WASHINGTON -- The struggle that is the life of Clarence Thomas passed another milestone recently when the Supreme Court's youngest, most reclusive and most vilified justice turned 50.
Despite the passage of time, his defining experience remains his youthful fight to escape the poverty of the rural, black South and to succeed at an elite, white college in the North, according to a recent interview.
"You will have landed between worlds," Thomas told an 18-year-old black youth about to leave the projects of Southeast Washington for an Ivy League college. "You just have to outwork them. That's the way you'll beat them. It was that way with me, too. There was no safety net."
Thomas had read about the scholarly travails of young Cedric Jennings in the Wall Street Journal, and he invited the young man to come by for a chat before Jennings left for Brown University. The youth's visit to the Supreme Court turned into an emotional three-hour pep talk that offers a revealing glimpse of the court's most enigmatic justice.
"You won't ever really be able to go back. But you may find you're never fully accepted up ahead either," Thomas counseled Jennings. "That's the way I feel sometimes, even now, and it can make you angry. But you just have to channel that anger, to harness it."
Still not fully accepted as the replacement for Justice Thurgood Marshall -- the high court's first black justice -- Thomas remains a uniquely combustible figure among black Americans, igniting controversy just by venturing outside the court.
Two years ago, he was invited, uninvited, and then reinvited to speak at an eighth-grade graduation in suburban Maryland. Several black Prince George's County school board members had protested his appearance. Undaunted, Thomas showed up and gave a low-key talk about civility and good manners.
Leaders of the National Bar Association, the nation's largest organization of black lawyers and judges, invited him to speak at their July 29 convention in Memphis, Tenn. Again, others protested the invitation and sought to have it revoked. Nonetheless, Thomas is expected to attend.
Within the closed confines of the Supreme Court, however, Thomas has quietly taken on another special role -- as mentor to the young. Sometimes, it is groups of students on trips to the nation's capital. Other times, it is a single promising black youth who is invited in for a heart-to-heart talk. "He is more gracious and generous with his time than all of his colleagues combined," says Stephen F. Smith, a former law clerk to Thomas.
Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind, who first wrote about Jennings, has told the young man's story in a newly published book, "A Hope in the Unseen." In a rare move, Thomas agreed to speak to the reporter to recount his meeting with Jennings. That interview is included in the book and is excerpted in the July issue of Esquire.
"It was an extraordinary experience," Suskind says, recalling that he read Thomas a poem that Jennings had written.
"With torch in hand, he always runs into the sunset," the poem went. "Always alone, not knowing his destiny."
Thomas listened quietly and a tear came to his eye, Suskind says. "Oh yeah. I feel that way sometimes," the justice said.
The reporter says he was struck by the combination of bitterness and raw emotion from Thomas.
"He remembers indignities from 30 or 40 years ago with great precision. He felt the hurts deeply, and they have not healed," Suskind says.
In conversation, much of Thomas' anger focuses on the "liberal elite" and "multiculturalists."
The justice advised Jennings to avoid "that African-American studies stuff," adding that he will not hire a law clerk who has taken such courses.
"You'll find a lot of classes and orientation on race relations. Try to avoid them," Thomas said. "Try to say to yourself, 'I'm not black person. I'm just a person.' You'll find a lot of so-called multicultural combat, a lot of struggle between ethnic and racial groups wanting you to sign on, to narrow yourself into some group identity or other. You have to resist that, Cedric."
However, Thomas also stressed that because of his race, the youth would have to struggle even harder to survive. "You're going to be up there with lots of very smart white kids, and if you're not sure about who you are, you could get eaten alive," he said.
Born into a single-parent family in tiny Pin Point, Ga., in 1948, Thomas was raised in Savannah, Ga., by his grandparents. He credits the nuns at a Roman Catholic high school for pushing him to succeed.
He enrolled at a seminary in Missouri, but left for Holy Cross College in Massachusetts. In 1971, he entered Yale University Law School, where his fellow students included Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham.
Thomas graduated in 1974.
Thomas' empathy for the struggle with poverty and racism is not reflected, however, in his decisions as a justice. Instead, in rulings over the past two years, he has supplied the crucial fifth vote to deny claims based on race or poverty.
"He doesn't seem to connect his personal struggle to anything broader," says Stanford University law Professor Pamela Karlen.
Consider these examples:
* Can a Mississippi mother lose the right to see her children because she is too poor to file an appeal? No, the court said last year, but Thomas dissented, faulting his colleagues for creating "a new free-floating right."
* Can a black man wrongly convicted of murder and sent to death row sue the Alabama county sheriff who hid evidence that would have freed him sooner? No, the court said last year, in a 5-4 ruling joined by Thomas, because the sheriff is like a state official under Alabama law and immune from being sued in federal court.
* Can a black woman who heads a city department and is subjected to racial slurs by an underling sue the officials who conspired to eliminate her job after she complained? Thomas wrote an opinion for the court in March throwing out the $231,000 jury verdict won by Janet Scott-Harris on the ground that the City Council members were immune from suits.
* Can the states use the interest skimmed from law office accounts to fund legal aid for the poor? No, the court said last week, in a 5-4 ruling joined by Thomas.
"It's easier to be a liberal justice. You get to vote your predilections," explains Smith, now with the Center for New Black Leadership in Washington. "The justice is a principled person who is guided by the law, not his sympathies."
But other black legal experts say Thomas seems especially determined to reject claims from those who are poor or black.
Southern University law Professor Evelyn L. Wilson says she thought Thomas' personal experiences with poverty and racism would influence his decisions.
"I'm surprised. He has shown such a general insensitivity to people and their problems," she says. "He still seems to be trying to distance himself from his roots and to show the conservatives he deserves their support."
Thomas' friends say he is determined to outlast his critics and to serve on the high court for two or three decades more.
"The best is yet to come," Smith says. "He will continue to assert his ideas and to challenge the traditional black leadership."
Wilson says she retains some hope for Thomas. "It is more hope than expectation. We all get to choose our course, and he has chosen his."
David G. Savage is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.
Pub Date: 6/28/98