A Refresher On Anita Hill And Clarence Thomas In the wake of today's #MeToo moment, the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas and the testimony of Anita Hill have new resonance.
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A Refresher On Anita Hill And Clarence Thomas

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A Refresher On Anita Hill And Clarence Thomas

A Refresher On Anita Hill And Clarence Thomas

A Refresher On Anita Hill And Clarence Thomas

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In the wake of today's #MeToo moment, the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas and the testimony of Anita Hill have new resonance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LIANE HANSEN, BYLINE: I'm Liane Hansen. A woman who served as personal assistant to Clarence Thomas for over two years has accused him of sexually harassing her. National Public Radio has learned that the woman...

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Twenty-six years ago, on this program, NPR's Nina Totenberg broke the news that a nominee to the Supreme Court was facing sexual harassment charges from a former colleague named Anita Hill. It was a defining moment for how the country viewed the issue. And today, as we watch the downfall of many powerful men for sexual harassment and assault, Judge Thomas' confirmation hearings have even more resonance. For a timely history lesson, we turn to senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving - the man we call Professor Ron.

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RON ELVING, BYLINE: If you're in your 30s, you might remember your parents hustling you out of the room when people started talking about Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas. Thomas had been nominated to the Supreme Court by President George H.W. Bush. And despite some rocky moments in his first round of hearings, Thomas appeared certain to be confirmed.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: On paper, Thomas looks like the perfect candidate to replace Marshall.

ELVING: But then a new witness appeared.

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ANITA HILL: Mr. Chairman, Senator Thurmond, members of the committee, my name is Anita F. Hill.

ELVING: Hill was a law professor who had worked for Thomas years earlier at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She testified that Thomas, as her boss, repeatedly tried to date her and subjected her to extensive unwanted conversations about sex and pornography. Some listeners may find the next recording offensive.

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HILL: The incident involved his going to his desk - getting up from a work table, going to his desk, looking at this can and saying, who put pubic hair on my Coke?

JOE BIDEN: Was anyone else in his office at the time?

HILL: No.

ELVING: Senator Joe Biden of Delaware was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in October of 1991, and he questioned Hill about her encounters with Thomas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: What was the content of what he said?

HILL: Well, this was a reference to an individual who had a very large penis. And he used the name that he had been referred to in the pornographic material.

BIDEN: Do you recall what it was?

HILL: Yes, I do. The name that was referred to was Long Dong Silver.

ELVING: Millions of Americans followed the hearings in fascination, both political and prurient. But when Thomas came back to answer Hill's testimony, he denied her accusations categorically and added this.

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CLARENCE THOMAS: From my standpoint, as a black American, as far as I'm concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas. And it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate, rather than hung from a tree.

ELVING: The clash between Hill and Thomas, both African-Americans, left the Judiciary Committee visibly uncomfortable as all 14 members from both parties were white and male. For Republicans, the order of the day was defending the president's nominee, which meant pummeling the nominee's accuser. Here's Pennsylvania's Senator Arlen Specter.

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ARLEN SPECTER: You testified this morning in response to Senator Biden that the most embarrassing question involved - it's not too bad - women's large breasts. That's a word we use all the time.

BIDEN: The Democrats felt free to oppose the president's nominee but reluctant to oppose a black nominee. It was what today we'd call a hot mess, and Chairman Biden wanted to wrap it up. He decided not to call additional witnesses who also had accusations against Thomas. Biden did vote against Thomas, as did most of the committee, but the nomination still went to the full Senate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: On this vote, the yeas are 52, and the nays are 48.

ELVING: Today, Thomas still sits on the court at 69, the second longest serving among the current justices. He has, thus far, escaped any further scrutiny. But as the current soul searching over sexual harassment continues, his history is often mentioned. Hill, now 61, pursued her career as a legal scholar and is now a university professor at Brandeis. Appearing on NBC's "Meet The Press" last month, she reflected on this current moment of reckoning.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

HILL: We have made progress. But, unfortunately, 26 years ago, Washington wasn't ready to lead on this issue. And I'm afraid, even today, Washington cannot lead the country on this issue.

ELVING: But even here, in Washington, the culture of cover up may be crumbling. Ron Elving, NPR News, Washington.

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Correction Dec. 10, 2017

In an earlier audio version of this story, we incorrectly reported that Clarence Thomas was nominated after the death of Justice Thurgood Marshall. In fact, Thomas was named after Marshall's retirement, not his death.