Speaking yesterday at Howard University School of Law for the first time since 1994, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas received a warm reception from students and faculty, including two standing ovations. Sponsor K&L Gates and Howard University invited Thomas to headline the James M. Nabrit Jr. Lecture Series, an annual talk at Howard that has featured Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer in the past. Thomas’ talk focused primarily on his 2007 book, My Grandfather’s Son, which details events from Thomas’ hardscrabble childhood through his confirmation to the high court.
Writing the book was painful, Thomas said, because in contrast to deciding a case that “has nothing to do with you, you have to actually relive the experience, and in reliving the experience you re-feel the experience. And that is not so easy.” Writing his memoirs took more than five years, he said.
The book starts with a simple sentence that, Thomas said, sets the tone and marks a beginning: “I was nine years old when I met my father.” But the rest of the story, he said, is about how he kept that fact from being the end of his life story.
Growing up in segregated and poverty-stricken rural Georgia, the young Thomas hero-worshipped his maternal grandfather, whom he called “Daddy.” His grandfather taught Thomas to work hard and never to feel sorry for himself, he said. Thomas said he sees his own life partly as a memorial to Daddy, and he keeps a bust of his grandfather in his office at the Court. Thomas has also tried to live by his grandfather’s credo, which is engraved on a plaque on the bust — a credo that, Thomas recalled, his grandfather would repeat any time Thomas or his siblings said they couldn’t do something. He would say, “Old man ‘can’t’ is dead. I helped bury him.”
That pull-yourself-up mentality formed the roots of his “more libertarian” philosophy, Thomas said. And he observed, “I’m a moderate compared to my brother.”
Later in the talk, the justice summed up the brutal Senate confirmation hearings he faced in 1991 before squeaking through in a 52-48 vote. “It was very hard,” he said, and he thought about giving up "thousands of times."
Yet he didn’t. And that was his message to students at Howard.
In the past, the conservative justice has not always been welcome before African-American audiences. But there was little controversy among Howard students surrounding Thomas’ visit, says first-year law student Raven Radley. She suggests that a figure like Thomas is not well-understood by people like her father, who was involved in the civil rights movement, “just because of the experience that blacks had during the sixties.”
Although she remains a firm believer in affirmative action programs, Radley says, she respects Justice Thomas’ perspective much more now that she better understands the life he has led.
Photos by Diego M. Radzinschi