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Clarence Thomas: The Justice Nobody Knows

The Private Clarence Thomas 12:18

Most Americans know very little about the workings of the U.S. Supreme Court or its members, but mention Justice Clarence Thomas, and you are likely to start an argument.

He is the court's only African American, and it's most conservative member. He is arguably the most influential black man in the country, yet he is reviled by many in his own race for his opposition to government programs intended to help minorities.

Most people know very little about him, their opinions shaped by his bitter confirmation battle in which he was accused of sexually harassing a former employee named Anita Hill. Now, 16 years later, he has written a memoir called "My Grandfather's Son," which lays bare a remarkable life and the events that shaped it.

Supreme Court justices are private people who rarely give interviews and Justice Thomas doesn't think much of the press, but he gave correspondent Steve Kroft and 60 Minutes seven days of his life to talk about all of it.

"It's fascinating that people, there's so many people now who will make judgments based on what you look like," Thomas says. "I'm black. So I'm supposed to think a certain way. I'm supposed to have certain opinions. I don't do that. You don't create a box and put people in and then make a lot of generalizations about them."

The justice agrees that there are some misconceptions about him, but says, "I think there are misconceptions about all of us."

"There's been an effort over the last 15, 20 years to create this perception of me. And you can't argue that that's been, in large part, successful," Thomas says.

He is often dismissed as a man of little accomplishment, an opportunistic black conservative who sold out his race, joined the Republican Party and was ultimately rewarded with an affirmative action appointment to the nation's highest court, a sullen, intellectual lightweight so insecure he rarely opens his mouth in oral arguments. The problem with the characterization is that it's unfair and untrue.

"These conceptions or misperceptions, you call them, have accumulated because you haven't really addressed them. You haven't talked about them," Kroft remarks.

"My job is to write opinions. I decide cases and write opinions. It is not to respond to idiocy and critics who make statements that are unfounded," Thomas says. "That doesn't mean that people shouldn't have constructive criticisms, but it should be constructive. Whether or not I'm black or not, that's just silliness. That is not worth responding to."

How much of his life is determined by his race?

"Oh, goodness. I don't know. I'm black. How much of your life is determined by being male? I have no idea. I'm black. That's a fact of life. I'm 5'8 1/2" tall. I don't know how much of my life is determined by being 5'8 1/2" tall. It's just a part of who I am," Thomas tells Kroft.

"But you think of yourself as a black man," Kroft says.

"I'm a man. I'm a man, first and foremost. I'm a citizen of this country. And I happen to be black. I am a human being," Thomas replies.

Thomas believes the Constitution is "color blind" and he is part of an emerging majority on the court that believes that laws granting preferential treatment based on race should be struck down.

But it is Thomas who has been vilified by the civil rights establishment in part because he is black, and because he is viewed as having benefited from some of very programs he now opposes. At best they consider him a hypocrite, at worst a traitor to his own people.

"You've been successful. You moved on. You don't care about people and your race," Kroft says.

"Oh, that's silliness," the justice replies.

"You do care," Kroft remarks.

"Oh, obviously I do," Thomas says. "Come on, you know? But it's none of their business. How much does Justice Scalia care about Italians? Did you ask him that? Did anyone ever ask him? Give me a break. Do I help people? Absolutely. Do I help, love helping black people? Absolutely. And I do. But do I like helping all people? Yes. In particular I like helping people who are disadvantaged, people who don't come from the best circumstances. Do white people live in homeless shelters? Do Hispanics live in homeless shelters? Is disadvantaged exclusive province of blacks? No."

Whether you agree with him or not, he is thoughtful, provocative, and unpretentious. Not at all the person you might expect.

One of his passions is the 40-foot motor home he and his wife use to explore the United States in their downtime. The U.S. marshals who protect Justice Thomas wouldn't let 60 Minutes show the outside for security reasons, since he has been known to put up overnight in Wal-Mart parking lots.

Thomas finds this pastime relaxing. "It's a way from the sort of, the meanness that you see in Washington and you get here with just the regular folks. And it's so pleasant."

But this trip Thomas and Kroft took was business and the route familiar to the justice. They were headed down Route 17 towards Savannah, where his long journey to the Supreme Court began.

Thomas was born in a shack in the isolated backwaters of the American South in 1948, on a 25-acre peninsula known as Pinpoint, Ga. It was settled by freed West African slaves known as Gullahs or Geechees, who lived off shellfish in the marshes and maintained a distinct culture, well into the 20th century.

"With our own dialect. Our own language," Thomas explains. "It made learning standard English a little bit difficult."

His father deserted the family when Thomas was two. His mother made a living shucking oysters and picking crabs for the restaurants in Savannah, while he caught minnows and practiced skipping oyster shells.

"This is what we did. I mean, kids now have videogames. This is what we spent our time doin'," Thomas remembers.

The house he lived in is long gone, but the oak tree that was behind it still there.

Asked what kind of house it was, Thomas says, "We used to like to say it was poor but clean. There wasn't much to it. There was no electricity."

And there was also no indoor plumbing. "There was an outhouse that we shared with some other families," he explains.

When he was six, the house in Pinpoint burned down and his mother moved Thomas and his brother to a tenement in Savannah, trading rural poverty for urban squalor.

"It was raw sewage in the backyard. It was cold in the winter. I mean it was one of the most miserable times of my early life," Thomas remembers of living in the tenements.

But his circumstances and his life were about to change. His mother, who was making $10 a week as a maid, couldn't make ends' meet and decided to send Clarence and his brother off to live with her father.

"My mother packed our bags, told us we were to our grandparents' house a few blocks away," he remembers.

When he got to the front door he was met by his grandfather, Myers Anderson, a barely literate but frugal and industrious man who owned a truck and eked out a modest existence delivering fuel oil and firewood. He was a towering presence, who still looms over Thomas's life.

"Do you remember the first things your grandfather said to you?" Kroft asks.

"He said the damn vacation is over," Thomas recalls. "And he meant it. And there would be rules and regulations."

"Some of the rules were that my grandmother was always right. That meant him too," Thomas remembers. "And he would say, 'Old Man Can't is dead. I helped bury him.' I can't tell you how many times I've heard that. He felt very, very strongly that nothing was impossible."

Thomas says his grandfather was the greatest man he ever met, and in tribute named his memoir "My Grandfather's Son." But he didn't necessarily think so when he was growing up. His life was consumed by endless chores and regular duty on his grandfather's delivery truck. Summer vacations were spent working a plot of land that had been deeded to his ancestors after the Civil War, just across the road from the plantation where they had worked as slaves. He and his brother helped build a house, cleared land, picked crops and learned under his grandfather's tutelage that blisters turn to calluses and plantings into harvests.

"So you guys were field hands," Kroft remarks.

"Yeah, if you wanna be pleasant about it, you can call us field hands. But we were his laborers. I got up the nerve and said, 'Daddy, you know, slavery's over.' And he, 'Not in my damn house,'" Thomas remembers with a chuckle.

"You knew he loved you," Kroft says.

"I knew he cared about us enough to provide for us, to give us discipline, to spend time with us. We were under his wings from the beginning of the day to the end of the day," Thomas says.

And one of the things they learned there about was race. His grandfather was an active member of the NAACP, who bailed out civil rights protesters in the 1960's, but was realistic about the world they lived in.

"Did your grandfather ever give you any advice in terms how to handle yourself with the police or with white people?" Kroft asks.

"That was constant as we got older particularly, as we entered puberty it was constant and I remember the day he said, 'Boy, you up in age now. Don't you ever look a white woman in the eye.' That was the kind of thing you heard," Thomas remembers.

Did he explain why?

"Oh, yeah. Because the point was that you could be accused of anything," Thomas explains.

Thomas grew up in the Jim Crow South, using colored bathrooms and attending all-black schools, spending what little free time he had at the Carnegie Library. It was the only library blacks were allowed to use.

"This was the haven. It was a sort of anecdote to the limitations that you had in Savannah," Thomas says. "It was a way out. It was a way to expand myself. It was a way to become better. I can't tell you how many of the people who labored in kitchens, people who worked, did the backbreaking chores, the people who didn't have education who looked me in the eye and said, 'Boy, get your education. Because if you get it in here, nobody can take it away from you.'"

His grandfather, who was Catholic, agreed and saved enough to send him to a parochial school. The white nuns told him all God's children were equal, the only difference the pigment of their skin. Thomas still believes it and the church had a profound influence on his life.

Thomas says he was going to be a priest. "I went into the seminary when I was 16," he recalls.

His grandfather's reaction?

"He made it very clear this was gonna be a huge financial burden but they would find a way as he said. His only requirement was that I not, he said, 'You can't quit.' And then he looked at me in the face, 'Boy, don't you shame me and don't you shame your race.'"

"He knew that you were going into the white world," Kroft remarks.

"Yeah," Thomas agrees. "Because we had this enduring kind of vision or hope that, if given a chance, we could do as well as anybody. All we had to do is be given a chance."

But by 1968 Thomas had doubts about the priesthood. He had read the books of James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright and began to question the church's commitment to civil rights.

"The nail in the coffin of my vocation was in the spring of 1968 when Dr. King was assassinated. I was going back into the dorm, to my dormitory and someone said in front of me when we heard that Dr. King had been assassinated. He said, 'Well, that's good. That's, I hope the SOB dies.' And that was it. That was the end of seminary. That was the end of the vocation. That was the end of for all practical purposes my Catholic faith," Thomas remembers.

Thomas remembers breaking the news to his grandfather. "I had to go back home. That's the hard part. And tell him. You know, I had made my promise I wouldn't quit. So, I told him. And he immediately kicked me out of the house."

"That's pretty harsh," Kroft remarks.

"Harsh is too strong a word. That wasn't him. He was a hard man, you know? He said to me, 'You let me down and, you know, you're on your own,'" Thomas remembers.

Asked if he felt guilty, or if he was angry at his grandfather, Thomas tells Kroft, "I think I was angry at everybody. I was angry at the church because the church wasn't aggressively pointing out how immoral racism was. I was upset with my grandfather because he didn't understand what I was going through. I was upset with the country because of the bigotry. I was upset at the submissiveness of blacks in putting up with bigotry. This was the era when you had the Black Power Movement and that was enticing, it was liberating. And you sort of get swept up in that."

He'd always been an honors student and won a scholarship to Holy Cross, where he dressed in Army fatigues and combat boots and founded the black students union. He also graduated near the top of his class, and was accepted to Yale Law School, where he studied alongside future cabinet member Robert Reich, future U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, and future Supreme Court colleague Samuel Alito.

"I mean, you were in some pretty exclusive company," Kroft says.

"Maybe they were in exclusive company," Thomas replies, laughing.

Bill and Hillary Clinton were also there at the time. "Yeah, but they weren't president," Thomas says, laughing. "Maybe they were running for president, but they weren't president then."

"And you weren't Supreme Court justice," Kroft points out.

"No, you didn't know any of that," Thomas says.

But at Yale, Thomas sensed he was being treated differently by teachers and fellow students. The law school had a program that set aside a certain number of slots for minority students.

"I honestly, honestly believed that Yale thought that having a kid who came from working people in the South, who had grown up through segregation, that this kid who had prospered, who had done well every single place he'd ever been, whether an all-white school, all-black school, he's always done well. He will do well here. And it will benefit both him and Yale," Thomas says. "That's what I thought. Well, that isn't what it was converted to."

"It was converted to, 'Well, you're here because you're black,'" Thomas explains.

Thomas did well at Yale, graduating somewhere in the middle of his class, but he says it was the first time anybody had tried to put him in a box because of his race, and whatever benefits he accrued from being there were tarnished when it came time to graduate.

"You know, I was in debt. I needed a job. And I couldn't get a job," Thomas says.

"Not even with a Yale law degree?" Kroft asks.

"I couldn't get a job. And I just saw the discounting of my degree happen before my eyes," Thomas says.

Asked why he thinks that is, Thomas says, "That degree meant one thing for whites and another thing for blacks…it was discounted."

"You write in the book that your Yale degree was worth 15 cents," Kroft remarks.

"Well, you know Steve, I have still a 15 cents sticker on the frame that my law degree is in," Thomas says. "It's tainted. So I just leave it in the basement."

Thomas finally found a $10,000-a-year job in Jefferson City, Mo., working for the state's attorney general, John Danforth.

"And the biggest negative was that it didn't pay much money. And he was a Republican. But, I had to swallow hard, go out to Missouri and work for a dreaded Republican," Thomas says.

"You were still a liberal Democrat at that point," Kroft asks.

"I was never a liberal. I was radical. I was cynical. I was negative. But, I was never a liberal. I always saw that as too lukewarm for me," Thomas says.

Thomas would follow Danforth to Washington and in 1980 switched parties to vote for Ronald Reagan, whose beliefs in hard work and personal initiative, Thomas says, were more consistent with the way he had been brought up.

But in many ways he was still a radical. Over time he came to believe that government programs designed to help blacks were ultimately demeaning and detrimental to them. He rejected decades of civil rights dogma on the grounds that it created a cult of victimization, and implied that blacks required special treatment in order to succeed, postponing the day when all men and women would truly be viewed as equals.

"You're a huge believer in self reliance. And I get sort of a subtext from you. Tell me if I'm wrong. That you think that the black community could use a few more leaders preaching that?" Kroft asks.

"You've been down here long enough to see who raised me and what my grandfather. What approach would he take?" Thomas says, laughing. "It'd be get out there and work. The problem for me isn't that everybody agrees with him or me. But, that they think they have the exclusive providence of how to approach it. That I am to be destroyed because I won't drink that Kool-Aid or because I don't follow in this cult-like way something that blacks are supposed to believe. I have an opinion. It seems as though the problem with me and other people with our opinions is that we are veering away from the black gospel that we're supposed to adhere to."

Shortly after Thomas moved to Washington in 1979, he was pressed into service by the Reagan administration, which was anxious to attract black conservative talent. Over the next ten years, he was undersecretary of education for civil rights, served two terms as chairman of the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, and was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington.

And after just 15 months, his name was floated as a possible replacement for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, a hero of the civil rights movement and the only African-American on the Supreme Court.

What was his reaction when it first dawned on him he might end up on the Supreme Court?

"Pick the other guy," Thomas says. "You know, I had already bitten off more than I could chew. I was tired. When I was nominated to this court, that was five nominations in ten years."

In July 1991, he was told to fly to Kennebunkport, Maine, to have a chat with President Bush. Thomas assumed it was an interview about the Supreme Court vacancy.

"He said, 'Can you and your family make it through a difficult confirmation?' I should have said no at that point. But that would have been the coward's way out. I said yes. Then he asked me, he said, 'If you go on the court, can you call them as you see them?' And I said yes. And then he looked me in the eye. And he said, 'I will never criticize any decision you make.' And he said, 'At 2:00 I'm gonna nominate you to the Supreme Court. Let's go have lunch,'" Thomas remembers.

The nomination immediately came under attack. President Bush had called Thomas the best qualified candidate for the job, and said that race had not been a factor in his selection. But not even Thomas was sure he believed it. He was only 43 years old with barely a year's experience on the bench, but he was confident he could do the job.

"You had no illusions about how difficult it was going to be to get confirmed?" Kroft asks.

"I eventually did have illusions because as bad as I thought it would be, I had no idea how bad it would be," Thomas says.

Thomas spent three and a half months preparing for the hearings, and survived a five-day grilling by the Senate Judiciary Committee about his conservative views on affirmative action, welfare, capital punishment, school prayer and abortion. Then his nomination was sent to the full Senate, where it appeared Thomas had enough votes to be confirmed.

What happened next?

Says Thomas, "The next round of attacks that I could never have anticipated, took place."

Anita Hill, a former employee of Thomas's, had submitted a confidential statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee alleging that Thomas had sexually harassed her ten years earlier, when they were both single. The FBI had already investigated the charges and given the judiciary what was called an inconclusive report. The committee decided not to pursue the matter. But two days before the full Senate was expected to confirm Thomas, Hill's statement was leaked to the media.

"It was only after they had been leaked illegally, to the public and the press, that then it's outta hand. It's in the feeding frenzy," Thomas explains.

Under pressure from women's groups and Democrats in the Congress, Anita Hill was summoned before the judiciary committee to testify before live television cameras. More than 20 million households tuned in to watch the proceedings which were more titillating than the soap operas.

Thomas has denied the allegations, saying, "It didn't happen."

"If someone makes a broad allegation against you what would you do?" he asks.

"Ask them to prove it I guess," Kroft replies.

"Yeah," Thomas agrees.

Asked if the Anita Hill that testified was the same Anita Hill he knew at the EEOC, Thomas says, "She was not the demure, religious, conservative person that they portrayed. That's not the person I knew. "

"Who's the person you knew?" Kroft asks.

"Well, I think she could defend herself. Let's just put it that way. And she did not take slights very kindly. And anyone who did anything, she responded very quickly," Thomas says.

"Didn't take ten years?" Kroft asks.

"It didn't take ten minutes," Thomas says.

In the book, he remembers her as an average employee whose behavior could sometimes be irritating, rude, and unprofessional, which he attributed to her youth. He was asked to write a number of recommendations for her and helped advance her career, and speculates that she was swept up in events and succumbed to a combination of ego, ambition and immaturity.

When it came time for him to publicly respond to Hill's allegations, Thomas turned the tables on his interrogators, and for all intents and purposes ended the debate.

"This is a circus. It's a national disgrace," he said during the hearing. "It is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order you will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate rather than hung from a tree."

"Why did you use that language? Why a high tech lynching?" Kroft asks.

"If someone just wantonly tries to destroy you, if somebody comes in and drags you out of your house and beats the hell out of you. What is it?" the justice replies.

"What do you want people to think about these allegations? What is important…," Kroft asks.

"I think most well-meaning people understand it for what it was. It was a weapon to destroy me, clear and simple," Thomas says.

Thomas says the hearings brought him back to his Catholic faith and he couldn't have gotten through them without the support of his wife Virginia.

Virginia Thomas says the process was "the hardest thing I've ever gone through."

Asked if she ever doubted him, Virginia Thomas tells Kroft, "No. We talked honestly about what was happening in his life back then. But I didn't doubt him, no."

"Were you angry?" Kroft asks.

"Oh, yeah. I'd say I was angry. I was angry. I mean, you feel all the emotions when you're falsely accused," she replies.

Thomas was eventually confirmed, but he took no personal joy in the outcome. "The process harmed her. It harmed me, and we see sort of the precedence of this kinda thing begin to even harm people like President Clinton. Things are out of control," he explains.

"After this whole horrible experience, you won," Kroft says.

"Won what?" Thomas asks. "What was the game? There was no game, Steve. This wasn't about winning anything, this wasn't a football game. This was about our country. This was about a process. This was about our courts. This was about our Constitution. Who won?"

"Well, I mean, you know it's about a seat on the Supreme Court of the United States," Kroft says.

"So what?" Thomas asks.

"They don't come open, they come open that…," Kroft says.

"That's not a holy grail for me Steve," Thomas says.

Was it worth it in the end?

"I think it was always worth it to stand on principle. No matter what the ultimate goal is. Wrong is wrong even if it was over a penny," Thomas says.

Thomas believes the real issue being fought over during his confirmation was all but unspoken. "The issue was abortion. That's the issue today," Thomas says. "That was the elephant in the room."

"In what sense?" Kroft asks.

"That was it. That's the issue. That is the issue that people apparently are so upset about. That you determine the composition of your Supreme Court and your entire federal judiciary, it seems now," Thomas says.

"Your opponents were afraid that you might at some point rule against or help overturn Roe V. Wade?" Kroft asks.

"I have no idea what they thought. But they knew one thing. They weren't in charge of me. So, I wasn't gonna do their bidding," Thomas says.

Thomas believes the issue of abortion is not addressed in the Constitution and should be left to the states to decide. If that were to become the majority opinion on the court, abortion could be outlawed in 40 percent of the country.

"One of the most surprising things in the book, in it, you say, 'Like most Americans, I had mixed emotions about abortion. I wasn't comfortable telling others what to do in that difficult circumstance,'" Kroft remarks.

"There are tough decisions we have to make in life. And of course, we all feel about that. People think that because you might agree or disagree with them on certain things, that you don't have that concern about people who are left with tough choices. You do have that concern. But none of that had anything to do with what's in the Constitution. The point is simply this. The Constitution is what matters. Not my personal views, whatever they may be. And I don't go around expressing them on that issue," Thomas says.

He has expressed his legal views in more than 300 written opinions, which is about average given his tenure, but he rarely opens his mouth during oral arguments.

"The perception is, the critics will say it's because you're not smart enough or you're too insecure or you're afraid to make a fool out of yourself," Kroft says.

"Well, they make fools out of themselves with those kinds of comments," Thomas says. "Justice Marshall rarely asked questions. Justice Powell rarely asked questions. That's a personal preference. I certainly wouldn't do it to provide histrionics for the media gallery or for other people or for critics. Critics will always be critics."

Over the years the most vocal and persistent have been elements of the black community, where Thomas feels he has always been misunderstood.

"They feel that you received some preferential treatment because you were black. And that now, you are trying to say that they, that blacks, that other blacks shouldn't have it. That you've pulled the ladder on black people after you've climbed to the top," Kroft says.

"Steve, that's silly. Come on," Thomas says.

"This is a political reality. You are super charged," Kroft says.

"I don't think that when you're dealing with things that are matters of principle or matters of fact, that you can spend a lot of time worrying about what critics say. You have to do your job. My grandfather never worried about it. You've got to do what's right. You don't engage in this type of pettiness," Thomas says.

Thomas says the court may be closely divided on important ideological issues, but that he has never heard an uncivil word spoken in his 16 years there. He is reportedly one of the most popular people in the entire building, well-liked by everyone including his colleagues. Still only 59 years old, he is on track to become one of the longest serving Supreme Court justices in history. With every decision he makes and every opinion he writes, he thinks about his grandfather, Myers Anderson.

"The Supreme Court is a place where a number of justices have changed their views on things. Is it possible that over the next ten or fifteen years that you could change?" Kroft asks.

"My journey has over the years been almost that of a prodigal son where you journey away from your roots in the South. And now, I've returned to my roots," Thomas says. "And that's why I entitled my book "My Grandfather's Son." I have returned to my grandfather and to the way he raised me. And I think that's home and that's where I'll stay."

Produced By Michael Radutzky and Denise Cetta

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