The new powerful documentary “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words” set to premier Monday on PBS traces the nation’s longest-serving Supreme Court justice’s journey from his childhood in segregated Georgia to the pinnacle of power in Washington, D.C.
And there are definitely some unlikely turns along the way in Thomas’ transformation from a 1960s leftist radical to a supporter of conservative icon Ronald Reagan.
“Created Equal,” written, produced and directed by veteran documentary filmmaker Michael Pack, features primarily Thomas telling his own story on camera, with Virginia Thomas, his wife of over 30 years, making intermittent appearances throughout.
The two were in fact the only people Pack interviewed for purposes of being in the film, though many others — like Thomas’ most influential political mentor, former Sen. John Danforth of Missouri — do play into the telling via archival footage.
The film is visually satisfying, with location shots in some of the beautiful landscapes and waterways of Thomas’ youth in and around Savannah, Georgia, as well as places in New England where he attended college and graduate school: the College of the Holy Cross and Yale Law School.
And of course, some of Washington, D.C.’s most iconic spots, where the justice has worked most of his adult life, are in there too.
The Western Journal asked Pack what drew him to the project.
“I have some mutual friends with Justice Thomas and they told me he was getting tired of having his story told by his enemies and people who didn’t like him,” Pack said. “He was tired of the misleading information, the half-truths, the untruths that were circulating about him. And he was open to telling his story.”
The filmmaker read Thomas’ 2008 book, “My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir,” and said “it quickly was apparent to me that he had a great story to tell.”
“A classic American story coming from dire poverty in the segregated south to the highest court in the land. It was a story I right away wanted to tell,” Pack said.
It is a compelling narrative from being born and living in a shack in rural Georgia in the late 1940s, to Thomas’ parents getting a divorce while he was still a toddler, to his grandparents taking him and his younger brother in when they were 7 and 6 years old, respectively.
That move to his grandparents’ home in Savannah did more to shape the course of the rest of the future Supreme Court justice’s life than any other event.
Thomas described his grandfather, Myers Anderson, as a “very stern” man in the movie, drawing his moral views from his Catholic Christian faith.
“The philosophy of life that he had came from biblical sources,” he said.
Anderson would require both Thomas and his brother, Myers, to help him deliver heating oil during the school year at the end of the class day and work on the family farm, located outside of Savannah, during the summer.
“The family farm and our unheated oil truck became my most important classrooms, the schools in which my grandfather passed on the wisdom he had acquired as an ill-educated modestly successful black man in the deep south,” Thomas recalled.
“My grandfather understood that education was the key because he didn’t have it, and that’s what held him back.”
Anderson, who had converted to Catholicism in 1949, sent Thomas and his brother to Catholic school.
Thomas flourished there under the tutelage of Irish immigrant nuns teaching at the school.
“You knew they loved you,” he said. “And when somebody, when you think somebody loves you and deeply cares about your interests, somehow, they can get you to do hard things.”
The boy was so impacted by his experience in Catholic school that at the age of 16 he enrolled in seminary to prepare for the priesthood.
However, events unfolding beyond the seminary in the politically turbulent year of 1968 caused Thomas to walk away from his Catholic faith for a time.
First came the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., followed by the killing of then-Sen. Robert F. Kennedy two months later.
The war in Vietnam was also raging, which Thomas’ brother had gone off to fight in it.
Almost 20 at this point, Thomas decided to withdraw from seminary, appalled at the attitude of some of his fellow students about the death of MLK and what he perceived as the Catholic church’s overall ambivalence about racial injustice.
“And for the first time in my life racism and race explained everything. It became, sort of, the substitute religion; I shoved aside Catholicism and now it was this, it was all about race,” he recalled.
“Every southern black had known such moments and felt the rage that threatened to burn through the mask of meekness and submission behind which we hid our true feelings,” Thomas added.
One clear takeaway from watching “Created Equal” is that, much like former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (who spent a good portion of her youth in segregated Birmingham, Alabama), Thomas does not require any lectures about the evils of racism from liberals.
His grandfather, who had been paying for the seminary education, did not not approve of Thomas’ unilateral decision to withdraw from school, informing the young man he was now on his own.
Thomas was angry with his grandfather, the Catholic Church and really life in general by the time he arrived at the College of Holy Cross in Massachusetts that fall.
He recounted how he sought out the most radical left-wing African-American student activists on campus and helped found the Black Student Union.
The group threw its support behind people like Black Panther head Stokely Carmichael, Black Power leader H. Rap Brown and Marxist activist Angela Davis.
“So the more radical tended to be the people we gravitated toward,” Thomas said.
In the spring of 1970, the left-wing student activist took part in an anti-war protest in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which devolved into a riot.
“I mean there was tear gas, sirens, it was bad. I saw what I had become. I didn’t even care about it, I didn’t care about getting hurt, or anything else, or what was happening to other people,” Thomas recalled.
“I got back to campus at 4 in the morning, horrified by what I had just done,” he continued. “I had let myself be swept up by an angry mob for no good reason other than, that I too was angry. I stopped in front of the chapel and prayed for the first time in nearly two years.”
“I asked God, I said, ‘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 would graduate the next year and enroll in Yale Law School.
Completing law school in the mid-1970s, he applied many places for work, but only received one job offer from then-Missouri Attorney General John Danforth.
Much to Thomas’ chagrin, he was a Republican.
However, Danforth would play the same pivotal role in Thomas’ work career that his grandfather had played in his youth.
Thomas ultimately followed the Missourian to Washington, D.C., when he was elected to the U.S. Senate.
The move to the capital came just months before Reagan launched his bid to become the nation’s 40th president.
“In the fall of 1980 I had decided to vote for Ronald Reagan,” he said. “It was a giant step for a black man. But I was distressed by the Democratic party’s promises to legislate the problems of blacks out of existence.”
Thomas ended up serving in multiple positions in the Reagan administration, first in the Department of Education and later on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“Everything the president did, he was called a racist,” he recalled. “That was from the very beginning.”
“Any black misguided enough to accept a job in the Reagan administration was automatically branded an Uncle Tom,” Thomas added.
Nonetheless, it was during these years working in the federal government that the attorney made connections with conservative thought leaders who helped cultivate his “originalist” jurisprudence philosophy for which he became known.
Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, nominated Thomas to be a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1989, and two years later to be a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court following the retirement of Thurgood Marshall, the nation’s first African-American Supreme Court justice.
It was, of course, at this point in his life when Clarence Thomas became a household name.
“Created Equal” dives headfirst into the controversial confirmation hearing, which played out very similarly to the Brett Kavanaugh battle in the fall of 2018.
The film builds to the moment where Thomas, having been accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill, delivers his famous “high-tech lynching” rebuttal to the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by then- Sen. Joe Biden.
“This is a circus. It is a national disgrace,” Thomas said. “And from my standpoint, as a black American, as far as I am concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity-blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that, unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you, you will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate, rather than hung from a tree.”
Because it’s worth watching one more time…
FLASHBACK: Clarence Thomas responds to Anita Hill’s allegations against him.
“This is a circus; it’s a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a black American, as far as I’m concerned, it is a high-tech lynching.” pic.twitter.com/2BGTaYcqtX
— BlazeTV (@BlazeTV) September 23, 2018
Thomas, 71, also shares the backstory of the line in the film.
“Justice Thomas felt at that point it wasn’t really about getting confirmed,” Pack said. “He felt his honor was a stake. He felt these charges and the behavior of the Senate impugned his grandfather, the nuns and their values and their sense of the world. He felt he was defending all of that and he spoke from his heart.”
Over two-thirds of the Americans polled at the time of the hearing who listened to both Hill’s and Thomas’ testimonies found him “more believable,” The New York Times reported.
Pack said he found PBS very supportive of “Created Equal.”
“I have to say they have been enthusiastic about this film from the first time we began speaking to them,” he said. “They were nothing but enthusiastic and supportive in a way that actually surprised me even.”
After screening the film for some of his liberal friends, they came away with a new respect for Thomas.
“They may not agree with him in the end but they have a renewed respect for him and his views and that’s really what we intend,” Pack said.
“Created Equal” will air on most PBS stations on Monday night at 9 p.m., but check your local listings.
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