A black man, born into a dirt-poor family in a dirt-poor town in the Deep and segregated South beats the odds, the obstacles and the bigots to become one of America’s most consequential legal thinkers, and an authority on the Founders’ vision. You might expect such a story to be told in every grade school and college in the country.
You’d be wrong. I’d wager that most young people, black or white, know little or nothing about the man to whom I’m referring. Of those who do, most probably don’t admire him. Many would revile him.
Their minds might be changed were they to watch the soon-to-be-released documentary “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words.”
At the preview I attended last week, the audience was moved to tears, laughter and a standing ovation. Yes, it was a conservative audience. But “We Shall Overcome” was the anthem of the American Civil Rights Movement. And Clarence Thomas overcame. Big time. Americans, wherever they stand politically, should be inspired by that.
In this simple and elegant film, U.S. Supereme Court Justice Thomas looks into the camera and talks, responding to questions — prompts, really — from director Michael Pack. Mr. Thomas’ wife, Ginni, also provides recollections. Helping to tell the tale are news clips, archival materials and marvelous photography of the Georgia Low Country.
Clarence Thomas was born in 1948, in Pin Point, an isolated settlement southeast of Savannah founded by freed slaves after the Civil War. Few in the community could read and write. Most spoke only Gullah, a creole of English and West African languages. Gullah was Mr. Thomas’ first language.
When Clarence was just 2, his father abandoned the family. He, his brother and their mother lived in a rundown shack with no plumbing. After that burned down, the children went to live with their maternal grandfather who was tough, ornery and disciplined, and earned a living delivering oil and coal.
He sent Clarence to a segregated Catholic school. The nuns were caring and strict. He went on to enroll in a seminary but was disappointed by the church’s stance on civil rights, and the racism of some of his fellow seminarians. One reacted to the shooting of Martin Luther King Jr. by saying: “That’s good. I hope the son of a bitch dies.”
Clarence dropped out, much to the chagrin of his grandfather for whom quitting was a sin. In 1968, however, he won a scholarship to the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. There, he joined the Black Power Movement and became a man of the radical left. But he did well academically and was accepted at Yale Law School.
His politics evolved. Among the reasons: He came to see “affirmative action” more as a stigma than a benefit, a reason for his achievements to be discounted. He regarded the battles that began in 1974 over busing as senseless because Boston’s public schools — white-only and black-only — were low-quality, a problem the political elites chose to ignore.
After earning his law degree he was hired by John Danforth, then the attorney general of Missouri, later a U.S. senator. That led to positions in the Reagan administration, and then a judgeship on the U.S. Court of Appeals. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush nominated Judge Thomas to the Supreme Court.
Four years earlier, leftist activists and their congressional allies had blocked Robert H. Bork’s appointment through an orchestrated campaign of vilification. Among the patently false accusations — that Judge Bork supported “segregated lunch counters.” (You’ll now find the verb “to bork” in the Oxford English Dictionary.)
The nomination of a black conservative was even more intolerable to those activists than Judge Bork’s had been. At first, Judge Thomas was attacked for his commitment to natural law, judicial restraint and originalism. The underlying objection — that he might not uphold Roe v. Wade.
When this approach didn’t produce the desired results, Anita Hill, a law professor who had once been his deputy, came forward to charge that he had “used work situations to discuss sex.”
In televised hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which included Joseph Biden and Edward Kennedy, Mr. Thomas furiously denied the charge, and accused his accusers of organizing “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas.”
Polls showed the public believing Mr. Thomas over Ms. Hill 2-1. The Senate went on to confirm him 52-48.
At this point, you may be thinking: “Hey, Cliff! You write about foreign affairs! How is this relevant?” My answer: The United States is not exactly excelling in public diplomacy these days. (Note: I’m not weighing in on who’s to blame). So my counsel to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is to instruct every ambassador around the world to screen this film for local audiences.
He also should commission Mr. Pack to make a second documentary, one in which Justice Thomas speaks at greater length about his jurisprudence and his commitment to the Founders’ principles, making clear why George Will recently called Justice Thomas “America’s indispensable constitutionalist.” Such a film should be shown in universities abroad, especially in what we hopefully call the developing world.
“Created Equal” is the story of one exceptional American, but it’s also a story about America, a still-exceptional nation, one that, for all its many faults, provides unparalleled opportunity for those willing to work hard to overcome whatever and whomever they find in their way. Americans, wherever they stand politically, should be proud of that.
• Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for The Washington Times.