MANY OF MY WINTRY evenings in the early 1970s were warmed by heated discussions of civil rights theory with my fellow law students at Yale Law School. We met regularly in the law school cafeteria after dinner, usually after Eric Sevaried's commentary on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. Our civil rights version of the Metaphysical Club—that nineteenth-century conversational club whose membership boasted a young Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., William James, Charles Sanders, and other Harvard students who helped shape philosophical thought for twentieth-century America—held court at a table near the center window facing the Grove Street side of the law school quadrangle. We often referred to this table as the “Black Table.” That label pertained to the topic of discussion—civil rights theory, especially matters regarding racial justice—and to the fact that African American or black (I use the terms interchangeably) students initiated and carried the discussion. The Black Table, unlike the Metaphysical Club, was neither single-race nor single-sex in its membership. White students were welcomed at the table, and, in fact, some (e.g., Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham) took an occasional seat there. Most white students, including my classmate Sam Alito, simply passed by the table or sometimes looked on with bemused curiosity rather than join in the discussion.
The black students who sat at the table were not monolithic. Clarence Thomas was the contrarian of the group. If someone said it was nighttime, he would argue it was daytime, just for the hell of it. Harry Singleton was persistently conservative and prideful. Lani Guinier was more liberal than either Gil Hardy, Guy Cole, Russ Frisby, or myself. Frank Washington, Tap Taplin III, and Rufus Comier were hard to pin down. But all were extremely bright and very respectful of opposing points of view. All brought considerable food for thought to the table based not only upon a common core of readings (anchored by the works of W.E.B. DuBois) and deep reflection but also upon a personal understanding of the black experience. Each of us had experienced racism and, as a result, knew that the opportunities we were given were precious. Knowing that may have helped fuel the passion with which we addressed the issues. Indeed, a full range of theoretical perspectives were vigorously presented and debated. The Black Table was not a liberal or conservative table; it was a scholar's table, a truth-seeking table. We disagreed routinely, but almost as often conceded opposing arguments. We did not just have opposing opinions; we also had knowledge and integrity, which enabled us to walk away from the table as friends and remain friends to this day.