When Thurgood Marshall retired in 1991 he held a short press conference which I was lucky enough to catch. As the conference started Marshall worked his way slowly up to the microphone leaning heavily on a cane like some aging Yoda, ready to impart final wisdom learned during the course of his incredible life. I especially remember one exchange with a reporter because one of the big stories of the day have brought it to mind.
QUESTION (6/28/91): Do you think President Bush has any kind of an obligation to name a minority justice in your place?
MARSHALL: I don't think that that should be a ploy, and I don't think it should be used as an excuse one way or the other.
QUESTION: An excuse for what, Justice?
MARSHALL: Doing wrong. I mean for picking the wrong Negro and saying, "I'm picking him because he is a Negro." I am opposed to that. My dad told me way back that you can't use race. For example, there's no difference between a white snake and black snake; they'll both bite. So I don't want to use race as an excuse.
President George Herbert Walker Bush went on to appoint Clarence Thomas to Marshall's seat. Marshall, who by then had passed, seemed to have predicted what was to come.
One of the things I learned growing up admiring the Civil Rights movement and the giants like Marshall and Martin Luther King is the idea that the content of one's character was the sole arbitrator of one kind of person you ultimately turned out to be. The superficial is just that, the color of one's skin meaningless towards gaging moral character. Conversely: when it comes to snakes they come in all colors and they'll all bite.
If one travelled back to 1991 and watched first hand the Anita Hill/ Clarence Thomas confirmation brouhaha he seems so eager to revisit in his new book one might find oneself confused. Here are two outstanding and, by all accounts, principled African-American professionals both thrust into the spotlight at the same time who shared wildly divergent views of what had taken place between them.
An objective eye on the proceedings might lead one to conclude that the allegations of harassment and the questions of Thomas' fitness to sit on the court for life might be ultimately inconclusive. How could we tell who was telling the truth? Wouldn't it be impossible to judge who was the more credible of the two?
Thomas wants to over simplify all of this by claiming his critics opposed him almost entirely because of his views on abortion. This isn't a very realistic take on his part. It wasn't his views on abortion per se that so enraged those of us who watched his confirmation questioning, it was his willingness to openly and brazenly lie about his views on abortion that so angered his detractors. Remember; this was a man who was in law school at the time of the Roe v. Wade ruling who testified under oath during his confirmation hearings that he "cannot recall engaging in discussions on that issue" at the time. Right.
By the time Anita Hill was reluctantly dragged into the spotlight (after being ignored by Democratic Senators I might add) Thomas had already fully demonstrated the true content of his character. He was a man that was willing to do or say anything in order to win a seat on the Supreme Court. He was a man without principles. He was a man unfit to take the place of Thurgood Marshall.
Thomas could do us all a favor and spare us the righteous indignation and all the drudging up of the past. He's lucky he's on the Supreme Court. By any fair estimation he doesn't belong.