On Sept. 24, after years of effort, the National Museum of African American History and Culture was finally opened to the public. The Smithsonian’s new museum has been rightly praised for its detailed, complex, and powerful portrayal of the African-American experience in the United States.
As The Wall Street Journal and New York Times have observed, the museum is simultaneously uplifting and upsetting—and it should be, given that the tapestry of our nation’s history includes both the disgraceful epoch of slavery and the inspiring endeavors of legendary African-American leaders like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King Jr.
It is about one of these leaders that I write today: Clarence Thomas, the second African-American justice to sit on the Supreme Court of the United States, as well as the longest-serving African-American justice.
As much as I am grateful for the museum and its efforts to preserve and promote the indispensable contributions of African-Americans to the collective history of our nation, I believe the museum has made a mistake by omitting the enormous legacy and impact of Thomas, as well as his compelling background.
Even in the context of the countless African-American heroes from U.S. history, few “against all odds” tales are more inspirational than that of Thomas. To quote one Thomas expert, Mark Paoletta:
[Thomas] grew up in the segregated deep south of coastal Georgia. Because of his Geechee heritage, he experienced discrimination from other African-Americans as well as from whites. Thomas was fortunate that he was sent at age 7 to live with his grandparents, who were both strong role models. His grandfather, Myers Anderson, was uneducated but built a small business delivering fuel oil, coal, firewood, and ice in the Savannah community. He instilled the values of hard work, perseverance, and accountability. He used to tell Thomas and his younger brother, “Old Man Can’t is dead. I helped bury him.”
Ever his grandfather’s son, Thomas also helped bury “Old Man Can’t”—in spectacular fashion. Thomas’ dramatic journey from enduring entrenched racial discrimination to serving on the highest court in a country of 320 million people is one that should be shouted from the rooftops to all Americans.
And Thomas’ historic rise is only half of the story. This year, we commemorate the 25th anniversary of his appointment to the Supreme Court. In a quarter-century, Thomas has carved out one of the more profound and unique legacies in the court’s history.
Never afraid to oppose the prevailing trends of the day, Thomas has become the court’s foremost adherent to the idea that the Constitution should only be interpreted in accord with the document’s historic and original meaning, as opposed to the “living Constitution” doctrine that has pervaded both the court and the legal academy for decades.
As is typical when challenging an entrenched orthodoxy, Thomas’ impassioned commitment to originalism has earned him sharp criticism over the years—some of it measured, but much of it vitriolic and disingenuous. It has also earned him effusive praise, however, and not just from like minds.
CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, often a harsh Thomas critic, admitted in The New Yorker in 2011 that Thomas had “emerged as an intellectual leader of the Supreme Court” whose influence has “been recognized by those who generally disagree with his views.” No other justice, Toobin observed, “studies the historical record with as much care, and enthusiasm, as Thomas.”
On top of his professional merits, I can attest from my personal experience as a law clerk at the Supreme Court that Thomas is well-known behind the scenes as one of the most jovial, down-to-earth, and gracious personalities to ever don the robe. Stories of his kindness, generosity, and humility abound.
As such, I became deeply disturbed upon learning that Thomas’ moving story and incredible contributions to the country are not even mentioned in the new museum.
Making matters worse, the only reference to Thomas is in regard to a single individual’s controversial accusation against him at his Senate confirmation hearing 25 years ago—an accusation that was contradicted by numerous witnesses and rejected by The Washington Post, the Democratic-controlled Senate, and the American public at the time.
I am concerned that millions of Americans, of all ages, races, religions, and walks of life, when passing through this museum, will be subjected to a singular and distorted view of Thomas, an African-American who survived segregation, defeated discrimination, and ascended all the way to the Supreme Court.
It is true that a museum cannot include every bit of relevant information, nor can it tell every tale. But Thomas’ story is not just any other story. Rather, it is a story uniquely compelling in the annals of U.S. history, African-American or otherwise.
If you were to travel back in time to Pin Point, Georgia, in 1948, and ask that community whether a newborn in Thomas’ circumstances could someday sit on the Supreme Court of the United States, I am confident the answer of most (if not all) would have been: No way.
And yet, by the grace of God, 68 years later, here he is.
In his closing, the museum reviewer for The New York Times writes:
I also suspect—hope, actually—that the museum will never be finished, or consider itself so; that its take on African-American history, which is American history, stays fluid, critical, and richly confused: real, in other words.
I hope for the exact same thing.
ACTION: Contact the museum on Twitter here.