How Affirmative Action Benefited a Once-Militant Clarence Thomas
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How Affirmative Action Benefited a Once-Militant Clarence Thomas

The reverse radicalization of a man who formerly idolized Malcolm X

It's hard to imagine a time when Clarence Thomas wearing a beret, camouflage gear, and combat boots. In college, the future supreme court justice wanted to join the Black Panther Party. He had a poster of Malcolm X on his bedroom wall and had memorized some of the civil rights icon's speeches.

Thomas was once a militant radical, even participating in the 1969 Harvard Square riot to protest the Vietnam War. That event was one of many turning points in Clarence's life; we are best served by starting at the beginning.

Thomas was born in Pin Point, GA. Pin Point is one mile wide and just a little over a mile long. The rural coastal settlement was founded after the Civil War by freed enslaved people from nearby islands. Well after America ended the International Slave Trade in 1808, smugglers continued to bring enslaved Africans to America. The African slaves were readily identifiable because they didn't speak English like domestic-bred slaves. They were called the Gullah people and spoke with a Creole-influenced thick accent called Gullah-Geechie.

Thomas descended from the Gullah people and had a thick accent that often made him hard to understand. Not so much by people from his community but by white people, who he has tried pleasing most of his life. His tradition as an adult of rarely speaking in Supreme Court oral hearings stems from being embarrassed by his speech as a child.

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Thomas faced several struggles when he was young, including poverty, colorism, and abandonment. His family was dead broke, living in a home with a single, broken outdoor commode. Thomas was mocked because of his dark skin, even by Black kids who called him "ABC," America's Blackest Child. Thomas' father left their home when Clarence was two-years-old. His mother remarried multiple times while Clarence was young, with none of the men accepting him as their son.

Thomas was sent to his grandfather to live. On the plus side, there was indoor plumbing; on the downside, his grandfather was abusive and often administered beatings to Clarence and his younger brother, Myers. Thomas literally rewrote his history with his grandfather, writing the following in his memoir, My Grandfather's Son: "He was the one hero in my life. What I am is what he made me."

Thomas avoided arrest and arrived back in his dormitory room around 4 a.m. He was shaken by the experience and pulled away from his radical comrades—especially the Black ones.

Despite his widespread rejection, Thomas found solace and appreciation in the Catholic Church. He became an altar boy and was readily available when needed for services. He went to a high school seminary for two years, where he lived on campus. He was praised for his devotion, and people thought he would become Savannah's first Black priest.

Thomas' experience at the seminary was challenging. One of the Fathers told him he needed to "learn to speak well" if he didn't want to be considered inferior. And at night in the barracks, other kids would chant "n*gger” to Clarence. He left the seminary and returned to his grandfather's home. His grandfather threw him out, and Thomas had to survive on his own.

Fortunately, his Catholic connections got him a scholarship to the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA, outside Boston. There were less than 30 Black students on a campus of over 2,000. Thomas' timing was excellent as President Father Brooks was actively recruiting Black students through a process called affirmative action.

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His undergraduate years were during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and Thomas will tell you he was an angry young man. What truly set him off was the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.

You might have a hard time imagining Clarence Thomas in Black Panther gear, but he and other Black Holy Cross students indeed dressed the part. For a time, Thomas was committed. He was down with "by any means necessary." The period was full of civil rights protests and opposition to the Vietnam War. Clarence participated in one of the most violent war protests, pitting 4,000 students against 2,000 police officers. Thomas avoided arrest and arrived back in his dormitory room around 4 a.m. He was shaken by the experience and pulled away from his radical comrades—especially the Black ones.

Clarence hadn't entirely run away from his Black friends. His college girlfriend, Kathy Ambush, was Black. She attended a nearby women's college. Immediately after his graduation, they married and later had a son. That marriage lasted 10 years. When his next girlfriend, Lillian McEwen (who worked for Senator Joe Biden), was asked why Clarence married Ambush, she said Clarence told her, "She was the first woman who was nice to me." Clarence told her he felt he was "ugly" and had no previous success with women.

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Thomas's next move was to Yale, where he also benefitted from race-based affirmative action. Clarence was an ambitious young man and went to the Ivy League with the expectation that he would get a good job offer in result of his Yale law degree. Thomas developed his hatred of affirmative action at Yale and affixed a 15-cent sticker to his 1974 law degree to demonstrate his opinion of its value.

After graduation from Yale Law School, Clarence was appointed the Assistant Attorney General for Missouri and later spent a short time in private practice. He became a legislative assistant to U.S. Senator John Danforth in 1979. Two years later, he became the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education. The following year, Ronald Reagan made Thomas the Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). His rapid advancement came from meeting the right friends in high places, which has served him well to this day.

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You know much of his story about his nomination to the Supreme Court to replace Thurgood Marshall in 1991 and Professor Anita Hill's sexual harassment allegations. Thomas made it to the bench and has been paying back those who he resents ever since. A former law clerk attributed this statement to Thomas: "The liberals made my life miserable for 43 years, and I'm going to make their lives miserable for 43 years."

Thomas made that statement in 1991 after his confirmation, so he has eight years left to fulfill his promise. Thomas's one-time idol, Malcolm X, once served at the Boston Mosque before Thomas did his time in the area at Holy Cross. I wonder what Malcolm X would have thought of the militant Clarence—and the one we're left with now.

This post originally appeared on Medium and is edited and republished with author's permission. Read more of William Spivey's work on Medium. And if you dig his words, buy the man a coffee.