on interviews with hundreds of people who have known Thomas, including his mother, sister, relatives, law clerks, a former president and even his nephew in prison. Thomas's own voice, however, is absent. He refused to cooperate or be interviewed.

The book is rich with anecdotes. Readers will be drawn in immediately by the description of retired educator and Black activist Abigail Jordan's chance encounter with Thomas. Jordan spied the jurist laughing with friends in the Bull Street Library in Savannah, Ga., and moved in close enough to scrutinize the men from head to toe. Anticipating recognition, or perhaps a request for an autograph, the group was likely stung by Jordan's words, "I just wanted to see what a group of Uncle Toms look like."

In contrast, readers will sympathize with Thomas's frustration after his unsuccesful efforts to help his nephew Mark Martin, who was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison for drug dealing. Ironically, Martin's family ties to the Supreme Court Justice became a liability rather than an asset.

"What good is that? What good is that? By mentioning him, that's why Mark got so much time," Emma Martin, Mark's mother, recalled. "Mark's lawyers mentioned that Clarence was Mark's uncle and got him 30 years."

Mark Martin himself downplays familial ties to Thomas.

"I try to avoid letting people know who he is to me because they might want to do something to me because of him," said Martin.

It will come as no surprise that Thomas has expressed disdain for civil rights leaders and organizations, attributing his success and lifelong opportunities to the efforts of his grandfather and his own personal charm and hard work. Most comfortable with Black conservatives, Thomas apparently longs for a better relationship with the larger Black community. Deeply wounded by criticism of his opinions on affirmative action, voting rights, mandatory minimums and prisoners' rights, Thomas has largely dismissed sincere entreaties by progressives.

The details of Thomas's 1948 birth in rural Pin Point, Ga., to teenage parents, and his early years spent in a wooden shack with kerosene lamps and a shared outhouse, provide a dramatic setting for what Vernon Jordan called the "bootstrap myth."

Most surprising are the often-ignored details of Thomas's comfortable upbringing in the Savannah home of his grandfather, Myers Anderson, a leading businessman. Other surprises include his dislike of light-skinned Blacks, lifelong wounds from childhood taunting and ridicule, and his otherwise engaging and friendly demeanor.

After graduating from St. John Vianney Minor Seminary, Thomas enrolled in Conception Seminary, where he pondered joining the priesthood. Faced with racism, hypocrisy and fellow seminarians who cheered the shooting of Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas decided to try another course.

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