The Lessons We Can Learn From Justice Thomas’ Life

I have
been raising kids for more than 20 years. These days one of my teenage boys is
a particular challenge. He doesn’t take well to lectures, and I doubt he is
picking up on any “life lessons” watching me in action.

But a few weeks ago, he joined me at a preview of “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words.” There, over the next two hours, Justice Clarence Thomas offered my son a kind of life lesson: No matter the savage contradictions you face in life, with faith, family, and fortitude, you can find peace.  

For far too many Americans, Anita Hill’s accusations concocted to derail Thomas’ 1991 confirmation to the Supreme Court have come to define the man. That’s a national shame on several levels.

One, the last-minute charges were simply unjust. Two, the far-fetched allegations have detracted from Thomas’ pioneering and influential legacy on the high court. Three, they’ve yanked the spotlight away from what is a heroic American life.

“Created
Equal” is a welcome antidote for all of this. The fruit of more than 30 hours
of interviews granted by the normally (if only publicly) taciturn Thomas, the
film widens the lens to faithfully capture the exceptional life of this giant
of our judiciary. 

The beautifully filmed documentary includes period photographs of rural and urban Georgia from Thomas’ early childhood and compliments Thomas’ 2007 autobiography “My Grandfather’s Son.” Audio of Thomas reading excerpts from this memoir is interspersed throughout the film.

For me, three facets of Thomas’ life were especially compelling: his grandfather’s influence in his life, his Catholic faith, and the strength he draws from his marriage to wife Ginni.  

Thomas,
like many children in America today, grew up fatherless. His grandfather, a
wise man lacking in formal education, assumed the indispensable role of a
father.

Myers Anderson and his wife, Christine, took in Thomas and his brother when they were young, rescuing them from abject poverty. Myers Anderson shaped the Thomas boys’ character and provided them an opportunity to develop their intellects by enrolling the children in Catholic school.

Thomas
recalls many of the simple lessons taught by his grandfather. He also recalls,
with profound sadness, the strains on their relationship as Thomas clumsily
entered young adulthood. 

The film also traces Thomas’ struggles with his Catholic faith. Although the Irish nuns at his parochial school looked beyond race and saw the potential of their pupils, the other seminarians at the diocesan seminary he entered at 16 were far from color-blind.

Their racism at the beginning of the civil rights movement in America led Thomas to leave not just the seminary but also the Catholic Church—for a time. 

Untethered
to his grandfather or the Catholic Church, an angry Thomas was drawn to the
Black Power movement of the late 1960s. Society was in turmoil, and so was
Thomas.

While Thomas’ brother was serving in Vietnam, he was joining in marches with anti-war activists while he was studying at the College of the Holy Cross outside of Boston.

In the
film, he recalls how his own behavior at a rally one evening horrified him.
After he returned to campus, he prayed for the first time in two years. Clearly
moved by the Holy Spirit, Thomas’ “re-version” to the faith began with a simple
petition to God: “Take anger out of my heart.”

Thomas
would draw incredible strength from this heartfelt petition in the years to
come. Decades later, he would return to the church.

President
George H.W. Bush nominated Thomas to the Supreme Court in 1991. Thomas’
opponents launched an unprecedented attack.

At the 11th hour, Hill levied sordid and incredible allegations of workplace impropriety. The country was captivated, and Thomas’ confirmation was threatened. Thomas and his wife, Ginni, whose recollections still carry pain, turned to prayer and to encouragement from friends, such as Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., Thomas’ former boss.

Despite
the unrelenting attacks, Thomas said he refused to “cry uncle.” “You can give
out,” he recalls being taught by his grandfather, “but you can’t give in.”
 

Over the
last few years I’ve worried for the teenager sitting next to me in the theater
that evening. I’ve worried that he would “cry uncle”—that he would point to the
tough times he (we) have experienced and give up on his studies, give up on
God, give up even on his relationship with me. That he would give in.

Thomas’ life—his struggles and persistence, his hard-earned wisdom and overflowing tranquility—points beautifully to another way. Maybe it’s me being his mom, but I could see a spark in the dark of the theater. Yes, God has created all of us equal, with a spirit to thrive.  

“Created
Equal” will be in movie theaters for a special one-day showing on Jan. 31 and
will air on PBS in May. The film’s producers at Manifold Productions insisted
during their Q&A after the screening that it is a film that will inspire
American teens and young adults—regardless of race, economic status, or
political persuasion.

I agree. And I think their parents, guardians, or educators will enjoy watching this treasure of a film with them as I did with my son.