Justice Thomas Tells His Story United States Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' new memoir chronicles his life before becoming a justice. Columnist Armstrong Williams and author Kevin Merida offer their insights about the timing of his memoir.
NPR logo

Justice Thomas Tells His Story

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/14889809/14889803" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Justice Thomas Tells His Story

Justice Thomas Tells His Story

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/14889809/14889803" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, the Mocha Moms and the money coach continue the conversation we began last week about elder care.

But first, from his seat on the high court, he is one of the most visible men in Washington - one of the country's most powerful leaders - and yet he is probably one of the least known. Among African-Americans especially, he's probably one of the country's most polarizing figures: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

His supporters celebrate Thomas as an up-from-poverty American success story. His detractors deride him as a symbol of what happens when people forget or even distain their roots.

Now Clarence Thomas is telling his own story in the memoir "My Grandfather's Son." Not surprisingly, he offers his take on his contentious confirmation fight and on Anita Hill, the woman whose sexual harassment allegations threw his confirmation into doubt. Thomas also addresses the distrust many African-Americans have of him.

Joining us to talk about Clarence Thomas and his new memoir is Kevin Merida. He is the co-author of "Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas," a recent biography of the jurist. Also with us is Armstrong Williams, a syndicated columnist, a radio host and a longtime friend of Justice Thomas's.

Gentlemen, welcome both to the program.

Mr. KEVIN MERIDA (Author): Thank you, Michel.

Mr. ARMSTRONG WILLIAMS (Syndicated Columnist):Hello, Michel.

MARTIN: Armstrong, I'd love to start with you. The question for many people is why now? After years of what seems to be a determined effort to maintain his privacy, to stay away from the national media, he's doing a major publicity rollout for the book. Why now?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, he wanted to wait until all the things that were said and written about him and the psychosis about what happened at ELC and what really went on between him and Anita Hill and all the allegations. And he took his time. He wanted to settle in on the court. And after 16 years he felt the freedom, and it was the time to put together all the notes that he had written over so many years, to write about this book to set history straight.

MARTIN: Does the composition of the court have anything to do with the timing now that he is part of solid conservative majority? Does that have anything to do with it?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Absolutely not. He's been thinking about this book for the last seven years.

MARTIN: Kevin Merida, you just completed a biography of Clarence Thomas, as we said. It's called "Supreme Discomfort." Did you find anything out in reading his own memoir that you did not know?

Mr. MERIDA: Well, I found out that his narrative really is strikingly similar to our own narrative of him. And you know, it's interesting, he said that he wrote this in part to correct the record, but it seems like the record is pretty accurate in terms of his basic story. This book is unusual, I think, for a sitting justice, as it's so personal and it seems that it does have a lot of score settling and things that really were on his mind, roiling inside him, kind of chips, if you will, on his shoulder. And it's unusual in that respect. I think that for him it seems that maybe it was a cathartic exercise for him - and Armstrong could speak more to that. But I think it's very - it has a lot of political edge and usually justices don't like to get too close to the political arena, particularly in their own works.

MARTIN: Let's play a short clip from the interviews that Clarence Thomas did with Steve Kroft of "60 Minutes," of the "60 Minutes" program.

(Soundbite of "60 Minutes")

Mr. STEVE KROFT ( "60 Minutes"): How much of your life is determined by your race?

Justice CLARENCE THOMAS (Supreme Court): I don't know. I'm black. You know, how much of your life is determined by being male? I have no idea. I'm black. That's a fact of life. I'm five feet eight and a half inches tall. I don't how much about life is determined by being five feet eight and a half inches tall. This is a part of who I am.

Mr. KROFT: But you think of yourself as a black man?

Justice THOMAS: I'm a man. I'm a man. First and foremost, I'm a citizen of this country, and I happen to be black. I am a human being.

MARTIN: And yet, Armstrong William, the book is - Armstrong Williams, the book is suffused with, I think, a lot of anger, a lot of - some very hard to read and very painful and very emotional testimony about the humiliations he suffered, as often one of the only African-American students in his class, as he was being raised in Savannah, Georgia, and some just, just, you know - so I guess I, I'm just - do you think - I think the word that a lot of reviewers have been using is bitter. Do you see it that way, Armstrong?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Of course let's bear this in mind: I've known him for so long, I'm biased when it comes to him. I'm not pretending to try to be objective because I think that is very difficult because I worked for him for four years. So I just want to give that background for the sake of integrity here. You know, I spent time with him, okay. I have consistently spent time with him. And I will tell you in the first several years of his ascending to the court, there was this - some people could call it bitterness - but I must tell you, Michel and Kevin, in the last seven years of my interacting with him, it has been non-existent. No mention of Anita Hill. No mention of the hearings.

It has only been within the last two years in writing the book that he had to regurgitate much of that, which is very painful. So many things that he had forgotten, that he did not go back to his notes to read. And so I think what you're seeing here is that when he went back into that box and he pulled that part of his life out, those emotions were summoned back.

And so in the book, that is what you see and that's what you feel, but it's very real. No different than when he was growing up at home and his mother would put him in a closet and put a sign over his door, ABC - America's Blackest Child. That's there. He's healed from that. But when he writes about it again, of course there's a lot of pain that's associated with it, and that's exactly what you feel and what your read.

MARTIN: Clearly the confirmation hearings still rankle. I think we should play a short clip that's also from the "60 Minutes" interview.

(Soundbite of "60 Minutes")

Ms. ANITA HILL: After a brief discussion of work, he would turn the conversation to discussion of sexual matters. His conversations were very vivid.

Mr. KROFT: You denied all of the allegations?

Justice THOMAS: Oh, absolutely, from day one. It didn't happen. I mean, if somebody makes a broad allegation against you, what would you do?

Mr. KROFT: Ask him to prove it, I guess.

Justice THOMAS: Yeah.

MARTIN: Armstrong Williams, he makes it very clear in the book that he considers Anita Hill sort of a part of a conspiracy to derail his confirmation, that she was - mainly because of his supposed views on abortion. But she made it very clear at the time and also subsequently in - in subsequent years that she only testified under oath. She was subpoenaed by the Senate Judiciary Committee. She had no intention of coming forward voluntarily. Is Mr. Thomas unaware of this, or he just doesn't believe it?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, I don't think the two are necessarily connected. Listen, Anita Hill and I worked together at ELC. We were there at the same time. We would have lunch together. We were friends. We come from similar backgrounds in terms of a large family. I liked Anita. There was nothing ever in our conversation about anything about the justice. She always saw him as a mentor, someone she really admired. And let's not forget, when Justice Thomas eventually went on the court of appeals, it was Anita who summoned us all together to do all the hard work to get him on the court of appeals. And we were part of that process.

So I think what she has expressed - I'm not going to say, I'm not going to try to get inside Anita's mind and try to determine why she came to these conclusions.

MARTIN: No, no…

Mr. WILLIAMS: But you're right. She was…

MARTIN: I'm asking about whether - I'm asking you whether Justice Thomas reviewed the public record. He says in the book that she - apparently - he says things like she apparently said she had no contact with me. She never said she had no contact with him. Her first interview with the FBI, which is now part of the public record, indicates that she disclosed immediately that she'd had several discussions with him.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, that's not his interpretation of it at that time. And I was a part of that process. It was not his interpretation. It seems like this continues to change and much has been forgotten. But we do know this. She did not want to come forward. Someone leaked her testimony. She was forced to come forward. It's not something that she really wanted to do.

Listen, there are two victims here - Anita and Justice Thomas. I think they both were used as political tools. And I refuse to believe that a nominee to the court, if they were white, would have ever gotten this kind of treatment. I think Justice Thomas was absolute correct in calling it a high tech lynching.

MARTIN: Well, final point, and I'm going to ask Kevin for his views on this. She is not the only person to have made allegations about Clarence Thomas's specific behavior. There are at least two other women who presented testimony to the committee. He does not mention any of these women. I wonder why that is.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, Angela Wright did not testify.

MARTIN: But they presented affidavits to the committee.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah. But Thomas fired her, and she was bitter. And she said he was going to pay for it. So listen, there are a lot of agendas going on here, just too complicated to get into. He chose to discuss what he's remembered for. He's remembered by the Anita Hill testimony, not by Angela Wright or any of these other ladies that may have come forward, and we never heard much of their testimony.

MARTIN: Kevin?

Mr. MERIDA: Well, there are often competing facts, and I think that's one of the things, and certainly his memoir, so he has a right to characterize events as he sees fit. But in the case of Anita Hill, you know, it wasn't just her following him to - from one agency to another. He hired her. I mean he rehired her. So he calls her mediocre in the book and yet he kept her on as a staffer.

In the case of Angela Wright, yes, he fired her, but he also gave her a recommendation with the Charlotte Observer when she left government service to become an editor there. So these are all additional facts that would be helpful to have.

The allegations waged by Anita Hill - and she writes her own piece today in the New York Times, in an op-ed piece, where she talks about the characterization of her as not devoutly religious, I think when it comes to sexual harassment, I think it's common in the workplace for women to be afraid and to have much trepidation in waging those allegations.

It doesn't mean that the allegations are necessarily correct, but there is a long body of evidence and study to show how difficult it is to pursue the case. So these are all kinds of complications that independent journalists, other books have dealt with. And Justice Thomas does not really deal with the complete set of facts in these cases.

MARTIN: Armstrong, I wanted to ask you. The book is very emotional at times, it's very poignant. It has some details about his life growing up and the difficulties he encountered, the poverty that he lived with, the cold, the hunger, and so forth. He's also very candid about the fact that this life remained difficult, that fact that he was still paying student loans from Yale at the time that had sat on the Supreme Court, which is I think a surprise to many people.

He does mention that his life - that he sought refuge in the bottle at one point, that he was drinking very heavily. I wonder whether it is possible, because he was drinking heavily at the time that he was at EOC, that he does not recall his behavior or that it affected his behavior in a way that he does not now remember?

Mr. WILLIAMS: That's pretty good, Michel. I've got to give you credit. Listen, I can't answer that, and my deal is with him. He became a teetotaler. I never witnessed him drinking. I traveled with the justice all the time, at least 98 percent of the time. I never saw him drink. So - and I was in on the meetings with Anita and I don't think alcohol had anything to do with his recollection or non-recollection of those facts.

I also believe this. I think it's very difficult, almost 16 years later - 20 years later, to recall all the facts and details. I think to try to resurrect that in your mind is a very difficult thing to do. You know, I feel bad for Anita. I really do. I'm not here to disparage Anita, because like I said, we see two victims here. And I don't ever want to trivialize sexual harassment against women in the workplace or anyplace else, because that should never be tolerated.

And I can understand why some people who may want to believe Thomas may also want to believe her, who may come to the conclusion that, well, maybe something went on between those two. If I had not worked with Anita or the justice at the time, I would've speculated that something would've gone on.

But because I was there and I worked with them both, I can honestly tell you the reason why I continue to vociferously support him today, because there was nothing in either's behavior to lead me to believe that any of those things happened.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Armstrong Williams, a syndicated columnist and a radio host and a longtime friend of Justice Clarence Thomas, and also Kevin Merida, biographer of Clarence Thomas, about Clarence Thomas's new memoir.

Kevin, in your book, you mention that Clarence Thomas has gone out of his way to support, to mentor other African-American jurists, even when he knows that they may not support his views politically. He doesn't write about this at all in the book.

Mr. MERIDA: Well, it is striking and he doesn't really write much about his relationships with African-Americans in this book at all. And that's a very defining feature of him. Many people don't know that he came to the aid of a number of Clinton-era appointees because they were stalled by Republican - or the Republican Senate. And you know, he said that if you can be fair and uphold the law and decide cases fairly, there's no reason why you should be dismissed because of political reasons. And so that was something that surprised a lot of people and something that's not known about him.

MARTIN: Armstrong Williams, do you think that a Clarence Thomas would like to be known as a race man?

Mr. WILLIAMS: No. He - Kevin's right. There are many instances where he has helped many people and we've also facilitated meetings for him with American leaders, young blacks at the Supreme Court that got much publicity. You know, he never wants to perceive that he's helping and reaching out because they are black. It's something he is very conscious about.

And so he helps - he doesn't want to ever mention, he doesn't want me mentioning it; in fact, I have been estranged from him because I've had the same position. Why don't you let people know this? And I decided to go out and do it myself. And he stopped speaking to me for almost a year.

So I've had to learn the hard way, I just have to respect his way. That's the way he is. He's very principled about it. And so I embrace him, because the bottom line, like he said, as long as he's doing good, as long as he's trying to help people, especially American blacks, that's all that matters.

MARTIN: And yet, and yet it - I guess what's interesting about it is he continues to deny that he wishes to be limited by people's view of black people and his race. And yet race suffuses this memoir; his contemplations about what race means suffuses this memoir. You don't find that a bit contradictory?

Mr. WILLIAMS: No, I do accept - I do accept Kevin's assessment of this. I read Kevin's piece in the Washington Post yesterday. On the one hand, he says, we should not be victims, we should move away from this - race, race, race. But yet in the book, there seems to be contradictions. And the only conclusion that we could all come to is that we all have contradictions. And I must tell you - race, it does hurt him.

And I will admit this, that there are those in the American black community that's painted him and have put forth this image of him that he does not care about being black. He tries to run away from being black. That is something very painful to him; it's why he goes such - so much out of his way to have them in and they do few engagements which he asks not to have it publicized. It does affect him.

But I think now that he's had this catharsis, that he's written this book, he's finally doing media interviews, he's on the cover of Jet magazine. He did sit down with Jet magazine for a very extensive interview. I think you're going to see a change of the guard with him on reaching out more to this community.

MARTIN: And finally, Armstrong, we only have a minute left - what would you like people to know about Clarence Thomas?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Listen, Justice Thomas has been silent for the last 16 years. He - as Kevin has said, he's not a self-hating black, he wants to be seen as an American, as a human being, he's not cold, he's not callous, he has this tremendous sense of humor, and he's just brilliant. He's a brilliant jurist, which I think Kevin and Michael acknowledged in their book, that he carries his own weight, and he's so one that American blacks especially should be proud off because he is a role model, he is a leader, and he identifies with their plight.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, thank you for that. Also - Armstrong Williams is a syndicated columnist. He's a longtime friend of Justice Clarence Thomas. Kevin Merida is the co-author of "Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas," a recent biography of Justice Thomas. And Kevin was kind enough to join me here in the studio. Armstrong Williams joined us on the phone from his office. Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. MERIDA: Thank you, Michel.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Thank you, Michel.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.