Often-reticent Justice Clarence Thomas speaks about his faith in new documentary

Often-reticent Justice Clarence Thomas speaks about his faith in new documentary

Justice Clarence Thomas, the member of the Supreme Court known for his reticence, speaks for much of a new two-hour documentary about his life.

Part of the story he tells in “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words” centers on his longtime Catholic faith — nurtured by his grandfather who raised him in his Georgia home, nuns who taught him in school and people who prayed with him during his confirmation process to serve on the nation’s highest court.

Producer/director Michael Pack interviewed Thomas and his wife, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, for 30 hours for the film that is currently in 20 cities, including Washington, New York, Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles. Pack recently served as president of Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank, but has produced documentaries for PBS about George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and “God and the Inner City.”

He talked to Religion News Service about what he learned about Thomas’ religious life as he filmed his latest documentary. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What struck you most about Clarence Thomas’ faith?

I’m struck by the depth of Clarence Thomas’ faith. It was strong when he first had it, but when you have a faith, lose your faith and come back to your faith, in some ways it’s stronger then. I’m also impressed at how Justice Thomas relies on his faith to get him through the difficult and dark moments of his life, especially his contentious confirmation hearing.

Could you talk about the role of his grandfather and how the Bible shaped his philosophy and the lessons he passed on to Thomas?

Thomas’ grandfather was functionally illiterate. So what he would do with the Bible is he would try to get a few words by heart and rely on those. The values he gave to Clarence Thomas, he felt were rooted in the Bible: working from sun to sun, never quitting, being true to yourself.

In addition to his grandfather, Thomas cites the influence of nuns at a segregated Catholic school he attended.

As he says in the documentary, he felt that they loved him and he worked hard to live up to that. And even though it was segregated Savannah, he felt they were on his side. They believed in these young boys and girls. And he adopted the faith they instilled in him. He continued to visit those nuns until several of them passed away.

He has spoken in the past about wanting to be a priest at a young age, and he attended seminary before he went to college. What drew him to seminary life?

That’s right. He went first to a minor seminary for his last year of high school and then he went to a seminary for his first year of college so he went to two different seminaries. He loved the ritual. He loved the prayers. He loved the Gregorian chant. I think he loved the entire religious environment that he lived in. He found it appealing. It spoke to something deep in his soul.

He ended up leaving that second seminary. Why?

It was racist incidents. We tell a story in which he was in one class where some kid passed him a folded note and on the front of the folded note it said “I like Martin Luther King Jr.” You open it up and it said “dead.”

This sort of mockery of somebody he thought was important and of the civil rights movement was upsetting to Justice Thomas. But it confirmed his feeling that the Catholic Church wasn’t doing enough for civil rights. And don’t forget this is the late ’60s and he’s swept up in the mood of the times as well. It’s the time of black power, of rebellion, of urban riot and, I’d say, that as a young man, Justice Thomas got caught up in those ideas too.

Clarence Thomas’s yearbook picture from Holy Cross College, 1969-1970. Photo courtesy of Leola Williams

How does that fit with his attendance at College of the Holy Cross?

I think that he felt he had no alternative but to go to Holy Cross. His grandfather had kicked him out of his home. He had no job. He happened to have applied to Holy Cross and had a full scholarship. So he went. But he, as soon as he got there, he hung around with Marxist students, black radicals that didn’t take religion all that seriously — even if they were at Holy Cross — so he went through a period of time where he wasn’t going to church and he wasn’t thinking about religion.

After the King assassination, Thomas said that race was his religion. But he had a turnabout in his faith again.

That’s right. He participated in an anti-war demonstration that got violent in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and he got swept up in the mob violence of the moment and he watched himself being swept up and did not like what he saw. By the time that was over and he returned to Holy Cross, it was well past midnight and everything was closed, but he went to the chapel where he had not prayed in a long time. He knelt in front of the chapel and prayed for God to take anger out of his heart. And that was the beginning of his return to his faith.

While working for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Thomas delved into the history of law and particularly noted a reference to equality in the Declaration of Independence. How did those words shape his thinking about law and life?

Justice Thomas felt that the words of the declaration, “all men are created equal” and that they’re “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” that these truths pointed to a deep basis of American life and of the Constitution. And I think that underpins his jurisprudence today.

Justice Clarence Thomas sits at his desk. Photo courtesy of Justice Thomas

How has he applied that to court decisions?

His sense of what equality means underlies his jurisprudence in the Grutter decision on affirmative action. Justice Thomas was saying, I believe, that every man has that right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, to succeed or fail on their own. And he felt that the affirmative action that was under discussion in the Grutter opinion was not doing that, that there were two sets of criteria for different kinds of people and he felt that was unjust in the sense that the declaration points to justice.

What role did faith play in his life as he was being considered for the Supreme Court amid allegations that he sexually harassed onetime colleague Anita Hill?

His confirmation battle had two parts and the first part was closer to a traditional confirmation battle. After that the Anita Hill allegations of sexual harassment were leaked and that leak caused the Senate Judiciary Committee to reconvene and hold several more days of hearings. And that second time, he and Ginni felt it was a spiritual battle and they felt, rather than relying on their political skills or intellectual skills, they were relying a lot on their faith to get them through.

There is a brief mention of the “prayer partners” that were important to them at that time. Did he say more about that?

They needed to pray with other people to sort of be in touch with their faith during that second part of the hearing. He needed to be sustained by prayer and by prayer with other people as well. And because the media camped out in front of his house, it was easier for people to come to his house than for him to go out to a church.

Is there anything else about his faith that ended up on the cutting room floor?

He’s always coming back to the nuns. We portray his going to parochial school at the time that it happens in his biography. But in my talking to him, he’s always talking about what his grandfather and the nuns taught him at many points in his life. It’s a touchstone that he goes back to.

Affirmative Action on Trial at U.S. Supreme Court

Affirmative Action on Trial at U.S. Supreme Court

‘Alive but Ailing’

“Affirmative action is alive but ailing, the idea of ‘critical mass’ to measure racial diversity is in very critical condition, and a nine-year-old precedent may have to be reshaped in order to survive. Those were the dominant impressions at the close of a one-hour, nineteen-minute argument in the Supreme Court Wednesday,” said veteran U.S. Supreme Court reporter Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog, after the Court heard arguments in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin.

Embarrassed for the Court

“Critical mass” is the idea that there need to be enough students of color attending a school to overcome a sense of “racial isolation,” explained Linda Greenhouse at The New York Times. Greenhouse was embarrassed for the court after acquainting herself with its questions, she said. “Of the four justices most intent on curbing or totally eradicating affirmative action — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Clarence Thomas — the three who spoke (minus Justice Thomas, of course) failed to engage with the deep issues raised by Fisher v. University of Texas. …It was impossible to avoid the conclusion that ridicule rather than a search for understanding was the name of the game.”

Plaintiff ‘Failed to Meet Threshold’

The plaintiff in the case, Abigail Fisher, “failed to meet the threshold of being in the top 10 percent of her graduating high school class — which would have automatically guaranteed admission to UT,” said Edward Wyckoff Williams at The Root. He went on to argue that “four decades after legalized discrimination was still codified in law, racial disparities persist at nearly every level of American society. From criminal justice to education, employment to housing, minorities in general and African Americans in particular continue to face an uphill battle toward social and economic equity.”

Affirmative Action for Whites

Williams also mentioned a new book, What’s the Matter With White People? in which the author, Joan Walsh, reminds readers that “white Americans enjoyed the benefits of the Great Society social welfare programs, in particular the postwar GI Bill, expansion of public universities, FHA mortgage-lending guarantees and union jobs … amounting to affirmative action government policies for poor and low-income whites — and often, almost explicitly, excluded African Americans and other people of color.”

Selective Resentment

At The Huffington Post, Steve Nelson accused Fisher of having her cake and wanting to eat it too and he accused the court of appearing “ready to hand her a fork.” Said Nelson: “The young white woman, a recent graduate of Louisiana State University, filed the lawsuit now being considered because, she claims, she was unfairly denied admission to the University of Texas. One might argue whether the distinction between these two institutions is so great that Fisher had standing to bring the case at all. She claims that this allegedly diminished pedigree has done her grievous harm. Whatever. Lots of kids don’t get into the colleges they most desire. Did Fisher, or those who advised her to sue, choose to complain that some other white student of ‘lesser qualification’ won the spot she so dearly coveted? No, it was only the allegedly ‘inferior’ black applicants whom she apparently resents.”

Court’s High Bar Cleared

Noting that “the Supreme Court has [previously] insisted that any affirmative action plan must meet the test of ‘strict scrutiny’ — that is, that the plan must be ‘narrowly tailored’ to serve a ‘compelling interest,'”Greenhouse said “the justices obviously know that the court has concluded that affirmative action in higher education admissions can clear that high bar — as it did nine years ago in Grutter v. Bollinger, the University of Michigan Law School decision.” So, she concluded, “There was a context in which the Regents of the University of Texas, following upon the Michigan decision, chose to act, a history they sought to acknowledge, and a better future they hoped to achieve for their diverse state by supplementing the unsatisfactory and mechanical ‘top 10 percent admissions plan with one that considers each applicant as an individual — with race as ‘only one modest factor among many others.'”

‘Temporary Measure’ to Permanent Entitlement

At Forbes, Bill Frezza wondered how “a set of ‘temporary measures to level the playing field’ become a permanent entitlement advantaging even minorities from wealthy backgrounds over white kids who grew up in poverty?” Frezza advised readers to take the approach that blond-haired, blue-eyed U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren did when she identified herself as a Native American on a Harvard Law School job application. Said Frezza: “Suppose enough of us chose to adopt the Warren standard? After all, every human being has ancestors that came from Africa, however remote. Who’s to say we don’t identify with them?And therein lies the fastest way to put an end to affirmative action without relying on the courts or the ballot box.”

Clever, isn’t he?

Downside for People of Color

Frezza and Fisher are obviously not alone in their disdain for Affirmative Action. Some however, are uncomfortable about it for entirely different reasons. At CNN, for example, LZ Granderson said, “If I had a nickel each time a white guy e-mails or tweets that I have my job because I’m black, I wouldn’t need the job, because I’d be rich. This is at the heart of a little talked about secret regarding affirmative action: A lot of black professionals don’t like it either. Not because they think the playing field is necessarily leveled, but rather their skills and talents are constantly being slighted by whites who think their jobs were given to them solely because of their race.”

Big Business Backs It

Big business, meanwhile, is on the aside of Affirmative Action, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. “Some of the biggest corporations in America say that having a diverse payroll helps boost sales, and they want the Supreme Court to keep that in mind as it considers this term’s affirmative-action case,” the article said.

What do you think?

Should Affirmative Action become another entry in the history books or is it still necessary for leveling the playing field?

Protesting Greed in the Shadow of 9/11

Protesting Greed in the Shadow of 9/11

A snapshot from Occupy Wall Street. (Photo by Christine A. Scheller.)

What I haven’t seen written about in the many stories about the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) encampment at Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan is its proximity to the World Trade Center (WTC) site. The park, which fills a small city block, sits across from the southeast corner of the site, where Four World Trade Center is being resurrected.

As I mingled briefly yesterday with men and women protesting corporate greed, construction workers labored above us and a bevy of police officers ushered visitors toward the nearby entrance to the new 9/11 memorial.

I had thought I could quickly connect with a few occupiers before my scheduled appointment at the memorial, but discovered that building rapport with OWS sources would take a lot more time than I had.

Things began on a promising note as I approached Marvin Knight, a retiree who lives in Brooklyn. “Herman Cain is Clarence Thomas minus a black robe,” Knight’s sign said. When I inquired about it, he explained that when he heard Cain express support for Thomas, he knew there was “no difference between them.” He also said Cain’s 999 plan “will make the poor pay more money, the rich pay less, and the middle class pay more.”

Knight has been protesting corporate greed for the last ten years, he said, and he hopes OWS “opens up the eyes of the world that capitalism has failed.” He’d like to see socialism take its place, he said. He estimated that ten-to-fifteen percent of the Zuccotti Park protesters are African American and said he thinks their interests are represented. “Everything is covered as far as I’m concerned,” said Knight.

Flush with that success, I approached an older man who was sitting on a chair next to a sign for a homeless organization. As I introduced myself, a handsome younger man sat down next to him, so I offered to interview them together. The older man objected to a dual interview and couldn’t be dissuaded. He shooed me away.

Next I introduced myself to Derek Brown of the Bronx. I ignored Brown’s request for a donation and asked why he was there. “I got occupied in this movement, not actually thinking I was going to be a warrior or soldier for the movement. I came down to check it out. Once I got here, I never left. I’ve been here for fourteen days,” said Brown.

He left his job as a messenger to join OWS, he said. “When I leave here, I’m going to have to re-establish my ties with the economic system because I have to subsist.”

The scale of justice and economic equality is tipped, Brown said. “We don’t want the rich to be poor, we don’t want the rich to be middle class, we just want you to concede and understand that you have to spread the bread to a degree where people are not so discontent,” he explained. “What we want as a whole is equality. We want room for growth and development and there seems to be no capacity for that right now.”

Brown asked me for money again. I declined, saying ethical journalists don’t pay for interviews. He implied that I had knowingly deceived him. I said if that was true, I wouldn’t have waited until the interview was over to ask if I could take his picture. He let me take it anyway.

With my memorial appointment looming, I approached a young woman who was manning a literature table. She expressed skepticism when I told her I was particularly interested in speaking to people of color at Zuccotti Park, so I said I was actually trying to find a source to dialogue with an African American from the Tea Party movement. She and her fellow protesters expressed derision at the idea.

I caught wind of conversations about putting bags out for collection in a timely manner. Trash bags were piled high, but the site was organized. An emergency community meeting was called with five minutes notice.

A group that was meditating around a collection of crystals and other artifacts seemed oblivious to their surroundings. As a steady “omm” filled the air, numerous bystanders and photographers milled about.

Leaving the park, I passed a group of musicians playing bluegrass on the north side walk. The sounds pouring from their instruments spoke of the discipline, nuance, and complexity that I struggled to find at OWS.

When I returned after my visit to the memorial, a drum circle was pounding out another beat. I couldn’t’ stay however, or I would have been late for a screening and discussion of CNN’s fourth Black in America documentary “The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley,” which was hosted by journalist Soledad O’Brien at the Time Warner building in midtown. There a room full of African Americans talked about how they could garner a bigger piece of the tech entrepreneurship pie. (More on this soon.)

The dichotomy reminded me of 2001-2002 when I worked at a public television show on Park Avenue and took the subway down to Wall Street to catch the ferry back to New Jersey. I couldn’t help but see Zuccotti Park through the lens of that terrible time.

Four World Trade Center from NYC's 9/11 Memorial. (Photo by Christine A. Scheller.)

At the 9/11 memorial, I found the vast pools of flowing water that lie in the footprints of the Twin Towers profoundly depressing. From a certain vantage point, the victims’ names etched on stone around their perimeter appear on the verge of disappearing forever into the void below.

Somehow that image feels to me like a better metaphor for the folly of “too big to fail” than a protest in the park, even though, or perhaps because, my earliest New York City protest memory is of attending the 200,000 person No Nukes protest concert in Battery Park on the east side of the WTC in 1979.

That park was replaced by an expensive planned community a long time ago and we’re still dealing with nuclear disasters. But a 2004 New York Daily News article concluded that No Nukes wasn’t “the first, last, biggest or most musically striking” cause concert in rock history, but it may have been the most effective. “In the quarter-century since those shows, no nuclear power plants have been built; indeed, a number have been decommissioned,” the Daily News declared.

I wonder what we’ll say about OWS in 25 years.

*Note: Most of the links in this post are to my OWS photo set on Flickr. To view a slide show of the collection, go here.