National Catholic Register

Commentary

My Grandfather’s Catholic Son

BY Jennifer Roback Morse

March 23-29, 2008 Issue | Posted 3/18/08 at 3:15 PM

 

My Grandfather’s Son, the autobiography of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, will be a classic American memoir. It is a rare combination of timeless saga and period piece.

Thomas’ autobiography is the archetypal American rags to riches story that is so much a part of our national character. At the same time, Thomas’ memoirs will offer future generations a window into the late 20th century. His story will be of particular interest to American Catholics, because it is not only the life of a black American: It is also the life of an American Catholic.

Deep in our hearts, even the most cynical among us, believes in the aspirations Thomas’ story exemplifies.

Born in poverty in rural Georgia, and abandoned by his father, Clarence Thomas became the second black justice of the United States Supreme Court. The memoir is Thomas’ tribute to the maternal grandfather who raised him.

Myers Anderson instilled in the young Clarence Thomas the values of hard work and personal responsibility that made his career possible. “Daddy” revived the family farm, property that had been in the family since Reconstruction. He wanted to work that land, mostly as a way of keeping Clarence and his brother safely out of the city and out of trouble.

Though Thomas never mentions this, he and his brother needed more than a single mother could provide.

Leaving the boys with their grandfather was one of their mother’s great acts of love for them. They needed more than a boyfriend who would be a male “role model,” and who might drop in and out of their lives at any time.

They needed the discipline and guidance that could only be provided by a man deeply committed to them.

Readers who recall Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings before the U.S. Senate will be interested in his account of Anita Hill’s allegations.

I have very distinct memories of the Thomas hearings, because I learned he had been confirmed while I was lying in the recovery room after delivering my baby daughter. I had forgotten that the FBI investigated Anita Hill’s charges and found no evidence to support them. I had forgotten that the charges were leaked to a National Public Radio reporter and smeared all over the media.

But I remember very well that when Thomas defended himself against this “high-tech lynching,” the American people rallied to his support. He tells of “thumbs up” from truck drivers and strangers offering to pick up his restaurant tab.

Later generations will be appalled at the insubstantial nature of the allegations which almost derailed his nomination.

In Thomas’ account, Hill comes across as a not very competent employee, who was not particularly well-liked. Virtually no one corroborated her story.

Both the civil rights establishment and the abortion lobby opposed Thomas’ confirmation to the Supreme Court. In too many times and places in American history, even a sexual innuendo against a black man could be a death sentence.

In spite of this powerful history, the civil rights establishment essentially gave the abortion lobby a free pass to make sexual allegations against a black man.

American Catholics will particularly appreciate Thomas’ story.

His grandparents were Catholics and sent Clarence and his brother to Catholic schools. They went to St. Benedict the Moor Catholic elementary school in Georgia. The locals referred to the nuns as the “nigger sisters.”

In spite of this Catholic institutional commitment to the education of blacks, the Church lagged in speaking out against racism. Thomas experienced prejudice at the seminary, and wistfully wonders whether his call to the priesthood might have survived if the Church had been more outspoken against racism.

In any case, his realization that he was not meant to be a priest precipitated a painful break with his grandfather.

Daddy considered Clarence’s quitting the seminary as a breach of faith with him. Whether God was calling Clarence to the priesthood or not, a broken promise was a broken promise in Daddy’s book.

But his Catholicism shows up in more than these obvious facts.

Catholic readers will intuit that this man goes to confession on a regular basis, even though he never mentions it.

He never blames other people, even when he has what others might regard as good cause. He takes complete responsibility for the breach with his grandfather, even though most readers will believe that Daddy was unduly harsh in ejecting the youthful Clarence from the family home.

He utters not a single negative word about his first wife, the mother of his son. Think how unusual that is. Many divorced people spend years blaming their former spouses. He had custody of his son after divorce.

Often, when a father gets custody, there is a story. If there is a story in this case, Clarence Thomas declines to tell it. The regular practice of confession allows a person to have a realistic picture of their own flaws, neither hanging their heads in shame, nor trying to bluster their way out of responsibility.

This may be the ultimate reason the liberal elites resist this man: He is a complete rebuke to the culture of victimhood.

Instead of grievance, he is grateful to those who helped him. Instead of entitlement, he has a sense of responsibility toward those who need him, as well as for his own behavior.

This book will survive the cynicism and pessimism of the current age. High school and college teachers will assign this book, both for its literary merit and for its historical interest. It is the story of a man whose life exemplifies the best of what America believes about itself.


Jennifer Roback Morse

is the senior research fellow in economics at the and the author of Love and Economics: It Takes a Family to Raise a Village, newly reissued in paperback.