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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Undeniably, King’s family, his education and the struggles against segregation and racism shaped the boy who would become the man etched in granite on our nation’s Mall.

But what about the boy named Clarence?

Born on June 23, 1948, Thomas grew up amid grinding poverty. His community near Savannah, Ga., lacked a sewage system and paved roads. He was abandoned by his father at the age of 7, and after the family home burned down, Clarence was sent by his mother to live with his grandfather Myers Anderson (whom he would come to call “Daddy”) in Savannah. He worked through high school by making fuel deliveries and, at the urging of his grandfather, enrolled in a seminary with the goal of becoming a Roman Catholic priest.

From his grandfather he learned the lessons that come from discipline and hard work; and as Thomas shared in his compelling book, My Grandfather’s Son, “What I am is what he made me.”  

Thomas’ early years were shaped by a man of uncommon strength and discipline, just as King’s early years were. Thomas’ experience laid the foundation for what would become and remain — despite the noise from political and ideological opponents to the contrary — a life of remarkable personal achievements.

From his acceptance into St. John Vianney Seminary to his days at Yale Law School and the turmoil of his Senate confirmation hearing, there is so much about those times in his life that pushed and pulled at everything Thomas’ “Daddy” had taught him and demanded from him. How he resolved or accepted such conflicts defines his humanity. If you allow your ideological compass to get stuck on his Senate confirmation hearing and the Anita Hill saga, then you’ll miss the full measure of Thomas.

Thomas: The Content of His Character

And that is what saddens me about the ugly jokes and vitriol too often heaped on Thomas because his politics are different from the norm in our community — or, worse yet, because his views are not “black enough.” Such shortsightedness cheats our children of the opportunity to see their story through his life — much as they would see themselves in King’s.

Since his confirmation hearings, I have come to learn that Thomas has not focused on being “angry” or on calculating some “payback” for the political machinations of a fearful and somewhat desperate liberal elite — both black and white. Instead, he has focused on those things that continue to shape his character and, more important, connect him to something, and someone, real.

For Thomas, that something real is the abiding love of his family, a solid grounding in his faith (although, as he describes in his book, he moved away from his faith at times) and a disciplined work ethic. That someone real is his grandfather — a poorly educated, yet proud man with an entrepreneurial spirit who refused public assistance along the way because “it takes away your manhood.”