Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


My Grandfather's Son

By Shawn Healy
The title of Associate Supreme Court Clarence Thomas' recently-released autobiography. I had the pleasure of reading this uplifting and utterly American story last week, and the honor is seeing the Justice speak in person on Sunday at an event sponsored by the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society. I came away an unabashed fan of the book, the man, and his life, regardless of where he stands on the ideological spectrum.

Thomas was born into dire poverty in Pinpoint, GA. He met his father for the first time when he was nine, and lived briefly in Savannah housing projects with his mother, a step up from the tenements they occupied after his rural home burned down. His life was transformed when he moved into the modest, but well-kept home of his grandparents. His grandfather, Daddy, delivered daily doses of tough love, but it provided Thomas with the foundation and will to overcome the hurdles that race, poverty, and life in general would present to him in his rise to the top. Even today, Thomas suggests, "I am my grandfather's son."

Thomas trained to be a priest, left the seminary to the perpetual disappointment of Daddy, and climbed the academic ladder, first as an undergrad at Holy Cross, and later at Yale Law School. He found that an Ivy League education meant little to a black man at the time, and thus wound up in Jefferson City, MO, working for then State Attorney General John Danforth, henceforth his political benefactor.

After a brief tryst in the private sector, Thomas descended upon Washington to work for since-crowned Senator Danforth, and later for the Reagan Administration within first the Education Department, and later the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. From here he was appointed by President H.W. Bush to the DC Court of Appeals, and shortly thereafter to the US Supreme Court, the latter an infamous, bruising battle.

Thomas' rise is nothing less than meteoric, a self-described "life of miracles." His first confrontation with the Court was the road signs that lined rural Georgia highways during his youth calling for Earl Warren's impeachment in the aftermath of the Brown decision. Understandably, Thomas became an angry black man who saw the world stacked against him. He turned to alcohol to soothe his pain. His first marriage also unraveled into divorce and an initial abandonment of his son, Jamal.

He was able to overcome each of these obstacles, adopting conservative principles to the chagrin of white liberals and people of color in the civil rights establishment, going cold turkey to this day, and embracing and raising his son through adolescence. He also found the love of his life with his second marriage to his wife Virginia, and now raises his sister's son in a parallel gesture to that executed by his grandfather.

Having read a number of books authored by Supreme Court justices, the tone of this volume stands alone, and the anger of youth bleeds through the pages, as the reader has a front row seat to the transformation of Clarence Thomas.

Yes, the Anita Hill controversy is revisited through his own eyes (and she responded in an October 2nd NY Times op-ed piece claiming that he "reinvented" her), along with a confirmation battle that became a national soap opera. Thomas reached the point where he no longer sought the nomination, only the restoration of his reputation. I'll leave history to judge the accuracy of his contentions, but this contribution to the record was noticeably wanting.

The larger question of the race-based scrutiny Thomas faced, and currently faces, relative to his conservative principles is an important one. Is Thomas right in saying what he learned to fear most was not to outright hostility of racial segregationists, but the backhanded tactics of white liberals who "lynched" him before the American people?

The book ends with Thomas' installation on the Court, but the Associate Justice answered a slew of questions about his jurisprudence at Sunday's program. His goal on the Court is to reunite people with their Constitution. As an "originalist," he attempts to determine what the document says and what the Founders intended. The other option, by default, is to "make it up." By this he means it is unwise to weave personal public policy interests into decisions.

Thomas is known as perhaps the quietest member of the Court during oral arguments. He attributes this to the fact that most of the work of the Court is done in writing, and argues that 9 of 10 cases can be decided by the legal briefs alone. He sees oral arguments as a forum for lawyers to state their respective cases, not a seminar or debate session. In the end, "(He) ask(s) all the questions that need to be asked."

As for international jurisprudence as a guiding light for American precedent, Thomas wants none of it, contending it has no place in the federal judiciary. There is a tendency to "cherry pick" from those countries with whom one agrees personally, and this is no way to rule on the American bench, Thomas claims.

Perhaps the most powerful message delivered by Thomas was one of reconciliation. What better man to deliver it? When asked how to raise the level of discourse in our country, he prodded us to start with ourselves and to begin listening to others. Thomas points to the accepted tendency of destroying those who we disagree with, when we should instead learn to respectfully disagree. Moreover, we should demand more of elected officials, for this is the most poisonous patch. The Supreme Court, where civility is the rule, could be the guiding light.

Thomas left the audience with this parting advice: "Stand against the world if you think you're right." His inspirational life story is proof of the power of this credo.

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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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