Clarence Thomas 1991 Commencement Address

May 19, 1991

Clarence Thomas

            Chancellor Eggers, Dean Hoeflich, Members of the Board of Visitors, Members of the Faculty, parents, family, distinguished guests, and of course, those whom we come to honor, graduates.

It is with the greatest of pleasure that I come here today to join you all at these commencement exercises. This is my first visit to the campus of Syracuse University, but I have fond memories of this institution that go back to my childhood.  I idolized the great running backs who wore number 44:  Jimmy Brown, Ernie Davis, and Floyd Little.  Larry Csonka came along a little too late to idolize.  As you all can probably guess, I am an avid sports fan.  But in those days I was just a little black kid in a world that is far away – both in space and time.  Because all major college athletics in the South were segregated, many of our national sports heroes came from integrated schools such as Syracuse.  Though I followed my heroes with a passion, at no time did I ever dream that I would ever set foot on this campus, not to mention come here to deliver the commencement address for the College of Law.

Although I am now cloistered in the judiciary, I have watched with great interest the experience of the First Lady last year and the President this past weekend in their efforts to deliver commencement addresses in the midst of controversy.  I am most appreciative that no such rancor has accompanied my presence here today.

James B. Conant, who was popular among some of my teachers when I started college in 1967, wrote that:  “Diversity of opinion within the framework of loyalty to our free society is not only basic to a university but to the entire nation.”[1]  I wonder what he, and others like him, would say today when it seems that only the “politically correct” views are tolerated.  To those of us who lived through and generated the incredible nonsense tolerated during the sixties and early seventies, it is mind-boggling that intolerance seems to be the hallmark of those who could most benefit from tolerance and the diversity that inexorably flows from it.

But today is your day.  As the word “commencement” suggests, this is a beginning.  It is day full of hope, a time ripe with aspirations and untapped potential.  And don’t we all love hope – to look forward to the future.  We talk of our plans, our dreams, the possibilities.  For those of us who have been where you graduates are – in age, in education, or both – today is first and foremost, an occasion to celebrate your hopes, your plans, and your dreams.  But it is also a chance for us to share with you bits and pieces of the futures we have already lived, and to relive the dreams we had when we sat in your seats – whether those dreams are fulfilled, unfulfilled, or shattered.

I asked my clerks to name the commencement speaker at their respective graduations from law school.  Two of the three hesitated before they remembered.  None seems to remember what the speaker said.  And I certainly don’t have the slightest idea who spoke at my graduation.  Of course, I can claim that my memory has faded with the passing of time.  Unfortunately, the thought that I have lost my memory is small comfort.  So I am in no way deluded that my presence, not to mention what I have to say, will have a more lasting impression than old phone numbers.  I do hope, perhaps vainly and against hope, that my words do not simply evaporated once they pass my lips, and that some day in the distant future when your celebratory energies are spent, a few of you will remember some humble thought that I clumsily tried to convey to aid you in your future travels and life’s travails.

I remember reading someplace that if you want to know what’s down the road, ask the person coming back.  I guess, in so many ways, commencements are a coming back.  This commencement has occasioned me to retrace the road I have travelled from my early life in Pin Point, my childhood in Savannah, but especially since I sat where you graduates now sit.  That was seventeen years ago and I was simultaneously anxious and apprehensive:  anxious to finish school and get started with my career, but apprehensive about the prospective of doing so.  Over the past six or seven months as I have thought about this commencement, I have had the opportunity to take a long, slaw walk down back the road of my own life to meet you all and to take stock of crucial landmarks of advice and counsel – some of which I heeded, others, I either ignored for a time or simply missed.  I guess the missed opportunities and the missed landmarks are simply a part of life and a part of growing up.  There is a story told of an elderly West Virginia mountaineer who was known far and wide for his wisdom and judgment.  A curious youngster approached him, and asked him how he acquired such good judgment.  The sage pondered this question of first impression deeply, tugging at his beard, then in measures words responded:  “Well, good judgment comes from experience, and experience – well, that comes from having had bad judgment.”

Today I am an Article III judge, sitting on a court with an incredibly interesting docket.  I have seen in my short tenure as a judge the respect that is given to judges and the judiciary.  I have been fortunate to benefit from that.  And, I am blessed to have a job that is most fulfilling and boundlessly rewarding.  But it was not always that way.

By the time I graduated from law school in May of 1974, I had been rebuffed in my efforts to obtain employment in major law firms in my home state of Georgia.  Since my reason for going to law school in the first place was to return to Savannah to assist in righting the wrongs which I felt existed there throughout my childhood, I can’t say that this was truly a high point.  Indeed, if anything, I was steeped in frustration.  But a young, idealistic, charismatic attorney general of the state of Missouri came along promising more work for less money than anyone else would offer and that he would treat me the same as the other assistants.  There was something special about now-Senator John C. Danforth.  Unlike the condescending and demeaning interviews I had endured with the prestigious law firms, he was direct and, above all, honest.  Sure, he appeared to be bright, and I was told that he had a bright future as a Republican politician – this latter attribute counted against him at the time, since I was not a Republican and had voted for George McGovern in 1972.  Over the years, long before it became fashionable to talk about ethics, he talked about honesty and public service.  I can still remember the discussions we had in his office about the natural tension between the role of politician and that of statesman or leader.  I remember as a young assistant attorney general, and later as a legislative assistant, how he would ask the bottom line question:  “What is the right thing to do?”  But this was not the first time I had received and been exposed to such wise counsel.

Indeed, what has been so fascinating and instructive, as I walked back through my life, is just how often I found the words of wisdom from my unlettered grandparents to be vastly more propitious than all the books, all the lectures and all the how-to courses. To be sure, these devices do help, but it takes something more to get us started and keep us going.  Somehow, these devices don’t work on those days when you don’t think you have the strength to life your head from your pillow.  And a book doesn’t help when you can’t summon the energy or the interest to read it.

I can’t remember just how many times I have heard the trite, but undebatable commandment:  “Honesty is the best policy.”  Surely, one can be less than honest and at the same time not commit a criminal act.  There is some vague buffer zone between dishonesty and criminality.  But what is it that keeps us from being dishonest when we could get away with it – do it with impunity?  About a year after I left law school and while I was still working with the Attorney General’s office in Missouri, I was financially strapped – in fact, desperately so.  At that time, I was in the habit of walking to work before dawn so that I could put a full day’s work in and still be with my son in the evenings.  One morning while walking to work, I found a wallet stuffed with twenty dollar bills.  My initial reaction was that this was manna from heaven.  I carried the wallet to work with me, and counted enough of the bills to estimate that there was between six and seven hundred dollars in the wallet – more than my monthly take home pay.  I needed that money so very badly.  Since I was the only person on the street and since it was dark, I was certain that no one had seen me.  I could keep the money – without adverse consequences.  But the money was not mine.  It belonged to someone else.  Keeping it would be dishonest.  Honesty is the best policy.  Trite, but right!  I returned the wallet to a suspicious, ungrateful owner, not to comply with ethics laws or criminal law, but rather with a moral compass that had been drilled into my being by two unlettered people, bounded by them in hackneyed and not always grammatically correct phraseology.

What was it that motivated these two people, born and raised in the dark shadow of slavery and doomed to live virtually the entirety of their lives in the clutches of segregation and bigotry – yet, do it with hope and with dignity?  Was it some grand philosophy?  Was it some complex principle?  I dare say it was neither.  Rather, as I have thought about it and replayed the endless hours of advice and counsel, both word and deed, it was all so simple when stated, trite when heard, and difficult to apply.  They did the best with what they had and tried to make the lives of their offspring better than theirs.

I have often thought over the past year or so of my prospects of survival today in the same neighborhood where I grew up under segregation.  Sure, segregation and the attendant bigotry were destructive and inherently wrong.  But, in addition to family and neighborhood, there were other ameliorating structures.  The segregated parochial schools, with their strict discipline and stubborn insistence on achievement, are gone.  Though they were immensely successful, even under segregation, there seems to be no recognition of the irony that the academic excellence that is necessary for so many young inner city children had been made available under the worst of circumstances.  Even more ironic is the fact that the convent attached to my grammar school is now a halfway house.  Perhaps that is considered progress.

My community is gone.  It bears only the faintest resemblance to the supportive environment in which I grew up.  A few years back I was talking to my mother, who still lives in the house of my child-hood, asking her about the condition of my old stomping grounds: the confectionary, the Dairy Queen, the corner stores that lined the route I took to school every day and that provided an endless supply of candy, ice cream, and other goodies to stimulate my taste buds, not to mention a constant supply of comic books, especially The Two Gun Kid, Kid Colt, and The Rawhide Kid.  It was bad enough that all of these places were gone, but to make matters worse, my mother indicated that the area had been renamed Hazard County because it was a hazard to one’ s health to be there.

The small library in which I spent countless hours reading and being spirited off to all sorts of adventures and travels by the limited supply of books is still there, but distressingly empty.  I would like to believe that this emptiness is caused by the desegregation of the larger public library.  Somehow, I doubt it.

All that supported me there seems to be gone.  I doubt very seriously that I would be standing before you today if the neighborhood of my youth looked like my neighborhood today.  Indeed, I am all but certain that I would not be.

Perhaps some of my dismay stems from nostalgia.  But I doubt that much of it does.  What so distresses me is that I was so fortunate to have been raised in an environment that gave me a positive direction; that insisted on good manners; that demanded respect for our elders, for our neighbors, and ourselves. There was an affirmation of the tradition and values of our country, even while the treatment that my race received was deplored.  In the end, there was civility in the way we treated each other.

My brother and I slightly more than a year apart in age.  You can imagine the fights, usually verbal, that we had.  My grandfather would march in and decree that there be “manners and behavior.”  And any report that we threw trash on the ground, failed to greet an adult properly, or engaged in any improper behavior resulted in immediate sanctions.  This is so different from what I see so often today.  There seems to be a prevailing attitude that if you can get away with it or if it is not illegal then do it.  I often wonder, while I am waiting in a line of traffic that moves so slowly because so many drivers feel no need to wait their turn, and simply drive to the front and barge in, what make those in line wait patiently or impatiently while others do what they can get away with.  What if everyone refused to wait – chaos?

Just recently, while working at my stand-up desk, I noticed a woman walking down the street with her child, who appeared to be about four or five years old.  She was unwrapping a candy bar for him.  When she finished she casually threw the wrapper to the ground.  I asked myself, what is wrong with this picture?  I can’t remember how many times, as a child, I was made to pick up candy wrappers and put them in my pocket until I found a trash can.

I certainly don’t have all the answers for what is wrong with the world, but certainly this conduct is a departure from the norms of my youth.  And it must at least seem odd and certainly cannot be considered constructive.

Although I can’t remember the speech at my graduation from law school, it probably sounded like so many I have heard – ex-horting the graduates to go out and change the world – and encouraging them to believe that they actually will.  I will not follow suit.  I encourage you to focus first on those who are nearest you:  your par-rents, siblings, children, friends – your community.  Wouldn’t it be ironic if, in your haste to conquer the world, you lost those closest to you?  Or in looking beyond the horizons, you fell down a mine shaft?

Several years ago, I had a conversation with a friend of mine who was an extraordinarily successful entrepreneur.  I was told by at least one person who knew him for many years that he was a legitimate billionaire.  He was, however, far too modest to say so himself.  He was a wonderful man – devoted husband and father.  When I last spoke to him, he was dying of cancer and the inevitability of imminent death colored his every word.  His words were heavy with finality.  “Clarance,” he said, “I wish I had spent more time with my family.”  After all his achievements, all the deals, all the money, in the end, it was something that we all have that he needed and wanted most:  family.

I am married to the most wonderful human being in the world.  In our wedding vows, we declared that we would stay together in marriage “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health.”  The easy part of this vow is “for better” and “in health”.  The hard part is “for worse” and “in sickness”.  I read somewhere that when all is going well, your friends know you, but when things are going badly, you know your friends.  It is really interesting that when the chips are down, when all seems lost, one turns to family and friends – those who care about your for better or for worse.

In my twenties and early thirties, my friends and I read books with rather interesting titles – Winning Through Intimidation, Dress For Success, How to be Assertive.  These titles my not be quite accurate, but they are close enough to serve my purposes.  Generally, we thought we could conquer the world if armed with enough energy, intellect, and “how-to” books.  As the years passed, I have watched our interests and conversations turn to the permanent things:  family, friends, religion, neighborhood – the very things that we had ridiculed and rejected in the sixties.  But a steady diet of temporary friends, fleeting fads, and moral relativism seemed ultimately to be chaotic and unsatisfying.  It becomes clear over time that there is far more to life than material wealth or blind ambition.  There is far more to building a neighborhood than erecting housing.  It is unfortunate that so many must wait until the end of life’s journey to learn that lesson.  My grandfather used to say that “Hard times make monkeys eat cayenne pepper.”  That may be true, but hard times also make you realize what is really important in life.

I applaud you for your achievements.  I share your excitement and your hopes.  I encourage you to hold on to your ideals and your values.  I implore you as you build your careers not to do so without your family and your friends.  I charge you to remember that you live not unto yourself, but as a part of a nation, a community, a family from which you have drawn sustenance and to which you must return the nutrients that the next generation will need to grow, as you have.

Before I return down my road, back to my future, and my world of judging, I leave you with the words of Sir Winston Churchill, who stood against evil when others either didn’t care or cowered:

History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days.  What is the world of all this?  The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions.  It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates play, we march in the ranks of honor.[2]

Judge, United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit.  A.B., College of the Holy Cross, 1971; J.D., Yale University, 1974.  In June of 1991, President Bush nominated Judge Thomas to replace retiring Justice Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court.  The Senate confirmed Judge Thomas’s nomination on October 16, 1991.

Judge Thomas was selected by the Class of 1991 to speak at the College of Law Commencement, held on May 19, 1991.  Footnotes have been supplies.

[1]  James B. Conant, Educations in a Divided World 179 (1948).

[2]  Winston Churchill, speech to the House of Commons, (Nov. 2, 1940) in tribute to Neville Chamberlain, in Blood, Tears and Sweat:  The Speeches of Winston Churchill (David Cannadine ed. 1989).

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