Are We Ready to Understand Thomas?

Rather than simply judge him, blacks should look at how his hard life shaped his conservative views.

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Getty Images

Over the years, I have had the privilege of being “in the room” with quite a number of amazing people. From presidents to philanthropists to ordinary folk who did extraordinary things, each has left an indelible mark on America’s history. But more important than how history views these individuals is the immeasurable contributions that many have brought to the black experience in America.

Most recently I was honored and pleased to find myself in the green room at MSNBC with Harry E. Johnson, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, Inc. He was about to go on TV to talk about the dedication of the memorial — a stunning accomplishment and testament to perseverance — and what it means to the nation, but most especially to African Americans. Johnson shared with me that many who walked through that narrow entrance to the memorial have just stopped and wept when they came face-to-face with the towering figure of King.

As Johnson and I parted, it got me to thinking about how gifted we are to have individuals who rise from within our nation’s experience to define and to set in stone (figuratively and, in King’s case, literally) a uniquely American story born out of success and failure, pride and prejudice. Political fights between red and blue, right and left, may roil about us, and we may experience tough economic times, but we don’t have to reach too deep into history to see that this great nation still has unlimited potential. Indeed, our history teaches us that today’s hardships can build the character of one person or an entire people.

Which brings me to another individual I’ve met “in the room”: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. I consider it a rare privilege that I have had the opportunity on several public, and some private, occasions to see and to speak with Justice Thomas. From his full-throated laugh to his silent acquiescence to the fact that he is not accepted by most in the black community, I have found his story — and his sharing of it — to be both a genuine and an important representation of the black experience in America.

So, for some it may be a particular irony that Oct. 15, the 20th anniversary of Thomas’ confirmation by the Supreme Court, should fall one day before the rescheduled dedication of the King memorial. For me, it’s poetic.

King and Thomas: Two Linked Histories

Many would argue that these two men could not be more different on so many levels — and they would be right. But that is too simplistic a conclusion and misses what unites their stories: family, faith and America.

We all know the story of King. As notes: “King came from a comfortable middle-class family steeped in the tradition of the Southern black ministry: both his father and maternal grandfather were Baptist preachers. His parents were college-educated, and King’s father had succeeded his father-in-law as pastor of the prestigious Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. The family lived on Auburn Avenue, otherwise known as ‘Sweet Auburn,’ the bustling ‘black Wall Street,’ home to some of the country’s largest and most prosperous black businesses and black churches in the years before the civil rights movement. Young Martin received a solid education and grew up in a loving extended family.

“This secure upbringing, however, did not prevent King from experiencing the prejudices then common in the South … [At age 15], King entered Morehouse College … [and he favored] studies in medicine and law, but these were eclipsed in his senior year by a decision to enter the ministry, as his father had urged.”