He didn’t have a flushing toilet as a child and when he finally moved into a house that had one he was fascinated and continually flushed it – annoying his grandfather, who paid the water bill.
Clarence Thomas, the famously-silent jurist, tells his own life story in a new documentary, “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words,” which made its national television debut May 18 on PBS.
The two-hour film explores Thomas’ life, from his 1948 birth in the small town of Pin Point, Georgia, to his upbringing as a poor Black kid in the segregated South, to his liberal phase in college, to his conversion to conservatism, to his rise to the nation’s highest court.
“I don’t expect that [Thomas] will convince you on the issues,” said filmmaker Michael Pack. “But I think it’s impossible to watch this film and not see that he’s a serious, thoughtful person – whose ideas are worth considering – with a very powerful and inspiring life story.”
After the retirement of Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court justice, Thomas was appointed to take his seat. His confirmation seemed assured until a former colleague from two of his prior executive branch jobs, Anita Hill, came forward with sexual harassment allegations, prompting an investigation from the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by then-Sen. Joseph Biden.
Thomas was confirmed 52-48 in 1991.
“Created Equal” gives the public a fuller picture of one of the nation’s most intriguing public figures, said Michael Pack, who directed the film and produced it with Gina Pack, his wife. Pack, who has a long history of producing public television and served in Republican administrations, is from Maryland.
Thomas rarely speaks publicly – even during high court oral arguments. And while he told some of his personal story in a 2007 book, “My Grandfather’s Son,” he wanted to say more now, Pack said.
Very little of the documentary covers Thomas’ Supreme Court career. Most of it is devoted to his childhood in the segregated South. More than three years in the making, the film draws from more than 30 hours of interviews with Thomas and his wife.
Thomas credits much of outlook on life to his hard-working, God-fearing grandfather who raised him and his younger brother after his single mother could not afford to care for them. “My grandfather understood that education was the key because he didn’t have it,” Thomas says in the film.
His initial reaction to the racism he experienced growing up in Georgia was to try to be perfect. But when he got to the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, he started speaking out against racism, joining protest rallies and other activities in support of Black activists, including the Black Panthers.
His relationship with his grandfather became “horrible,” Thomas said. After a violent protest disrupted on campus, Thomas had second thoughts. He prayed, asking God to take the anger out of his heart. “That was the beginning,” he said, “of the slow return to where I started.”
When he graduated from Yale Law School in 1974, unlike his classmates, he had trouble finding a job. He attributed that to potential employers assuming affirmative action was behind his acceptance to the prestigious law school.
Thomas eventually got a job offer from John Danforth, Missouri’s attorney general. Danforth was a Republican and Thomas initially felt that working for a Republican was “repulsive.” Nevertheless, he took the job. His experience there began to change his mind. He previously believed that much prosecution of African Americans was politically motivated. In the Missouri courts, he met Black crime victims who led him to reconsider his views.
Next, Thomas worked for Monsanto and became disenchanted with what he perceived as half-hearted efforts by the agriculture company’s equal employment executives to advance Black employees.
Thomas’ journey to conservatism was well underway when in 1979 he went back to work for Danforth who by then was a U.S. senator. Thomas was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to be chairman of the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission and a federal judge before his Supreme Court nomination.
The film’s title reflects Thomas’ belief the courts should adhere strictly to the original intent of the founding fathers, who wrote “All men are created equal” at the start of the Declaration of Independence.
The film has gotten mixed reviews. A common criticism is that the documentary is one-sided.
“Our documentary doesn’t pretend to be objective,” Pack said. “We were true to what we said we would deliver, which was a very important person’s view of the world. … It’s worth hearing.”
One thing Pack did not allow was Thomas’ interference in the production of the documentary. The Supreme Court justice gave him “editorial independence” and a “high degree of trust,” Pack said.
Asked in a recent interview what Thomas’ reaction was to the film, Pack said: “He has yet to see it.”