Clarence Thomas: Black Nationalist?

His views reflect those of leaders from Booker T. Washington to Malcolm X, says Juan Williams.

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But Hill eventually came forward to testify about tidbits of conversation with sexual overtones. The Thomas nomination hearings took on a soap opera quality as they stretched into prime-time, nightly television reality shows featuring salacious talk about pubic hair on a Coke can and porn movies.

During the hearings, the reality of Thomas was swallowed up by a media storm of ceaseless rumors and blinding personal attacks on him. The hearings gave Thomas' opponents a huge media canvas to paint him as the evil stand-in for any man who sexually harassed women at work, and a puppet of the far right who was groomed and ultimately controlled by Presidents Reagan and Bush.

It was unfair to Thomas. He was a news source for me when I was the Washington Post White House correspondent, and I knew that he was often branded by conservatives as not really conservative and not a team player. But the image created by his liberal opponents played to a history of racist slander against black men as sexual predators and intellectual weaklings.

Thomas famously called the attack a "high-tech lynching." It was a different kind of lynching. This one included black civil rights groups who felt obligated, as part of the liberal activist community, to join the battle to protect abortion rights.

His "Own Man"

Time, however, is on Clarence Thomas' side. Thomas has taken advantage of the first 20 years of his lifetime appointment to the court to repair his disfigured image. As the hearings fade into history, Thomas' goal has been to shift his public image from the hateful, cartoonish ogre to an independent thinker, free from both liberal and conservative orthodoxy. Twenty years later, Justice Thomas defines himself as being his "own man."

He came to my 50th-birthday party, and afterward, one friend who talked with him called me to say, "They lied on that man." And in his court opinions, his book and his public appearances, Thomas has defined himself on his own terms as a black nationalist in the self-reliant, proudly independent tradition of his hardworking Georgia grandfather, Myers Anderson.

The ice deliveryman raised Thomas to be the living proof that whites are wrong to assume that black people lack intellect, discipline and the capacity for achievement. This up-by-the bootstraps view of the best path for black people is in the tradition of another black nationalist icon, Booker T. Washington, whose bust is featured in Thomas' Supreme Court chamber.

In his first 10 years on the court, Thomas famously told a 1998 meeting of the National Bar Association, an organization of black lawyers, that he has a "right to think for himself." It is a theme he articulated and refined over the last 20 years: "Nobody owns me."

At the bar-association meeting, Thomas put it this way: "It pains me deeply -- more deeply than any of you can imagine -- to be perceived by so many members of my race as doing them harm ... I have come here not in anger or to anger, though my mere presence has been sufficient, obviously, to anger some, nor have I come to defend my views, but rather to assert my right to think for myself, to refuse to have my ideas assigned to me, as though I was an intellectual slave."