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COLUMN ONE : Court Path Started in the Ashes : A fire launched Clarence Thomas on a path toward fierce personal drive--but not before the Supreme Court nominee journeyed through anger, self-hatred, confusion and doubt.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The event that would set Clarence Thomas on the extraordinary personal climb that has brought him within one step of the nation’s highest court was a freak accident: In the mid-1950s, his toddler brother, Myers, and a cousin set fire to their small wooden house and burned it to the ground. In those ashes died the dismal pattern of life that had awaited 6-year-old Clarence here in Pin Point--a world far removed from the Ozzie-and-Harriet America of that era.

Living beside a marshy creek that townspeople like to call a river, the family had no indoor toilet, fetched its water from a common pump and lighted the house with kerosene lamps. Until that fire, Leola Thomas--abandoned by her husband when she was pregnant with Myers, her third child--had been able to get by on her wages, earned by picking the meat from crabs for a nickel a pound at a factory within shouting distance of her children. Suddenly, however, the family was no longer merely poor; it was destitute. Struggle though she did, Leola Thomas was eventually forced to send her two sons to live with her parents.

For Clarence Thomas, the accident that destroyed his family’s security in Pin Point was to be the first of several turning points in a life that has been defined by critical junctures. Under the stern eye of his grandfather, young Clarence began to develop the drive and the personal values that today mark his view of life and of the law. He thrived under the Roman Catholic nuns of his all-black school, rejected many of their values when he reached college in the turbulent 1960s and found them again when he encountered the writings of leading black conservative Thomas Sowell.

Along the way, he has journeyed through anger, self-hatred, confusion and doubt. Segregation and poverty may have dogged him in his early years, but as one of the first blacks to blaze a trail into such elite institutions as Yale University Law School, he discovered that he could excel by carving out an identity for himself as an individual. Always he has veered back to the basic beliefs he began to develop in his grandfather’s house: that there is no blanket excuse for failure--not race, not poverty, not the burden of generations upon generations of discrimination.

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Thus, Thomas insists, there can be no blanket remedies, no blanket justice. When an individual can prove that he or she has been wronged, that inequity should be addressed individually. “I emphasize black self-help, as opposed to racial quotas and other race-conscious legal devices that only further and deepen the original problem,” he wrote in a letter to the Wall Street Journal in 1987, when he headed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That same year, he told the Atlantic Monthly: “My view is that the most vulnerable unit in our society is the individual. . . . Playing the group game builds up racial conflict. That’s what segregation was all about.”

It is those beliefs that are likely to shape his positions on the Supreme Court. And, although Senate confirmation thus far seems likely, Thomas’ sometimes blunt and sharp-tongued way of expressing his views--he has publicly chided his sister for having become “dependent” on welfare and failing to match his achievement--could add fireworks to the confirmation hearings in September.

The doctrine of self-help can be found in almost everything Thomas has written or said in public. And it is precisely what has his liberal critics worried. For Thomas would take the seat previously occupied by Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court’s staunchest champion of the idea that to bring about true equality sometimes the government must tilt the playing field to give a historically oppressed group a boost.

The same year that Clarence Thomas was attending first grade at a segregated school near Pin Point, Thurgood Marshall was in Washington making his national reputation as the attorney who persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court that schools should be desegregated because black children as a group had suffered discrimination.

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Although Thomas, now 43, would take issue with Marshall’s approach, Marshall’s victory in Brown vs. Board of Education undeniably made it possible for Thomas to achieve what he did over the next decades. It also ushered in a host of social changes in American society, among them, desegregation of public and private facilities, and, ultimately, enactment of civil rights laws and affirmative action.

Ironically, Thomas could play a role in reversing some of those changes. His insistence that the Constitution “be interpreted in a colorblind fashion” could lead him to join Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and several conservative colleagues in overturning a 1979 ruling allowing “reverse” discrimination in affirmative action programs.

Thomas’ sensitivity to being judged on his own merits, not on his race, has dogged his career. Despite his success at Yale, he has told friends that he hid in the back of his classrooms, in the vain hope that his blackness might not be noticed and that his accomplishments would not be seen as a special break he received because of his race.

And last week, as he stood with Bush at the President’s summer home in Kennebunkport, Me., he was asked how he would respond to critics who contend that he got the Supreme Court nomination because he is black. Thomas said: “I think a lot worse things have been said. I disagree with that, but I’ll have to live with it.”

Although his views on racial issues are his best-known beliefs, Thomas has espoused a conservative judicial philosophy that cuts across the board--from prayer in schools to abortion to the death penalty.

Like Rehnquist, Thomas believes the power of federal judges should be limited: When in doubt, judges should uphold the laws passed by Congress or the states. If a state wants to ban abortions, impose the death penalty on murderers or require prayers in its public schools, the courts should uphold such laws, Rehnquist has said.

Though Thomas has not set forth a firm position on any of those issues, he has endorsed Rehnquist’s general view that the Supreme Court should not stand in the way of popular laws. That, too, marks a sharp contrast with Marshall, the man he would replace. Over 24 years on the court, Marshall argued that it was the judiciary’s duty to strike down laws that infringed on constitutional rights, even those that are merely implied and not clearly spelled out.

These days, only the church remains at St. Benedict the Moor parish in Savannah. The orphanage closed long ago and has been converted to a halfway house. The Catholic school sits empty, a victim of 1960s integration: No white parents were willing to send their children to an all-black school, even one as excellent as St. Benedict’s.

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Though Thomas’ grandfather, Myers Anderson, has been dead for eight years, they still talk about him at St. Benedict’s. Born a Baptist, he became one of the parish stalwarts. Although he worked seven days a week, on Sundays he is said to have worn a suit under his coveralls, slipping them off as he pulled his truck into the church parking lot for Mass.

Anderson’s business, started during the 1920s from the back of a converted Model T, was delivering kerosene, wood, coal and ice. As soon as school was out, he expected to see his grandsons out of their uniforms and ready to work.

Anderson had thought the Catholic school would be good for Clarence and Myers. “One of the things they instilled, and still do, is they tell these kids, ‘Hey, you can do anything,’ ” says Father James M. Mayo, a former cop who is the current pastor at St. Benedict’s.

The Franciscan sisters did not try to shield their young pupils from reality; they shared it with them. Ridiculed by whites, they joined their students at the back of the bus. Even at citywide services in the Catholic cathedral, the Franciscan sisters would stand with their charges at the bottom of the steps as worshipers from the white churches filed in before them.

But low as the world’s expectations were of black children in that era, the sisters never let down their standards. “Those nuns were real good to Clarence,” his mother recalls. “But they were firm. They made those kids study. If they needed a spanking, they got a spanking, and nothing said about it.”

Even today, Thomas is grateful for their determination. As he accepted President Bush’s nomination to the Supreme Court, his voice choked with emotion as he thanked those nuns, along with his mother and grandparents.

In 1982, Thomas sought out his eighth-grade teacher, Sister Virgilius Reidy, at a retirement home in Boston. “He came to see me and we spent an afternoon together. His one question was to ask me, ‘Sister, would you tell me how the nuns were able to do so much for us kids that nobody else ever did?’ ” Sister Virgilius recalls. “We were there to give them (black children) the opportunity to better themselves,” she says simply.

Thomas invited Sister Virgilius and several other retired nuns to come to the ceremony last year when he was sworn in as a federal appeals court judge, and even made sure their way was paid. “I’m 60 years in the convent, and of my past graduates, very few and far between have ever invited me to anything,” Sister Virgilius says.

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That was the generous and tender side of Thomas. But he could be harsh and disdainful for those--even members of his family--who did not live up to his standards.

His older sister, Emma Mae Martin, had stayed behind in Pin Point, and fell into a pattern of life similar to her mother’s. Her ex-husband deserted her, and she was left to rear four children in virtual squalor on the same sandy shore where the family’s house had burned in the 1950s.

When her aunt had a stroke, she quit her jobs in the crab factory and a nursing home, and went on welfare for a few years. “She gets mad when the mailman is late with her welfare check. That’s how dependent she is,” Thomas once told a conference of black conservatives. “What’s worse is that now her kids feel entitled to the check too. They have no motivation for doing better or getting out of that situation.”

In 1964, under pressure from his grandfather to become a priest, Thomas transferred from a segregated Catholic high school to St. John Vianney Minor Seminary near Savannah. He was the only black student in his class, and it marked his first experience away from the limits--as well as the comfort and acceptance--of his segregated world.

His grandfather and the nuns had held up the Catholic Church as the one institution that had promised him fairness and justice. But when lights would go out in his dormitory, one of the other seminarians would yell: “Smile, Clarence, so we can see you!”

“The statement wasn’t the bad part,” Thomas told an interviewer for the Atlantic Monthly. “It was no one saying, ‘Shut up.’ ”

Thomas’ experiences in the seminary were another turning point. This one, he recalled, ushered in a period of “self-hate. . . . You hate yourself for being part of a group that’s gotten the hell kicked out of them.”

But if he could not be accepted, he could still excel. He starred on the football team and was such an intense student that his classmates wrote under his yearbook picture: “Blew that exam, only got a 98.”

Thomas continued his studies for the priesthood at Immaculate Conception Seminary in Conception Junction, Mo., where he was one of only four blacks in a class of 65. By one account, he decided to leave in 1968 after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, and he heard one of his classmates say, “Good, I hope the son of a bitch dies.’ ”

But Thomas has told others that this incident was not the deciding event. The year 1968 was a time of questioning and doubt for the entire country, and perhaps even more so for the idealistic seminarians.

“I would listen (to Thomas) because I felt like he knew where he was headed,” says his former roommate, Jim Kopp, who also abandoned his quest for the priesthood. “There are certain people where you know that they are using all their resources available. They are aiming somewhere, toward higher levels, even if you don’t know what levels those are. . . . I felt that about Clarence.”

In his combat boots and Army fatigues, and sometimes the leather beret of the Black Panthers, Clarence Thomas looked the part of the angry radical as he strode around the campus of Jesuit-run Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass. He cut off the sleeves to expose the muscular arms that he had developed in the gym. He could bench-press 275 pounds.

Today, he seems embarrassed about those days. In a November, 1987, interview with Reason magazine, he lamented: “The thing that bothered me when I was in college was that I saw myself rejecting the way of life that got me to where I was. We rejected a very stable, disciplined environment--an environment with very strict rules, an environment that did not preach any kind of reliance on government.”

But, from all indications, his outward dress was more radical than his inner feelings. His opposition to the Vietnam War hardly made him an anomaly in that era. And, although he helped found the college’s Black Student Union, it was primarily a social organization designed to help ease the way for what was the college’s first “substantial class” of black students, says Father John E. Brooks, who was then vice president and academic dean and currently is president of Holy Cross.

Thomas’ most notable act of defiance came after a 1969 protest against the appearance of a recruiter from General Electric Co., a firm that had been heavily involved in the Vietnam War. Thomas was one of a group of black students who believed that blacks had been unfairly singled out for discipline by campus officials, so they walked out--effectively resigned from the college--in protest.

“It was tremendously poignant, tremendously courageous,” says Stephen Urbanczyk, a white classmate of Thomas who is now a Washington attorney. “These people walked out with full convictions that they would never go back. . . . Guys like Clarence who wanted to go to college and make good for themselves. They were walking out on an opportunity. It was going to land them back in Georgia at some community college.”

Significantly, the protesters did not wear T-shirts and jeans for the event, but suits and ties. Later they were granted amnesty and allowed to return. Thomas graduated with an almost perfect academic record and went to Yale Law School.

In his final year at Yale, he sent applications to a number of Atlanta’s leading law firms. But none of them would even interview him. “I still have those letters,” he said last year at a dinner for black Emory University law students. Many in the audience were white lawyers from those very firms, which had bought tables in hopes of getting an edge in recruiting the most promising of the black students.

But John C. Danforth, then attorney general of Missouri, was intrigued by Thomas, who was recommended to him by Yale Law School Dean Guido Calabresi. Thomas knew he would be the office’s first black, and he was leery.

“He interviewed us--we didn’t interview him,” says Alex Netchvolodoff, Danforth’s longtime chief aide. “He wanted to know whether we were going to give him the tough cases, a caseload larger than others,” as Thomas wanted. Danforth, who has solid credentials as a moderate, is expected to be one of Thomas’ chief assets in his battle for Senate confirmation.

In Jefferson City, Mo., Thomas had an epiphany of sorts when he re-read the writings of Thomas Sowell, who argues that blacks are casualties, not beneficiaries, of preferential policies. “It was like pouring half a glass of water on the desert--I just soaked it up,” he said of the experience in his 1987 interview with Reason.

Burning with new awareness, Thomas tried to reach Sowell at UCLA, but could not. Then he heard Sowell was speaking at a local university. “I left work and went over there. He was really great. I went up to him and begged him to autograph my book,” Thomas recalled.

By then, he was married and had a son. When the marriage broke up a few years later, Thomas got custody of young Jamal.

After that, he took on the duties of a single parent. In 1987, he married Virginia Bess Lamp, senior legislative officer at the Labor Department. “He’s got the same kind of vigilance for his kid that he missed from his own parents,” Urbanczyk says. “He’s a loving father, but a tough one.”

Jamal graduated in June from Bishop Ireton High School, a small Catholic school in Alexandria, Va., with a B average. His classmates selected him as one of their two graduation speakers.

After 2 1/2 years as an assistant attorney general, Thomas was lured by a better salary to Monsanto Co. in St. Louis. There, he handled pesticide matters, Environmental Protection Agency regulations and commercial contracts. In the meantime, Danforth had been elected to the Senate, and in 1979, Thomas rejoined his former boss as his legislative assistant in Washington.

With conservative black Republicans a rare breed, it was not surprising that Thomas came to the attention of the newly elected Ronald Reagan Administration.

After spending a year as assistant secretary for civil rights in the Education Department, Thomas was named head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It was there, in the agency charged with enforcing anti-discrimination laws, that he would have his first real chance to put his views into action.

Thomas received uniformly high marks for his administrative abilities. When he arrived, the agency was the subject of a General Accounting Office report alleging mismanagement. “He totally turned around the management and reputation EEOC had . . . ,” said Fred W. Alvarez, a San Francisco labor attorney who served under Thomas at the agency.

Added EEOC Vice Chairman R. Gaull Silberman: “He walked in the door, rolled up his sleeves and went to work and turned this agency around. Under Clarence’s leadership, the agency found its mission as a law enforcement agency and it attained a credibility that it had never had before.”

But his ideological approach to the job was not universally lauded. Liberals were horrified when he began backing away from the use of group statistics in determining whether an employer should be sued. He also began shifting the focus of its prosecution from complaints by groups to offenses against individuals.

Thomas also abandoned the agency’s past practice of settling many cases, insisting instead on prosecuting suits in every case in which discrimination could be proved. The case backlog grew dramatically, setting off a major controversy when it was discovered that the two-year statute of limitations had expired on more than 10,000 age-discrimination complaints.

In a 1984 Washington Post interview, he struck back, saying that national civil rights leaders “bitch, bitch, bitch, moan and whine.”

The controversy dogged his nomination to the federal Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia, but civil rights groups ultimately lent him their unenthusiastic support.

The steepest parts of his uphill climb are behind him, and Thomas’ confirmation seems a likely bet. But he is clearly concerned that his views may give some powerful civil rights organizations pause. Last Tuesday, Thomas telephoned former Danforth aide Netchvolodoff from Kennebunkport. “You know, I think this may be worse than running for President,” he said. “I’ve got this knot in my stomach.”

But those potential opponents seem at a loss to figure out what to make of this man. With his firsthand experience of poverty and discrimination, he brings a perspective to the court that they believe it will need in Marshall’s absence. But they are uncomfortable with the influence that he might wield on the issues that are dearest to them.

“I haven’t quite deciphered him out,” says John Crump, executive director of the National Bar Assn., a black lawyers’ organization. “In person, he’s the most gentle person. If you didn’t know his views, you would never associate them with Clarence upon meeting him.”

This article was written by Karen Tumulty based on her reporting in Pin Point and Savannah, Ga., and on the reporting of Douglas Frantz, David G. Savage, Sam Fulwood III, Robert L. Jackson and Melissa Healy in Washington; Elizabeth Mehren in Worcester, Mass.; and Edith Stanley in Atlanta.


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