Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas is the second Black man to serve on the nation’s highest court. Unlike his predecessor, the erstwhile civil rights litigator Thurgood Marshall, Thomas began his law career as a pro-Black radical only to morph into one of the Court’s staunchest conservatives. Here’s how his journey led him to be a catalyst for several country-altering decisions that have stripped Americans of rights we’ve fought to secure for decades.
Born in 1948
Clarence Thomas was born on June 23, 1948, in the Pin Point community outside of Savannah, Georgia. Pin Point is the largest African American-owned waterfront in Georgia. It was founded by the Gullah community and became a settlement of freed slaves in the late 1800s. The community supported Thomas during tumultuous confirmation hearings to the Supreme Court, while many Black Americans elsewhere remained skeptical.
Thomas was born to M.C. Thomas and Leola Anderson Thomas. He has one brother, Myers Thomas, and one sister, Emma Mae Martin. His father abandoned his family when he was two years old. Unable to support all three of her children after a fire destroyed their home, Leola Thomas sent Clarence and his brother to live with their grandfather, Myers Anderson. Anderson ran a fuel business that funded their Catholic school educations.
Becoming a Priest
Thomas’ grandfather emphasized the importance of education and wanted Thomas to pursue a religious career as a Catholic priest, leading him to St. John Vianney Minor Seminary. He was a great student academically but struggled socially. For the first time, Thomas was the only Black student in his class at St. John Vianney and his white classmates didn’t hide their racism, teasing him for the Gullah dialect he spoke and his brown skin.
Living with his grandfather
Thomas’ grandfather not only found education important but discipline as well. Thomas and his brother were given strict rules and schedules while living with their grandfather. He told them that they had to earn their living in the home, “He made the boys bathe in a teaspoon of water, using laundry detergent instead of soap. And wouldn’t let them wear gloves on cold winter mornings when delivering fuel oil. Thomas’s first and only embrace with his grandfather came as a grown man.”
Change of Plans
Upon graduating St. John, Thomas attended Immaculate Conception Seminary in 1967, stepping closer to the priesthood. But racism derailed that plan. “Thomas changed his plans on April 4, 1968, the day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis. For a time, he had seethed over racist jokes told by white seminarians. But when the news of King’s shooting reached his dormitory, one white student responded: “Good, I hope the son-of-a-bitch dies.” Thomas dropped out of Immaculate Conception, went home to Savannah for a break, then enrolled in the College of the Holy Cross.
Black Student Union
While at Holy Cross, Thomas participated in civil rights demonstrations. He joined the Black Student Union, participating in protests. He was unsatisfied with the silence from the church about racism. He admired Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party, emulating some of their ideas like setting up food programs for children from impoverished environments. The BSU had a list of demands for the school including hiring more Black staff and admitting more Black students. They also looked down on interracial relationships. While at Holy Cross, Thomas switched his major to law due to the discrimination he witnessed and experienced while in religious studies. He graduated in 1971 with English honors and married his first wife, Kathy Ambush, a Black woman, the same year. Ambush gave birth to Jamal Adeen Thomas, Thomas’ only son.
Yale Law School
In the first of several contradictions with is future time on the Court, Thomas was admitted to Yale Law School through its Affirmative Action program. He graduated from Yale in 1974. But although the program had provided him an unparalleled opportunity to attend an elite institution, Thomas abhorred Affirmative Action, believing such programs diminished Black students’ academic credibility in favor of meeting arbitrary quotas. Upon graduation, Thomas went to work as an assistant attorney general in Missouri from 1974 until 1977. Since he didn’t want to be seen as the Black man only working in civil rights, he focused on tax law. From 1977 through 1979, Thomas was an attorney for the Monsanto Co. and then a legislative assistant to Republican Senator John Danforth until 1981.
Becoming a Conservative
While working for Danforth, Thomas attended a Black conservatives convention where he spoke about education, Affirmative Action and Black people entering majority-white spaces, specifically politics. Thomas believed that the Black political leaders at the time rendered Black people helpless and unable to succeed in a white society and derided welfare as an entitlement program that caused Black people to be dependent on government .Thomas’ words gained the attention of the Reagan administration and he was offered the position of Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education from 1981 through 1982, when he was promoted to Chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
EEOC and Backlash
Thomas’ work in the EEOC upset several groups of people including civil rights leaders, women’s movements and minority groups. He was even accused of age discrimination. He had developed a reputation as difficult to work with, rigid, inconsistent in his opinions. “While he was in federal government he took a view of civil rights laws that was so narrow as to be ineffective,” charged William L. Taylor, a veteran civil rights attorney. “He refused to recognize the affirmative role of the government in protecting against discrimination.” While working for the EEOC, Thomas lost his grandfather and divorced Ambush, later meeting and marrying white conservative activist Virginia “Ginni” Lamp.
Appointed to the Supreme Court
In 1990, President Bush appointed Thomas to the United States Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. Thurgood Marshall retired from the Supreme Court in 1991, leaving Bush the responsibility of choosing a new justice. Despite the criticism from civil rights groups, Bush chose Thomas, making him the second Black man to serve on the Supreme Court. During the trials, Thomas avoided all questions about abortion and a sexual misconduct case was brought against him by Anita Hill, a former employee of the EEOC. The case was found to not have enough evidence and was thrown out. Today, Hill still believes that she was treated unfairly and President Joe Biden has even apologized for the way the case was handled. Thomas was confirmed to the Court after being voted 52 to 48.
One of the Strictest Conservatives
Thomas has been a private and quiet member of the Supreme Court, but his conservative views have been seen as some of the harshest amongst the members. Thomas consistently votes in favor of cases that deal with the First Amendment and the freedom of speech. One of his first cases, Good News Club v. Milford Central School, Thomas was in favor of the the religious program, Good News Club, to hold religious events in schools, despite the school believing it was a violation of the school community policy. In 2022, Thomas was in favor of making abortions unconstitutional. It is believed that he would like to revisit same-sex marriage and contraception laws as well.
False Beliefs about Covid Vaccines
Thomas has publicly and falsely claimed that the Covid-19 vaccines are made with the cells of aborted children, a claim that had been debunked. He made these claims in a dissenting opinion after New York’s former Governor Cuomo announced a vaccination mandate for healthcare workers, even workers with religious objections. Thomas was in the minority (6-3) to hear from the 16 workers refusing to get the vaccine, all but one of the workers ended up getting the vaccine while the others lost their jobs.