Editor’s note: In these exclusive excerpts from the book “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words,” out Tuesday, author Michael Pack asks the Supreme Court justice about the influence of his maternal grandfather. Thomas was 2 when his father left the family.
The new book is a successor to the 2020 documentary about Thomas with the same title, which Pack produced and directed. Pack wrote the book with Mark Paoletta, a former official in both the Bush and Trump administrations who played a key role in the Senate’s confirmation of Thomas to the Supreme Court in 1991.
Michael Pack: In 1955, you moved to live with your grandparents in Savannah, Georgia. How and why did that happen?
Clarence Thomas: My mother had difficulty with two little boys and working as a maid, which required some unevenness in her hours because not only was she cleaning, she was raising other peoples’ kids. So that meant babysitting and things like that. So she asked my grandparents for help. And my grandmother, who did not have children—she was my mother’s stepmother—suggested that she let her raise these two boys.
And one day, one Saturday morning, we woke up and my mother said, “Put all your things in the grocery bag.” And remember the paper grocery bags in those days. My brother took one and neither one was full. All of our items. Just imagine everything you have, in less than a paper bag. So we took our grocery bag each, and walked the couple of blocks from Henry Lane to East Thirty-Second Street.
That was the longest and most significant journey I ever made, because it changed my entire life. And that walk along East Broad Street was a walk that I would replicate literally hundreds of times in the years after that. But I would always remember the first walk.
And that’s how we went to live with my grandparents.
Pack: What happened on the other end, when you showed up to your grandparents’ house?
Thomas: My grandfather was this myth. We saw him maybe once or twice when we lived on the West Side. He was very stern. And he sat us there at the kitchen table and he said, “Boys, the damn vacation is over.” He said from then on it was going to be “rules and regulations and manners and behavior.”
Oh, my goodness. And he meant it. And he just explained what the rules were: My grandmother was always right, that he was in charge. He made it very clear that it was by grace that we were there, his grace.
And the door in 1955, when we went to live with him, was swinging open inward. If we didn’t behave ourselves, there’d be a day when it would swing outward and we’d be asked to leave.
Pack: Would you describe your grandfather, what he looked like, how much schooling he had?
Thomas: My grandfather was West African, obviously. He was illegitimate and never knew his father. He was born in Savannah. His mother died when he was 7 or 8 years old. When his mother died, he was raised by his grandmother, who was a freed slave.
She raised him on the family farm in Liberty County, which was 25 miles south of Savannah. The farm was a stone’s throw from where we were living on the farm. It’s the same land that’s been in the family since after the Civil War. His grandmother was really hard on him. His grandmother would go to the dirt road and then spit on the dirt in the summer, and he would have to run way down the road to the store. And she said, “You better be back before that dries.” So that doesn’t sound exactly as someone who is warm and fuzzy.
My grandfather had a total of nine months of education. He went to one of those one-room schools in Liberty County. He went to the third grade, but school was three months out of the year because you had to work. My grandfather was almost 6 feet tall. He was muscular, a very strong and lean man, and hardworking.
He had lost a finger working on a lumber boat or something going up and down the Intracoastal. He didn’t worry about it, but he always talked about it. Somehow, he must’ve gotten his glove caught up in some machinery and it pulled his finger off. He didn’t allow us to wear gloves much as a result of that when we were working.
My grandfather had worked at various things. He’d moved houses, worked various jobs, and decided he wasn’t going to work for anybody. He got an old truck and started selling wood. He would go in the woods at night to cut the wood, come back and sell it during the day. Then he added to his delivery business selling ice and then coal.
Eventually, the ice business went away as a result of refrigeration, and his coal and wood morphed into a fuel oil delivery business. By the time we went to live with my grandfather, he was delivering fuel oil.
Pack: How did your grandfather raise you?
Thomas: My grandfather said, “I will never tell you to do as I say. I will always tell you to do as I do.” Years went by and I thought about who would put that burden on themselves, because a kid sees all and a teenager sees and knows even more. And that’s the burden he put on himself.
I asked my brother when we were both in our 40s: “Did you ever think he was a hypocrite because of what he said, ‘Do as I do?’” My brother without hesitation said, “No.” Whatever mistakes he made, he admitted them, and he just said, “Follow me.”
He made us follow him. He wouldn’t let us play organized sports. He wouldn’t let us stray. He kept us close to him as though we were his apprentices in life, that we were adults in training. He was the one who was going to train us, so we were to follow him. Watch how he did it. “Watch how I live my life and you will learn.”
You could never just have something and enjoy the mere having. He would always connect the dots for you. He would say, “There was a reason why I have this house. One, I don’t throw money away on Cadillacs, clothes. I don’t waste money. I don’t drink excessively.” (He took one drink a day.) You had to work for it. Everything was about work. “Why do I have this car? One, I don’t waste money.” He didn’t believe in debt, so he didn’t buy a car on time. He didn’t buy anything on time.
To save money, you pay cash. So he said, “Because I work hard I can have this; because I don’t waste what I earn, I can have this. Now if I went out and I wasted my money on drink, I couldn’t have this and I couldn’t send you all to school. I couldn’t raise you all.” He would always go the next step and explain to you why this is possible.
He would often talk about the difference between what you’re supposed to do and what you wanted to do. He would say things like, “Don’t confuse want and need. You may want a new suit, but you don’t need it. You may want a new car, but you don’t need it.” So you were constantly being exposed to this dichotomy between what you might desire, or what you might feel like at the moment, and what you need. And he would constantly tell you that.
Pack: What was it like working with him on the oil truck?
Thomas: If you look at an oil truck, even today, it has a hose on the back. My grandfather’s rule was once you reach that point—and I think for us that was about 9 or 10 years old—where you could pull that hose, then you were required to be on the oil truck. So the rule was, we got out of school at 2:30. You had to be home, dressed, and ready to be on the oil truck by 3. If you wanted a snack, you grab that on the run, and you got dressed, ready to go. And that’s the way it worked.
And even in spring, you got home and you have to be ready to work. He had other chores for you. On Saturdays, invariably, I was the one who went on the oil truck with him, and that was all day. When you rode with him, he was the professor and you were to be seen and not heard. You could not initiate a conversation unless you wanted to clarify an instruction he had given. You were constantly getting this one-way input. And you couldn’t get away from him because you always had to be around him.
Pack: Didn’t your grandfather even take the heater out of the truck?
Thomas: In 1956, my grandfather bought a new GMC truck. He removed the heater and plugged up where the heater was. And his thinking was this: Having heat in a truck during the winter when you have to get in and out to deliver oil, one, it made you lazy. It made you not want to get out in the cold. And two, you might catch cold from going from hot to cold, back and forth.
So he put that heater on a shelf in the garage, and there it rotted while I froze in that truck.
Pack: I wanted to ask about the farm. When did you go there and what were your grandfather’s plans for you there?
Thomas: On our second Christmas with my grandparents, toward the end of that day, my grandfather said, “Let’s go over to where I grew up on the farm.” And that was right next to his Uncle Charles, where he was raised ultimately. He drove up on now fallow fields, and we walked across this field to where there was an oak tree, and he looked around and pulled out some old cord and twine, and some sticks, and he marked off where he was going to build a house. We stepped it off, and he marked it off.
Then we started bringing cinder blocks out. And it became every weekend, and every day off, and he started building a house. And that house is still there. We finished that in May of 1958, and every summer after that we farmed. I turned 10 in 1958. [We] started clearing land and we started building garages, and built barns, chicken coops. We had to dig a well for water. We built a pump house, screened in the porches. It was constant activity. He said that even if all we could do was hold a nail, we were going to be there to hold that one nail.
Pack: What was the reason he gave for why he brought you out to the farm?
Thomas: My grandfather thought that we were, as he said, “getting up in age,” and he thought we needed to be kept busy during the summer. And he didn’t want us around our “no-good friends” in the city, “that riffraff.” He said, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” That was reiterated every place you went. He wasn’t going to have us with idle hands.
He wanted us also to experience the way he grew up, in the ways, he said, “of slavery time.” He thought that the best way to do that was on the farm. Your time is dominated by labor, and there’s a lot of it, from sun to sun. You woke up at “fo day,” which means “before day.” And you labored. You would always find there’s always more work than you had time. Even if we couldn’t do much, he would make us go. We put up fence lines, we cut down trees. And he would always do it manually. You didn’t use a chainsaw, you used [a] crosscut saw.
It seems like everything was done to be doubly hard. You’re a little kid and you say you can’t do it. And he would just say over and over: “Old man can’t is dead, I helped bury him.” And that wasn’t just him sitting down and explaining something to you. That was his reaction to your desire to quit. “You can’t quit.” And he would say it. …
Pack: How did your grandfather react when you said you were leaving the seminary [in 1968]?
Thomas: It was as though the bottom had fallen out; there was nothing positive anymore. The priesthood had been my only goal. And when that went away it was like I was in a freefall. I go home and now I face my grandfather. And I’d like to say, “It was facing the music.” But it wasn’t music, it was a stony silence almost. And it was a coldness.
So he took me to the living room, and he said that, as he had promised when we came to live [there] in 1955, the door opened inward then, now it was opening outward. And I was to leave his house. Since I had made [the] decisions of a man, I should live like one.
And I said, “When?” And he said, I will never forget it, “Today, this day.” I think I was fumbling around and said, “Well, are you still going to help me with college?” He said, “No. You’re a man. You figure it out.” My mother had an extra room in her apartment, so I went over there. …
I started quoting [an 1843] speech by Frederick Douglass back in the ’80s. Frederick Douglass had depth and content, and the courage of his convictions. He reminds me in a lot of ways of my grandfather. You know, there were many times my grandfather—I still think he is the greatest man that I’ve known—my grandfather would say when people were upset with him, just simply: “He’s got a lifetime to get pleased.” It wasn’t his problem. He had his opinion. …
I prefer to think for myself. The strongest person I’ve ever known was my grandfather. What if he had succumbed to the circumstances around him? What if he [had] said, “Look, I was born in 1907 with no education; that determines the outcome in my life.” OK? “I’m a beaten-down black man in Georgia.” He never looked at it that way. He rose above all that. …
When I would go back home, the exchanges with my grandfather were really horrible, because I’d talk about the revolution and about how awful this country was, and racism. And I would be drinking, and wouldn’t comb my hair, and it was bad. And he looked at me and he would say, “I didn’t raise you to be like this. After all our sacrifices, this is what you’ve become.”
My conduct was just not good. I thought he was weak. And he thought I’d gone up North and become “one of those damn educated fools”; that I went up North and they put all that foolishness in my head. It was a recognition that I had become something other than who I really should have been, and what I was raised to be, and what I was really like.
It was almost as though you become the worst you could be rather than the best you can be. I had become so unlike anything that he thought I would be or wanted me to be. He didn’t say I had to agree with him. Here’s a man who was raised by freed slaves. What could I tell this black man, born in 1907, growing up in Georgia, about race? …
My grandfather, when I asked him [amid criticism during the Reagan administration]: “Daddy, what should I do? These people are beating me up.” He said, “Boy, you have to stand up for what you believe in.”
Pack: While taking your place on the Supreme Court, did your thoughts drift back to your grandparents? Was this the end of one phase of your life?
Thomas: Many people take bows for other people’s achievements in life—it’s affirmative action, it’s some welfare policy, it’s some social policy, none of which had anything to do with anything. I mean, it’s fine that people are thinking of these policies, but the things that matter are the people, like my grandparents and like the nuns.
When we talk in law, we talk about the “but for” causation—“but for” this, this wouldn’t have happened. The nuns and my grandparents are, in a sense, the “but for” causation: They’re the reason I’m sitting here today; “but for” them, I wouldn’t be here.
My grandparents, when they took us in in 1955, what they did was supply hope. You’re looking at a world that looks almost hopeless. They said, “We are going to prepare you for the challenges ahead. We are going to give you a chance to do well by giving you the things you need.”
And people think it’s just education, it’s just food. It was more than that, and they understood that. They understood that you needed the things of life—work ethic, self-discipline, a set of morals—to get through life. And they supplied them.
Now, my grandfather had nine months total of education; my grandmother went to the sixth grade. These were poor black people in the Deep South, but they had figured out the essentials of life. It was their victory. They had won. They had been proven right.
Pack: I want to come back to your grandfather and his legacy. You’ve mentioned earlier that when you were confirmed and sworn in as a justice that that was a victory for your grandfather. But now 26 years have gone by. Do you still think that, overall, what you’ve done, from the [Supreme Court] confirmation to now, is a victory for him and his values?
Thomas: Oh, yes. You know, I keep a bust of my grandfather over me that my wife had made. And I’ve done [that] since I’ve been at the court.
One of my objectives is always to be able to say to him: “I lived up to my oath and did my best.” And just the idea that he would say: “It’s a job well done. You do things the right way.”
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