In a rare interview, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas described himself as a high-achieving student who was mentored by a prominent priest when he enrolled in a Catholic college in Massachusetts in the late 1960s. But he bitterly rejected the idea that he benefited from affirmative action because he was black.
“That was the creation of the politicians, the people with a lot of mouth and nothing to say, and your industry,” Thomas told a writer for Business Week magazine. “Everything becomes affirmative action.”
In 1968, shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. John Brooks began recruiting young black men to enroll at College of the Holy Cross, a Jesuit school in Worcester, Mass.
The initial class of 28 included Washington lawyer Theodore V. Wells Jr., who is representing former vice presidential aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby; Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Edward P. Jones and investment banker and former New York City deputy mayor Stanley Grayson -- as well as Thomas, the high court’s only African American.
In an interview that accompanied the magazine’s profile of Brooks, Thomas insisted he was not recruited to go to Holy Cross. After dropping out of a Missouri seminary in 1968, Thomas returned home to Savannah, Ga.
“A nun suggested Holy Cross. That’s how I wound up there,” he said. “Your industry [the news media] has suggested that we were all recruited. That’s a lie. Really, it’s a lie. I don’t mean a mistake. It’s a lie.
“That thing that has astounded me over the years is that there has been such an effort to roll that class into people’s notion of affirmative action,” he continued. “You hear this junk. It’s just not consistent with what really happened.”
Thomas expressed disdain for the news media several times during the interview.
“One of the reasons I don’t do media interviews is, in the past, the media often has its own script,” he said. “The media, unfortunately, have been universally untrustworthy because they have their own notions of what I should think or I should do.”
At times, Thomas described himself as a solid student in college. “I had always been an honors student. I had always had really high grades, so that was never a problem.” But he also said he struggled: “I’m not a school person. I never liked school. My best day of school was the day I graduated.”
Thomas described how Brooks, then a dean of Holy Cross, won an “amnesty” for black students in December 1969 after they had quit the college en masse. Five black students had been singled out and expelled for taking part in a larger protest related to the Vietnam War. The other blacks decided to quit in solidarity with those who had been expelled. Thomas said his college career might have ended there had the priest not intervened.
“The black kids were being treated unfairly. I said: ‘Look, if we’re not going to be treated fairly here, let’s leave,’ ” Thomas said. “Thank God for Ted [Wells] ... and Father [Raymond] Swords and Father Brooks. They worked it.... What if he [Brooks] had just said: ‘Let them go.’ God only knows where I would be.”
Brooks, now 83, told the magazine the initial decision to expel the five black students “was racism, basically.” He persuaded Swords, the college president, to readmit them.
After graduating from Holy Cross in 1971, Thomas enrolled at Yale Law School and graduated in 1974. He took a job in Missouri with the state’s then-attorney general, John Danforth. When Danforth was elected to the Senate, he took Thomas with him to Washington, and later lobbied to get him on the Supreme Court.
In 1991, when Justice Thurgood Marshall, the court’s first African American, announced his retirement, President George H.W. Bush chose Thomas to succeed him.
In the interview, the now 58-year-old Thomas described his current life as an exhausting struggle. He pointed out a drawing in his office that shows an African American man draped over a desk with his hands stretching toward the floor. Thomas said a friend gave him the drawing because “he thought it captured my life.”
“Look at the exhaustion,” he said. “Mental. Physical. Spiritual. Just constant change. You just want to slow down. You see people take a walk and you want to, too.”