There is something refreshing when you read or watch an autobiographical account of someone prominent in history. You are alone with this person and hearing them without the noise of outside opinions. Created Equal is one such documentary. Through Clarence Thomas’s unfiltered words, the film utilizes an autobiographical lens to reveal the life and history of America’s longest serving Supreme Court Justice. Having written 30% more opinions than any other sitting incumbent, Thomas has cemented his legacy as the most prolific member of the court in modern history. With over 600 opinions to his name, he has shaped and defined American jurisprudence, and any informed citizen would be wise to learn about the ideas and life experiences that shaped his judicial philosophy.
Born in 1948 to an impoverished family in America’s segregated south, Clarence’s early days were defined by abject poverty in Pinpoint, Georgia. Stuck living in a small shack with no indoor bathroom and minimal living space, Clarence filled in the lack of luxury with childhood imagination. Sticks, rocks, and swamps became his playthings, creating a world of adventures, which only the impoverished can fully experience. Creativity that is not merely inspired but required.
A childhood move to Savannah after a fire destroyed their shack only worsened Clarence’s condition. The bathrooms in the urban squalor where they lived had pipes that were not connected to any sewage system. “Savannah was hell; the smell was putrid,” Clarence recalls. Realizing that she would be unable to raise her sons in this environment, Clarence’s mother reached out to her relatives for help. Her dad responded and agreed to take in Clarence and his brother. They packed all their personal belongings and moved in. Clarence chuckles, “Imagine everything you have fits in less than a paper bag.”
Clarence and his brother arrived at his grandparents’ house, and his grandfather, Myers Anderson, sat them down at the kitchen table and said, “Boys, the damn vacation is over.” “From now on it’s going to be rules and regulations, manners and behavior.” As Clarence explains, “He made it clear that it was by his grace that we were there. The door…was swinging open, inward, and if we didn’t behave ourselves, there would be a day when it would swing outward, and we would be asked to leave.”
Clarence went to school by day and worked with his grandfather delivering fuel oil in the afternoon. In the summers, he worked the farm from sunup to sundown. One day, when Clarence was exhausted and failed to pull a two-man crosscut saw back across a log, he cried out, “I can’t do it.” Grandpa Myers replied, “Old Man Can’t is dead. I helped bury him.” Given the vicissitudes of the life handed to Clarence, it is inspiring to hear him say, “The family farm and that unheated oil truck became my most important classroom.”
Clarence and his brother attended Catholic school. The school was segregated, but the Irish nuns were outspoken about the unfair treatment of blacks and expressed a deep love for the children in their care. Clarence was impacted by this, saying, “You knew they loved you, and when someone loves you, and deeply cares about your interests, somehow they can get you to do hard things.” The nuns challenged Clarence to move from a place of academic apathy to focused discipline. Serving as an altar boy at St. Benedicts, Clarence began thinking about becoming a priest, and in September 1964, he entered St. John Vianney Minor Seminary as a high school sophomore.
While in seminary, Clarence Thomas was placed against the backdrop of the civil rights movement. As Clarence states, “You assume you’re going to be discriminated against, or at the very least you’re not going to be treated the same way as whites.” With the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., followed by Bobby Kennedy, Clarence thought that the country was completely unraveling. A deep-seated anger filled his heart, and in time, that anger would be expressed in his actions.
Clarence told his grandfather that he had quit the seminary. In response, his grandfather forced him out of the house, claiming that since Clarence had made the decision of a man, he must now live like one. Lost and distraught, Clarence took the only opportunity he still had in front of him, an acceptance letter to Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts. It was here, on an American campus, that Clarence joined a Marxist revolutionary group, the Black Student Union. Clarence says, “We were supposed to be revolutionaries; we were for anybody who’s kind of in your face.” Clarence would visit his grandfather during this time, and the conversations were tense. “I didn’t raise you to be like this,” his grandfather said. “After all our sacrifices, this is what you have become.”
Clarence’s newfound Marxist ideology was miles away from the man he would one day become. However, one day in 1970 on the way to Cambridge, Clarence participated in a demonstration that turned violent and destructive. Returning home that night, horrified with what he had done, Clarence stopped in a chapel and prayed to God, “If you take this anger out of my heart, I will never hate again.” This was the beginning of a long process of change in his life. On June 4, 1971, Clarence graduated from Holy Cross College, and the following day he married Kathy Ambush. In the fall of 1971, Clarence entered Yale Law School. The birth of his son, Jamal, during his second year in law school, provided Clarence with a new perspective. Clarence says, “It woke me up about the direction that we were headed in our country and what the prospects would be for him.”
On May 6, 1982, Clarence was confirmed as Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Clarence immediately came under attack in the press and was branded as an Uncle Tom for simply taking a position in the Reagan administration. Clarence attended his grandfather’s funeral, and he wept uncontrollably wondering to himself, “Why had I spent so much time arguing with him? I would never be able to tell him how right he had been, or how much I admired and loved him.”
Returning to Washington, Clarence was emotionally drained. He gazed up at the Capitol dome, asking himself, “For what will you die? Is there something in life that you would die for?” Clarence came to realize that the principles of his grandfather, the principles of his country were worth his life. Clarence explains, “I was looking for a way of thinking, a set of ideals, that fundamentally at its core said, ‘Slavery is wrong.’” So, he began a deep and protracted study into the United States Constitution and its founding. He was inspired by the words of Thomas Jefferson who said, “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Thomas explains the influence these words had on him, writing, “That’s natural law in a nutshell.” Clarence found that this cornerstone was solid, and he realigned his philosophy to preserve and defend those ideals.
With the retirement of Justice Thurgood Marshall, Judge Clarence Thomas was nominated as a replacement on the Supreme Court. The attacks on Clarence started immediately. Holding a different set of values than many of his African American peers in government, Clarence was slandered with the same type of Uncle Tom rhetoric he had faced throughout his career. Clarence is candid about the attacks, stating, “We know exactly what’s going on here. This is the wrong black guy; he has to be destroyed.”
Nearing the end of the hearings and the scandalous testimony of Anita Hill, Senator Joe Biden slammed the gavel to the block three times, asking the committee to come to order. “Do you have anything you would like to say?” he asked. In response to this question, Clarence gave a speech that silenced the chamber. “This is a circus, a national disgrace, and from my standpoint as a black American, this is a high-tech lynching for blacks who dare to think for themselves.”
On October 18, 1991, Clarence Thomas was sworn in as an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. In Judge Thomas’s office, on a shelf, there is a bust of his grandfather, and on it are the words Clarence heard as a young boy, “Old Man Can’t Is Dead. I Helped Bury Him.”
Throughout his life, Clarence Thomas persevered against discrimination, poverty, and political opportunism. Despite all these challenges, he remained committed to the lessons his life experience had taught him: self-reliance from his grandfather, hard work from the nuns in seminary, and a deep-rooted understanding of the inalienable rights each Court Justice is charged to protect. His originalist approach to constitutional interpretation and commitment to the American ideal often brought him more detractors than supporters, especially from those who believed America’s system needed to be torn down from the inside. However, Thomas saw the importance and universality of “inalienable rights…endowed by their creator.” And fought to uphold them.
CREATED EQUAL is a must-see movie, and the story is uniquely an American adventure. Full of jeopardy and drama, the lessons learned on the road to living a life worth living sometimes come from the places and people you least expect. Whether the lessons are born out of poverty or out of abundance, for the man or woman who seeks truth, the lessons will always be salutary.
The movie can be purchased at the following location: