A new documentary about Clarence Thomas is now in theaters. Even those who know something of the second African American Supreme Court Justice and his background — are bound to learn some surprises. I recently spoke with Michael Pack, producer director of “Created Equal, Clarence Thomas in his own words.”
Clarence Thomas: When I was six, I wandered the streets by myself. You were hungry and didn’t know when you’d eat. Someplace in my life, the road split off. I’d gone to seminary. I’d gone to all white schools. I was never gonna be part of that world. I was never gonna be white. The problem is I could never go back completely to the world I came from.
Michael Pack: It is a great story, a story of Horatio Alger story of coming from nothing, from poverty and segregation to the highest court in the land.
The documentary traces Thomas’s birth in 1948 to a poor Georgia family that spoke a form of creole. His father left the family. Thomas often went hungry and had no bed to sleep in. His mother, working as a maid, but gave her two sons to their grandfather to raise.
Michael Pack: And that is what changed Justice Thomas' life. His grandfather gave him hard work and values. His grandfather was a Catholic, a rare thing for an African American in the fifties in Savannah and sending them to parochial schools. And he thrived in that environment and he even decided he wanted to become a priest and he entered the seminary, not that many people know that.
Sharyl: I didn't know that.
Michael Pack: And however, it was the late sixties and the seminaries had been all white until very recently. He was one of the first African Americans to attend. And there he started to experience racism.
Disillusioned, Thomas says he ultimately left the seminary which caused his grandfather to kick him out. And he became a radical.
Michael Pack: And so he became an angry black man as he says, he became suddenly felt race and racism explained everything.
Clarence Thomas: We’re supposed to be revolutionaries. We were for anybody who’s kind of in your face.
Michael Pack: They invited Black Panthers to speak at Holy Cross, and he supported every person, the more radical, the better. Angela Davis, Huey Newton, Malcolm X, another thing not everyone knows about Justice Thomas. And then, he gradually saw the errors of that. And that was the beginning of his coming back to both his faith and what he thinks is the values of his grandfather and the nuns and becoming conservative.
Clarence Thomas: I saw what I had become, lashing out at every single thing. And I asked God if you take anger out of my heart, I’ll never hate again. And that was the beginning of the slow return to where I started.
Thomas went on to work for President Reagan, a conservative Republican.
President Reagan: I want my candidacy to unite our country.
Clarence Thomas: I was under constant attack. You’re not really black because you’re not doing what we expect black people to do.
George HW Bush: I will nominate Judge Clarence Thomas to serve as associate justice of the United States Supreme Court.
Clarence Thomas: That’s when all heck broke loose.
Anita Hill: Judge Thomas began to use work situations to discuss sex.
Clarence Thomas: We knew exactly what’s going on here. This is the wrong black guy. He has to be destroyed. You really didn’t matter. What mattered was what they wanted.
Sharyl: Did he reflect at all upon current events such as the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings where, maybe not unlike Justice Thomas, sort of at the 11th hour accusations were raised against Kavanaugh, a conservative nominee of the Trump court.
Michael Pack: Well, in the interview he did not want to reflect on other political issues as is common for Supreme Court Justices. But I agree with you, Sharyl, I think it's inconceivable that he can't have been flashing back to his own confirmation battle. The Kavanaugh hearing seem to follow the Thomas playbook.
Sharyl: One of the things that is often said about Justice Thomas today is that, he just sits back and doesn't really say much or necessarily do much with the court, just sort of lets it happen around him. What did you find?
Michael Pack: There are a lot of myths about Justice Thomas and that's one. For example, he's written over 600 opinions, 30% more than any other sitting Supreme Court Justice— 30% more, not just a little bit more— including Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the others. He writes a lot. He doesn't speak an oral argument and that makes people think he is inactive, but he is active.
Sharyl: Why doesn't he do that do you think?
Pack: Part of the answer is definitely that he doesn't believe that that's the role of judges. Each advocate, each side of a case, has 30 minutes to speak. And if judges ask questions that takes from their time. He thinks they should be allowed to make their presentation. But the real work as Justice Thomas says, is when they write opinions and circulate opinions and talk among themselves, and he's very active in that way.
Sharyl: What does the whole story of Clarence Thomas to date say to you?
Michael Pack: I think Thomas' story is one of resilience against a great deal of opposition. He's always coming back and he refused to define himself as a victim, which he could easily have done.
Hatch: So you’d still like to serve on the Supreme Court? Thomas: I’d rather die than withdraw. I want to be able to say I lived up to my oath and did my best.
At age 71, Justice Thomas is the longest-serving among the current members of the Supreme Court at more than 28 years.