Justice Clarence Thomas Shares What Led Him Back to Church After 25 Years
Justice Clarence Thomas spoke to The Daily Caller News Foundation about his harrowing journey to the U.S. Supreme Court Sunday.
You can find a transcript of the interview below.
Jan. 7, 2017.
Ginni Thomas, The Daily Caller News Foundation: Clarence Thomas you’re the best man walking the face of the earth. It’s an honor to interview you for my leader series. Thanks for agreeing to do this. Happy 2018.
Justice Clarence Thomas: Well I’m really stressed out about this interview.
GT: I just want to say you know that your wingspan has always amazed me. You’ve come from poverty in Georgia, you’ve been a left-wing radical before, you’ve had and now you’ve seen a whole different side of life. Talk about lessons learned from your wingspan.
CT: I think you learn that life can be very humbling — that you think you know at 18 or 19 all the answers and then you realize that they lead to a lot of questions. My grandfather always understood that. He would, when I would, come home full of answers he would ask you and then what questions so after you destroy this country where would you go which country me and what was your country look like and to which of course when you’re a kid you have no answers as most kids don’t. and so I think humility
I think patience persistence. There’s lessons about people you meet along the way. You know my grandfather would have all these sayings and I think one of the reasons I wind up quoting him and my grandmother and the people around me and much of sort of the cultural attitudes or aphorisms that you heard was because that’s the way you learned how to live your life.
So one of the things that he would say is the Lord helps those who help themselves. As far as cooperation with other people he would often say: “Son, it takes one hand to watch the other,” that you have to figure out a way to work with someone else.
One of the things that happens is when you go from one place to another — almost a nomadic experience — you learn how to figure out what you have in common with other people. So I think that was kind of important, that there was a lesson that no matter who it is, what station in life they’re at, you can find something that you have in common, even if it’s just a football team. It could be an experience, it could be a sort of hobby, it could be just an observation, it could be bigger things like religion or philosophy, but you can find something.
And the other thing I think is to see that everyone has inherent value and they have had experiences that are worth listening to. When you look at why you’re still here or how you manage to survive it’s beyond me, certainly it would miracle after miracle after miracle.
You know it’s always interesting to me and people say “Well I don’t believe in miracles.” Well, I have no other explanations. It doesn’t add up. You can say it’s Locke, you can say it’s good fortune. You know I prefer to just say well it’s just divine providence because there is just no explanation that, one that a house burns down that results in my brother and me going to live with my mother in this tenement. Well, then she can’t really handle two little boys and working for 10 to 15 dollars a week so she takes us to our grandparents. And then so you wind up being raised by two of the greatest people you would ever know. Tell me that’s not miraculous. They then take you to a Catholic school where you have nuns who devote their lives to little black kids in the inner city of Savannah. So then that is another miracle. You then wind up going into the seminary and that’s another totally different experience.
Now how do you explain all of that? I mean how does it all sort of make sense if you look at it as you go through it in retrospect it makes sense but to me looking at it retrospectively also suggests to me that it is certainly providential that this happened.
GT: I see you pull out the litany of humility all the time. What’s that do for you?
CT: Oh it focuses you, because it tells you not to focus on whether you’re praised or criticized, to not worry about whether someone gets more than you, not to worry about whether someone is gonna say something hateful about you, whether they’re gonna tell them they hate you. Don’t worry about whether or not they say good things about you that it doesn’t matter. What really matters is whether or not you do what you are called to do.
A young man asked me “What role does ambition play in your career and in your life?” And I thought about it, I had never been asked and I said oddly I don’t have anything against ambition but oddly it’s never played any role in my life.
When you think you’re called to the priesthood, as I thought I was in 1964, I didn’t go become a priest because I didn’t think I had a vocation. But you’re always looking for the next calling, the next vocation, and so to live up to that vocation and that calling you have to discard these distractions of praise, of being afraid of being criticized, of wanting to be first, of wanting to be treated well, and feed it and all those sorts of things because none of that has anything to do with being called to do what you called to do.
Someone asked me recently some years ago, they remembered I had been away from the church for 25 years, I left in a huff in 1968 and someone said: “Why did you go back?” And I said “life.” Life happened. Things happen that you can’t explain and the then you realize there’s only — there was only one place to go. And for me, that was back before the Blessed Sacrament. So the, you know the others criticizing, so be it.
Mother Teresa said it was between — it’s always between God and me. But faith is, I think it’s important to keep you give me the strength to do what I have to do every day to assert the independence to be willing to take the beatings the criticism you know the unfairness that’s a part that comes with the truth but faith allows you, with God, you can do that. It also gives you the wisdom, the insights, the capacity to do the work, to decide these things and discipline. It gives content and meaning to the oath I took. At the end of my oath and for this job at stake too, you say “So help me God. It’s an oath to God. So if you have a strong faith in God, then that oath gains in meaning and content. So when you violate that you’re not violating a contract or a mere promise but an oath to God.
So the faith I, you know I go to Mass before I go to work and the reason for that is not just habit. It gives you, a sinner, it starts you in a way of doing this job secular job the right way for the right reasons. And it has nothing to do with what is said about me, or what’s written, but this is what I took an oath to do.
GT: Reflecting on your whole life at 69, what are the blessings that come to mind as you start 2018?
CT: Certainly being born in this country. I just don’t see it happening any place else.
So one of the things you remember when I was going up to Kennebunkport on in 1991 and you said: “You should have a speech prepared in case you’re nominated.” And of course I resisted that but I wrote, you know, some remarks so I didn’t look completely unprepared. But in any case, you added one phrase: “Only in America.” And that’s true. That captures it. So the other thing was, I would say faith which I inherited from my grandparents and my nuns the good people that I’ve met along the way.
I’m looking at the early part of my life, you know, whether it’s the nuns or my teachers or the priests and then later on in life certainly as I got older I would say Jamal and then the bigger part larger part of my life is when we met 1986 and then married a year later and it’s been, you know over three decades, and it’s been a bit of a hoot but you — just think of the ride that we’ve been on, you know?
And then also good people I’ve met along the way in different capacities whether it’s Tom Sowell or Jay Parker, or whether it’s Jack Danforth, my friends in the attorney general’s office. I mean they’re so many people, there are just countless blessings and as I look at my life the innumerable things that have happened that have been just good.
You know you asked me something recently or you read me something about the dot on the piece of paper and the kids in the classroom, that paper that the professor handed out and the kids all focused on the dot. And the professor then says that’s the tendency of people to focus on the one little thing and not all the space around the dot. And I think sometimes we do that but there’s been so much good space around the dots in my life.
But people love to define, say what happens because you’re black because I’m black, because we’re in this in the country that made that has had racial issues they wanted to define you by those dots, when there’s so many other positive things that have happened. I have some things that are important.
Your mother was a not a sports fan but she and your father were passionate Nebraska fans and I think the I saw something there that I liked and I also like the way they do things I like the fact that there are things that you work toward that you believe and I like to see.
There was a young woman at the University of Nebraska, transferred from LSU, on the volleyball team Breanna Holman who was the first in her family to get a college degree. And she graduated the same day they won the national championship in volleyball. That is a big deal in Nebraska and I love that, I love the fact that there’s this idea that you do things the right way. So I think I got that, that focus from watching your mother and then watching Tom Osborne and watching the Huskers over the years even — it doesn’t matter which team, bowling, my favorite now is volleyball, I really like that. I just think they’re fabulous.
But there’s other things. Motor-homing was just, again, the good people you meet. You know, I just happened to meet a man who was a wonderful man who said the best people in the country are in the RV parks. To which I was quite dismissive and he was right. That was almost, that was over 20 years ago and we have been motor humming now 18 years. At least we’ve had the same coach. So think of what we’ve seen, think of the parts of the country we’ve seen, think of the people we’ve seen, think of the sort of flyover country that we’ve been through and enjoyed and experienced. So I think all of that informs sort of what I do and the way I look at things.
Reading is a blessing when you grow up around people who are illiterate. You see that they’re incarcerated by the inability to decipher things. They are trapped in this world where they’re blind in certain ways and or it, as they would say in some of the more older language insensate, I think the other word be insensible. But in any case, they can’t experience lots of things because they can’t decipher the words.
You know I’m watching people I grew up around, so much illiteracy, that people would look at a piece of paper and they would ask you this question — still sort of haunts me when I see people refusing to read when they can “What this paper say?” you know I mean whether it’s from my mother or whether it’s from cousin Hattie or daddy or Auntie Nene “What this papers say?”
Then finally the nuns and through school, it was very difficult for me to learn English. You asked me some years ago I think it was the last year you said “When did you finally become comfortable with the English language? And I told you “In the late 1980s.” And you said, “Oh around the time we met.” And I hadn’t put the two together but that was true. So I think reading is more than sort of, I wouldn’t characterize it as a hobby, it is truly a blessing it was a something that I prayed to God when I was a kid that I would want that, I would enjoy that, I would want to learn how to read, that I would want to read many books and when I finally got that gift it’s sort of like wow it’s like Christmas every day, every book.
I know you think I’m a little different, and I am. But just think of this, I mean you get to read Boswell’s “Life of Samuel Johnson.” Now many people kind of roll their eyes at Boswell’s “Life of Samuel Johnson,” but just think of all the people who were around him, whether it was Edmund Burke or Adam Smith. And when you want to read Boswell’s “Life of Samuel Johnson,”
GT: I’ll put it on my list, justice.
CT: I’ll lend you my copy.
GT: As long as you underline it for me. Okay.
CT: What about “The Wealth of Nations”
GT: Just underline these things for me, I have a life to live. Thank you for your reading. Okay. If someone asks you for advice when they’re getting married what do you suggest?
CT: Generically I’d say you’re marrying an adult you’re not raising somebody. That the person you married is an adult and then I keep a sign on my desk: “Don’t make fun of your wife’s choices, you were one of them.”
GT: Thank you I really appreciate that. And that’s so true. Okay.
CT: And you learned how to enjoy each other’s company and you’re two different human beings who come together to form one. And you and I are very different. I mean you don’t read “The life of Samuel Johnson.”
GT: Exactly, exactly.
GT: What do you tell people about interracial marriage? It’s not something that either of us looked for when we started but what do you say?
CT: I just don’t think of it. The only time it ever came up really was during the confirmation stuff when we were being attacked and I was, you know if I were more progressive or liberal it would be considered progressive to be in an interracial marriage. But if you are not, then you are selling out.
So I think that it’s just one more way to attack or to criticize for some people but you know I don’t really get caught up with a lot of that I don’t think of it as some statement you’re my wife, that’s it.
GT: When I was mentoring this thirteen-year-old in DC, I told you this, one, this little girl said, “I don’t know what the controversy is about interracial marriage because you fall in love with their insides anyway.”
CT: Well you know, it’s kind of interesting, that’s consistent with the way we were raised with my grandfather, that you were required to look at character, because there was so much, under segregation, there were these rules based on skin color, and there were even intra-racially among blacks, there were gradations of skin color, and of course, because we were more Negro in our features and dark, we were certainly at the bottom of that pecking order. So, the nuns and my grandparents would often talk about, we’re all the same in God’s eyes, and so you didn’t, you were required to focus more on what we would later go on and focus on legally, a colorblind Constitution. We would have, we were required in our individual, our daily dealings, to also be color blind.
GT: Okay, so ritual defamation has been defined as retaliation for the real or imagined attitude, opinions, or beliefs of the victim, with the intention of silencing or neutralizing his or her influence and/or making an example out of them so as to discourage similar independence and insensitivity or non-observance of taboos. With such a big divide between those who know you, the reality of Clarence Thomas, and the myth that some propagandists make about you, what are the lessons learned for those who are feeling as if they’re in the midst of ritual defamation themselves?
CT: You know, again, I go back to the touchstone, the touchstone in my life, my grandfather. When I called him and I asked a similar question in the early 1980s, that, you know that I was getting beat up pretty good, and this was all new to me, and I asked him “what should I do?” And his advice was just very straightforward, “boy, you have to stand up for what you believe in.”
And so that sounds simplistic, or simple, but it’s just hard, and that’s why people don’t want to do it. They don’t want to take the beatings, and those who administer the beatings understand that. But I think if you go back, I think in my book I quoted Richard Wright, where he said that “the worst I’ve ever been treated is when I’ve told the truth.” And that’s the way it works, and one of my fears when I was a young man at Monsanto, about my views becoming public, was that I would be beaten or ostracized or criticized. Well the beatings started immediately in 1980, and have continued, so it’s just a way of life.
But there’s also the other side of it, to be able to know that you have done what you are required to do, that you have been truthful, that you have not deceived people, that you can put your head on your pillow and sleep soundly. My grandfather always talked about the sort of peace that you had when you did what was right, and so there’s nothing that the critics can either give me or take away that’s of value to me. They can’t take away, sort of, what I think about what I do, because they have no input into that.
One of my clerks said something to me years ago that I will never forget. I was being less than charitable to someone who, or an organization, or an institution that had done some negative things to me, and I was very content to be negative toward them in my attitude. And she said, “Why would you allow them to make you someone you’re not?” So you, you, when you overreact or react negatively to what others do to you, you’ve given them control over defining who you are now. Before that, all they got to define is what they said about you, and what those they control or persuaded thought about you, but they never got to control who you were.
But when you react in a negative way to those things, you have indirectly allowed to control you and define you. But I do ask this question of young, particularly young minorities in the, when I see them at the Court, or in various other places, particularly universities. What is it that they don’t want them to hear? Why, what is so threatening? I spend hours with these kids, I sit in the room with them, let them ask whatever questions they want, and then I ask them, “What did I say that is so dangerous?” And of course, there is no answer.
But what is it that they don’t want them to do, to learn? You know, back when I was in school, they often spoke, particularly among those on the hard left, the, that blacks would be the vanguard of the revolution. Their words, “the vanguard.” And I would cynically say sometimes that meant you would be the grunts in their ground war, and you’d be the first to go. My interest is in that kid having a chance, that kid learning how to read, or have a positive attitude, or being able to do things. And they’re not a pawn in any game, they’re not a part of, they’re not the vanguard, they are human beings. So what is it they don’t want that kid to hear?
Kids are great, by the way, I mean I am not, I think students are great, I think that they’re just kids. But the one kid in our discussions, you know, we’re concerned about, you know, I think they bought into the myths, but after you spend time with them they change their attitudes. And I said, in our discussions, to them, “Okay let’s just take the things that they’ve said about me. Have you in your life done what I’ve done. Have you sort of achieved the things that I’ve achieved?” And they, of course, say no. And I said “You’re just beginning, you’re a kid. But think about it. If they can denigrate, the sort of, all the things that I’ve done, undermine it, devalue it, discount it. If that’s what they think of me, and I’ve done all these things, what do you think they think of you?”
And the kid stopped a minute and said, “Oh my goodness, by that logic, I’m nothing.” They think extremely little of me, or so, if they can reduce the great quantity that you have, then what the little that I have is eviscerated.” So, I think that they begin to understand, when you put it in that context, that look, it is to their advantage, it’s to their credit, it’s for their own sake, that they should not buy into these myths. Because I’m sort of the first, but down the line, they’ll be included.
GT: So, last night as I was thinking about this, I rewatched your 1998 speech to the National Bar Association.
CT: I’ve never rewatched that, by the way.
GT: You did it, and it was in Memphis, and it was it was remarkable. And here’s the ending of it: “I have come here today not in anger, or to anger, though my mere presence has been sufficient, obviously, to anger some. Nor have I come to defend my views, but rather to assert my right to think for myself, to refuse to have my ideas assigned to me as though I was an intellectual slave because I’m black. I come to state that I’m a man, free to think for myself and do as I please. I’ve come to assert that I am a judge, and I will not be consigned to the unquestioned opinions of others. But even more than that I have come to say that isn’t it time to move on? Isn’t it time to realize that being angry with me solves no problems? Isn’t it time to acknowledge that the problem of race has defied simple solutions, and that not one of us, not a single one of us, can lay claim to the solution? Isn’t it time that we respect ourselves, and each other, as we have demanded respect from others? Isn’t it time to ignore those whose sole occupation is sowing seeds of discord and animus? Isn’t it time to continue diligently to search for lasting solutions? I believe that that time has come today.”
Thoughts on doing that, saying those words, doing that speech to that group?
CT: Well, that group was, contrary to much of the press coverage, of course, that’s almost two decades ago now, they were just delightful to be around. Of course, there was some tension, but that was not the bulk of the people there. Most people are very positive and hopeful and don’t quite understand what is going on because they, they’re busy with their lives. But I wrote that speech because I thought it was important for someone to assert the right to, particularly among blacks, the right to think for themselves. The right to be that invisible man, to, to be the one who lays claim to his own thoughts.
I mean, think about it today. The, what if, for example, someone said, just very clearly, that certain opinions were off limits to all blacks. No blacks need think this way. No blacks think…they say it every day that a black person can’t have this set of ideas. Or, go back to ritual defamations. If you have a certain set of ideas, you’re punished for them. So in a sense, they’re saying that every day, and I think it’s important that when that happens, on behalf of all the people who’ve come before, people like my grandfather, people who fought to end those sorts of things, to assert and be willing to take the beating for asserting that we have a right to think for ourselves.
Also, I have an obligation, because I am a judge. I’m an article III judge. That as a judge, you don’t get to be on one team or the other. You have to think independently in order to live up to the oath that you take.
GT: And the best part of being a justice?
CT: First of all, it’d be impossible without you. I have to be honest, it would be, it’s sort of like, how do you run with one leg? You can’t. It makes it whole when I have my wife.
The best part of the job itself would be hanging out with my law clerks. They’re energetic, they’re fun. I’ve had over a hundred. They’re smart, they’re hard-working, they’re dedicated, and I make them a promise that they will leave this job with clean hands, clean hearts, and clear conscience, so there’ll be nothing they’ll have to hide, or they’ll have to keep confidences, but not little secrets, and it has been just delightful to have these kids. But that would be the best part.
I like my colleagues, I miss my colleagues who’ve either passed away and those who’ve retired. I miss the Court that was together for over a decade. I regret not having spent more time with people like Byron White. So, I mean, there’s so much. I mean, it’s been, I mean, this is my 27th term, so it’s been a lot of friends, a lot of good people, a lot of great law clerks, a lot of wonderful experiences.
When you select law clerks, and one thing you do look for is that character. You’re looking for that work ethic, the intellectual honesty, you’re looking for the honesty, you’re looking for, of course, I prefer people from more modest circumstances. I like kids from state schools, I like kids from, they’re fine from the Ivy, I like those too, but I like kids also a lot of them from the non-Ivy League schools.
GT: Okay, we’re done. Thank you.
CT: I had more stuff to say!
GT: How long can we go?
The Daily Caller News Foundation: Actually, I’m not sure, I think 40 minutes.
CT: I have more stuff to talk about.
GT: You do? Do you have questions for me?
CT: Yeah, all right, let me see, where do I have my list of questions? I do have some questions.
A version of this article previously appeared on The Daily Caller News Foundation website.
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