Excerpt Of The Day: The Grandfather Of Clarence Thomas

If you want to know why Clarence Thomas is such a driven, successful, brilliant man, I don’t think you need to look much further than this description of how his grandfather raised him to see how he got that way,

RUSH: What kind of people were your grandparents?

JUSTICE THOMAS: They were, I think, the kind of people who made this country great. They were good, solid people. They came from very little. My grandfather could barely read. My grandmother had a sixth-grade education. They were people who were industrious. They were frugal. (Laughing.) As he used to tell us, “The reason we have is because we don’t spend and we don’t throw away, and because we work,” and so they were basically the embodiment of the Protestant work ethic.

…You lived in the South, as my grandparents did, and you had to survive. That is hard. In order to respond to that, he had to become a hard man, with very hard rules, very hard discipline for himself, very hard days, hard work, et cetera. So, yes, he was a hard man, but he was never harsh to my brother or me, and he was very, very demanding. But that is quite different from being harsh.

RUSH: Demanding because he had high expectations of you?

JUSTICE THOMAS: He had high expectations. One of the things he said, Rush, when we went to live with him, he said, “Boys, I will never tell you to do as I say. I will always tell you to do as I do.” So in order to be able to use that as his method of raising us, he put high standards and high expectations on himself first; and then we, by extension, had high expectations imposed on us.

RUSH: Do you know whether or not he had any resentment when your mother called and asked him to take you and your brothers?

JUSTICE THOMAS: No, he had none. My grandfather was a man, when he talked about freedom, his attitude was really interesting. His view was that you had obligations or you had responsibilities, and when you fulfilled those obligations or responsibilities, that then gave you the liberty to do other things. So the freedoms that we talk about today, the liberties that we talk about today were the benefits that you got from discharging your responsibilities. So in our case, it was his responsibility to raise us, and that’s what he did.

RUSH: You’ve given him an appropriate tribute here. But at any time when you were younger and living with him, with his rules and his methods, did you like them? Did you rebel?

JUSTICE THOMAS: (laughing) Oh, I didn’t like them at all! You know, I was a kid, and he wanted you to work, and there was no end to the list of things he wanted you to do. You’d come home from school. We had to be home a half an hour after school was out and ready to go to work. He had an endless list of things to do. Well, what you want to do is you want to play with your friends, and he would have very little to do with that. Or you wanted to play team sports. He thought that that was foolishness. So yes, you did bristle under it, and you didn’t like it, and you did not want to work, but you had no choice.

…RUSH: …And your grandfather, with the rules and his high expectations of you, all of this is profoundly inspiring, which is exactly why I’m happy you’re here today, because these are the things that people don’t know about you. All of this sounds like a pure recipe, Mr. Justice Thomas, of being really devoted to yourself. You had some great role models, your grandfather especially. You came from a background that was…Well, I use the word “unfair.” It was just unfortunate, but you don’t seem to have allowed any of it to be an excuse for not being the best you could be.

JUSTICE THOMAS: Well, Rush, when I left for the seminary — again, I’m 16, and my grandfather is very clear with me. He made me vow that I wouldn’t quit the seminary, and that’s something I did do later on.

RUSH: How did he react to that?

JUSTICE THOMAS: Well, not very well. The thing he said when I left, understanding that I would be there for the first time, or first member of our household among whites, he said, “Boy, don’t shame me, and don’t shame the race.” So there was this obligation that you had to do well, because we had lived with this assumption that if we had an opportunity, we could always — and I mean always — do as well as our white counterparts in similar circumstances. So there was always this obligation on me to perform well. You can talk about it, you can talk a good game, but when you took an algebra test or when you took a physics or a chemistry test, the proof was always in the pudding. Now, with respect to the unfortunate circumstances, I actually think that I have been fortunate to have had misfortune, because the response, in responding to the misfortune, you develop in your own life, you develop sort of the tools you need to continue on, or to do better. And, yes, it was tough, it was difficult at the time, and maybe there was a little bit of self-pity from time to time; but as a result of those misfortunes, I think I have been able to develop in a way more character traits that have been helpful.

…I never really wanted to be on the court. I don’t like Washington. When the president asked me… Just like my call to become a priest, my vocation, I think when the president asks you to do something, you should do it. Now, most people would say, “But it’s the Supreme Court.” Well, maybe they are interested in it as a personal bit of ambition, but I was not. So it wasn’t something I was trying to get. It wasn’t a prize. What was important to me was that my family… I mean, I don’t have a whole lot. I had my good name — and I was too prideful about that, I will admit. But my grandparents had cobbled together this life. They had never been bitter. They weren’t upset with anybody. They got these two little boys; they raised them; they were law-abiding; they were religious people; they were frugal; they were hard working. And they made us work; they made us adopt those things. And, here, for no reasons other than people disagreed with me, or they thought that a black person shouldn’t particularly have these views, they were going to set upon me and undermine, or destroy the little bit we had cobbled together. At some point, I think, you are obligated to stand and defend that, to defend the honor — and I think I would have shamed my grandfather if I had not stood up and defended what he had given us and defended the legacy he left us to provide for ourselves and for our kids.

…Well, Rush, the way I do my job — and I decided in 1983 to live my life as a memorial to theirs, and that goes to the portion of my life that you thought was the most difficult: the hearings. I saw that as a desecration of all I had to give them. It was similar to going into the seminary where he said, “Don’t shame me.” Well, this is the other side of it, where I was giving something; I was saying that it was worth all the effort. It was worth your sacrifice. It was worth taking these two boys, and I saw that as a desecration of the little I had to give them. Afterwards, of course, I just simply said I would start all over and try to build a new memorial. The way that I do my job is I try to do it to memorialize the good that they have done, to say, “It was all worth it.” My hope would be that, if I saw my grandfather again, I could look him in the eye and say that I’ve done my best and that he would possibly say to me, not so much that you’re on the Supreme Court, but that you’re doing a good job on the court.

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