Growing up as a Black child in the South in the 1950s, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas inevitably experienced racial discrimination. But he was also taught that regardless of what others might say or do, the words of the Declaration of Independence were true in his life: “All men are created equal.”
Speaking Thursday at the University of Notre Dame, the senior associate justice discussed how his early life attending a Catholic school in the South now influences his approach to life and the law and helps shape his view of America. Thomas delivered the 2021 Tocqueville Lecture, sponsored by the Notre Dame Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government.
Growing up near Savannah, Georgia, Thomas lived with his Catholic grandfather and his Baptist grandmother. He was sent to a parochial school, where he was taught by nuns who instilled in him the idea that he was of equal dignity and worth by virtue of being a child of God.
Though Jim Crow laws were still prevalent at the time, Thomas said both his nuns and his grandfather taught him not to believe the lie that he was of lesser value simply because of the color of his skin. What’s more, he said, he was taught that America stood for the idea that God loves all people equally — even if the country was, at that moment, failing to live up to that.
As a result of that belief, Thomas was taught that it was his “Christian duty” to love his country even while objecting to its shortcomings.
“It was more than a belief,” he told Thursday’s audience. “It was a way of life.”
But things changed for the now-justice in 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The death of the civil rights icon left Thomas disillusioned with his childhood teachings, prompting him to abandon the faith and patriotism that had defined his early years.
Thomas left the seminary in 1968 and eventually enrolled in College of the Holy Cross, where he said he fell in with “radical ideologies like Black power.” He described himself as seeing with the “jaundiced eye” of critical — or what he now calls “cynical” — theories, believing that it was “preposterous” to believe in America.
But his grandfather, whom Thomas described as a man of reality, posed a question: “When you get your way and undermine the country, then what?”
“‘Live long enough and you’ll see,’” Thomas recalled his grandfather saying, adding, “As usual, he was right.”
Looking back on those years on Thursday, Thomas described the beliefs of his young adulthood as destructive and self-defeating. He said he came to realize that he had rejected his “birthright” as an American citizen, but believed he had nothing to show for it.
The justice then recalled April 16, 1970. He was returning from a “riot” when he stopped outside the chapel at Holy Cross and, as he recalled, “asked God to take hate out of (his) heart.”
From there, he said, he began to return to the belief that there was “no greater truth” than what he had been taught by his grandparents and his nuns: that all people are children of God, heirs of their country and duty-bound to live up to their full and equal citizenship.
After graduating from Holy Cross, Thomas would go on to earn his J.D. from Yale Law School and begin a career in public service, working as an assistant attorney general, a legislative assistant and at multiple government agencies. Those experiences, he said, piqued his interest in studying the Declaration of Independence.
“Studying the founding felt more like a return to familiar ground — the ground of my upbringing,” he said.
To Thomas, it appeared that the Founders did not try to reinvent the wheel when drafting the declaration.
Prior to July 1776, the individual colonies had been drafting their own declarations based on the idea of equality. So when it came time to draft what is now known as the Declaration of Independence, Founding Father Thomas Jefferson drew from the beliefs already espoused by his fellow colonists.
“The declaration did not say or discover any new truths,” Thomas said. “The truths were ‘self-evident.’”
Now in his own life, Thomas said he uses much the same approach. Rather than taking a “deductive” view of an issue that starts with theory and then looks at facts, the justice said he prefers an “inductive” approach that is based on facts and experiences.
Likewise, he said, the Continental Congress “did not need to remind the colonists of their grievances.” Instead, the Founders drew on their experiences to draft the declaration and espouse “a priori” truths, including equality.
Even so, Thomas acknowledged what he called the “rot” at the country’s core: slavery. To some, he said, the existence of slavery made America irredeemable. But to others, it was a call to continue striving to reach the ideals of the declaration.
The justice pointed to abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, who described the United States as being “unmoored,” but not completely lost. Likewise, President Abraham Lincoln described the ideals of America as being “never perfectly attained” but “constantly approximated.” And Martin Luther King Jr., himself, described the Declaration of Independence as a promissory note to which every American is heir.
“The history of our nation is our shared struggle to live up to that promise,” Thomas said. “It’s a slow and arduous battle, but we have yet to fail.”
Today, Thomas said there are some who still hold the views he did as a young man — that America is irredeemable. But he said there are others who believe what his grandparents and nuns taught. Thomas described meeting the latter in RV parks across the country, which he and his wife frequently visit.
“My wife and I are inspired by the people who still hold these values,” he said.
At the close of Thomas’ lecture, a group of three protestors stood up and began chanting, “I still believe Anita Hill,” referencing the lawyer who publicly accused Thomas of sexual harassment. The protestors were met with boos from the crowd and were escorted out of the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. The crowd then applauded and gave Thomas a standing ovation — his third of four.
The senior associate justice then answered a series of audience questions, ranging from his concerns about the federal judiciary to his decision to return to his Catholic faith. He lamented the fact that courts are increasingly viewed as policy-making bodies, blaming media organizations and interest groups for furthering that misconception.
Then, true to form, Thomas answered a question that he is likely asked frequently: “How often do oral arguments change your mind?”
“Oh, never,” he quipped, prompting audience laughter.
For more on Thomas’ visit to Notre Dame, see the Sept. 29 issue of Indiana Lawyer.