WASHINGTON -- At the age of 6 Clarence Thomas was dressing in hand-me-downs, and even on the coldest of Georgia mornings his path to the bathroom led outdoors. Home was a single room, and school was a place to be avoided when possible.
As if those considerations didn't make his future gloomy enough, there was the hard truth of mid-1950s racial segregation, when stubborn boundaries of black and white seemed to block all paths that might lead upward from Pinpoint, Ga.
Yet, now that Judge Thomas stands on the verge of becoming a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, the chief obstacles blocking his last, highest step are these: liberal Democratic senators, black political leaders and civil rights activists.
The seeming paradox speaks volumes about the complex character of Judge Thomas, who in rising to the top has often alienated the very forces that sought to ease his way. Democratic Party Chairman Ronald H. Brown, also a black man, spoke for many opponents when he called the president's choice "yet another step in the ideological hijacking of the Supreme Court by the radical right wing of the Republican Party."
Those who dismiss Judge Thomas as a one-dimensional conservative ideologue seem to focus mostly on his stand on affirmative action. He opposes it, and seems to echo former President Ronald Reagan when he says that racial quotas are demeaning to blacks.
But on other occasions, seen from his speeches and past interviews, Judge Thomas just as readily quotes from Malcolm X from Mr. Reagan. And when he talks of racial inequality, he speaks from the experience of his own painful past.
Thus was Judge Thomas moved to the point of tears as he accepted the nomination yesterday, as the president stood at his side.
"As a child, I could not dare dream that I would ever see the Supreme Court," he said, "not to mention be nominated to it. In my view, only in America could this have been possible."
To understand him best, those who know him say, one must trace Judge Thomas back to the turning point of his life, at age 7, when he and his brother moved into their grandparents' home in Savannah. His mother had remarried to a man who did not want to live with children from her previous marriage.
Not only did they have indoor plumbing and plenty to eat for the first time, but they also came under the iron rule of his grandfather, a hard-working man who delivered ice and oil, and who believed that there was nothing worth getting if you couldn't get it yourself.
School attendance became mandatory, and his strict Roman Catholic upbringing, he said in a speech a few years ago, became "far more conservative than [that of] many who fashion themselves conservatives today. God was central. School, discipline, hard work and 'right-from-wrong' were of the highest priority. Crime, welfare, slothfulness and alcohol were enemies."
Judge Thomas often uses such lessons from his past to tweak liberals, and in the same speech he said, "Those who attempt to capture the daily counseling, oversight, common sense and vision of my grandparents in a governmental program are engaging in sheer folly. Government cannot develop individual responsibility, but it certainly can refrain from preventing or hindering the development of this responsibility."
Although it seemed Judge Thomas was preaching to the choir in that speech to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, he also directed some biting words at his audience.
"Black Americans will move inexorably and naturally toward conservatism when we stop discouraging them; when they are treated as a diverse group with differing interests; and when conservatives stand up for what they believe in rather than stand against blacks."
He later added that for a black to be accepted as a conservative often seemed to mean that "a black was required to become a caricature of sorts, providing side shows of anti-black quips and attacks."
Such is the lonely plight of the black conservative, he said, to be "welcomed by those who dangled the lure of the wrong approach" while being "discouraged by those who have the right approach."
Judge Thomas has never seemed to be far from such feelings of alienation, and there has never seemed to be a shortage of whites willing to reinforce them.
Entering the 10th grade, he was enrolled by his grandfather as the only black student at a Catholic boarding school in Georgia, St. John Vianney Minor Seminary.
Despite sterling grades and a starring role as quarterback on the school football team, he burned from slights and slurs.
"After lights out someone would yell, 'Smile, Clarence, so we can see you,' " he told the Atlantic magazine in 1987. "The statement wasn't the bad part, it was no one saying, 'Shut up,' " Judge Thomas said.
And when fellow students went to dinner or to the movies, segregation meant that he couldn't go along.
At the urging of his grandfather, he set out on the arduous path to the priesthood. But he dropped out of the Immaculate Conception Seminary in Missouri after the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., when he overhead a white fellow student say, "Good. I hope the son of a bitch dies."
He then enrolled at Holy Cross University, where, according to the Atlantic, he embraced the words of Malcolm X, grew a goatee and took up several liberal causes, though all the while attending every class. From there he was off to Yale Law School, only to be offended after graduation by special offers from law firms, which offered him black-oriented pro-bono work that had gone unmentioned to white applicants.
Thus alienated once again by what he saw as the patronizing workings of liberalism, he opted instead to work for U.S. Sen. John C. Danforth, who was then the Republican attorney general of Missouri. Mr. Danforth's office didn't assign him to any "black-related" issues, and he liked that, he told an interviewer.
Later, he joined Mr. Danforth's senatorial staff, and this put him on the fast track in Washington. Once again, he shunned civil rights matters and other issues identified with leaders of the black community.
So it was with mixed emotions that he eventually accepted in 1981 the position as assistant secretary for civil rights in the Department of Education.
From there he moved to the chairmanship of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where he began to draw
the fire of liberals for his criticism of "race-conscious remedies" for social ills.
Then, in early 1990, President Bush nominated him to the bench of the nation's second-highest court, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. From there, the next logical step was to the Supreme Court.
Some of the more significant rulings written or joined by Judge Clarence Thomas in his 15 months on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C.:
Crime and criminals:
A federal judge did not have a sufficient basis for excluding prominent black activists as spectators in the courtroom during the drug crimes trial of then-Washington Mayor Marion S. Barry. Farrakhan vs. U.S.
Police did not need a search warrant to enter a hotel room even though they knew beforehand that a suspect might have drugs there and they had obtained warrants to search three other rooms rented by the suspect. U.S. vs. Halliman.
Sentences for dealing in drugs may be based on the overall weight of an illegal drug combined with its "carrier" material -- a decision parallel to one later issued by the Supreme Court. U.S. vs. Shabazz.
A conviction for using a gun during a drug crime cannot be upheld if the suspect was merely in an apartment where a crime was committed and a gun was present. U.S. vs. Long.
An individual convicted of a drug crime is not entitled to a reduced prison sentence based on his offer to help the government investigate crime. More than a "good faith" offer is needed. U.S. vs. Jordan.
The government may approve a city plan to expand an airport, even without considering the possibility of alternative sites so as show concern for nearby residents. Citizens Against Burlington vs. FAA.
An individual who received a government-paid medical education in return for a promise to practice in a remote area without doctors cannot avoid that obligation, by pleading hardship, and thus must pay the government three times the amount of the scholarship. Buongiorno vs. Sullivan.
Federal employees are not entitled to continue collecting honorariums for outside writing and speaking while they challenge the constitutionality of a ban on those fees. Treasury Employees vs. U.S.
AParents may not sue a hospital for battery for giving a premature baby a transfusion with blood infected with the AIDS virus, because the hospital had given the parents sufficient information before the procedure. Kozup vs. Georgetown University.