Clarence Thomas' story is the real American Dream


Every father should read this book to his son.

If Clarence Thomas were a liberal, he'd be widely regarded as an American hero.

The Supreme Court associate justice's new memoir, My Grandfather's Son, is mostly a story about fatherhood and the making of his character. It's a tale so profoundly moving, and so profoundly true to this nation's ideals, that every American father ought to read the first two chapters — and then read them aloud to his children. Here is an inheritance of wisdom, a pearl of great price passed from a semi-literate peasant through his grandson, who lifted himself with it out of the direst poverty and became one of the world's most powerful men.

Clarence Thomas was gutbucket poor, beginning his life in rural Pinpoint, Ga., in a shack without running water. Even so, it was a mansion compared with the Savannah tenement into which his mother later moved with him and his brother.

"The only running water in our building was downstairs in the kitchen, where several layers of old linoleum were all that separated us from the ground," Justice Thomas writes. "The toilet was outdoors in the muddy back yard. The metal bowl was cracked and rusty and the wooden seat was rotten. I'll never forget the sickening stench of the raw sewage that seeped and sometimes poured from the broken sewer line."

There wasn't room for 6-year-old Clarence in the room's one bed, so he slept in a chair. He was constantly cold and hungry that winter of 1955. One day, the boys' mother scooped them up, stuffed their belongings into two grocery bags and delivered them to her parents, Myers and Christine Anderson, to raise. And that would be the making of Clarence Thomas.

Myers — Clarence called him "Daddy" — was a laborer who'd built a small business delivering fuel oil. He and "Aunt Tina" lived in an exceedingly modest but orderly house in a rough neighborhood — a haven of comfort and stability to the Thomas boys. Daddy was a rigorous, unsentimental man who believed in God, work, discipline and education, not necessarily in that order. He laid down the law for his grandsons and explained "that there was a connection between what he provided for us and what he required of us."

That is, the ascetic life Daddy provided for his grandsons was not suffering imposed for its own sake, but a series of life lessons that would enable them to escape the poverty, drunkenness and moral disorder they saw all around them. Daddy rode the boys hard, putting them through Catholic school, keeping them from bad influences and driving them through a punishing work regimen on the family farm. "For me," writes Justice Thomas, "it was a place of torment — and salvation."

Daddy knew a man couldn't count on anyone but himself. And he knew the odds were stacked so high against a poor black boy in the Jim Crow South that the only way those children stood a chance was to master their passions and acquire the knowledge and work ethic with which to better themselves.

Salvation? Daddy knew a man couldn't count on anyone but himself. And he knew the odds were stacked so high against a poor black boy in the Jim Crow South that the only way those children stood a chance was to master their passions and acquire the knowledge and work ethic with which to better themselves. Years later, after having a son of his own, Justice Thomas finally came to understand the great gift he'd been given: "I had been raised by the greatest man I have ever known."

Later in his memoir, Justice Thomas says his views on affirmative action, which have earned him such contempt from the black establishment, are nothing more than a product of Daddy's uncompromising vision, which the justice fiercely defends as the only morally respectable path to individual betterment. Few people — black or otherwise — want to hear that these days. But all of us desperately need to.

Myers Anderson was first and foremost a man. Not a punk, a loafer, a sponger or a whiner, but a man who took care of business. And that included accepting responsibility for children. The black illegitimacy rate is catastrophic, with all the individual and social dysfunction that entails. The Hispanic rate of out-of-wedlock births is even higher, and one out of every three white babies in America comes into this world without a traditional father. Men today are forgetting how to be men, turning instead to cowardly self-indulgence.

Yet Clarence Thomas, who for all his self-acknowledged faults comes bearing hard-earned, prophetic insight into how to resist the disorders of the age, is despised by the elites, particularly of his own race. That's beyond tragic.

I did read the first chapter of My Grandfather's Son to my oldest boy. I told him that his Pawpaw, my father, also grew up in Depression-era rural poverty in the Deep South. Having pulled himself into the middle class with callused hands, Pawpaw despises men today who, in his familiar phrase, "expect the world to be handed to them." This book, I told my son, is in a small but important way your family's story too.

We're losing tough country men like the fathers who raised Clarence Thomas and me. It is a comfort, though, to know that Myers Anderson's greatest legacy sits on the Supreme Court and will for a long time — whether Jesse Jackson or The New York Times editorial board likes it or not.


Rod Dreher. "Clarence Thomas' story is the real American Dream." The Dallas Morning News (October 14, 2007).

Reprinted with permission of Rod Dreher and The Dallas Morning News. This permission does not constitute an endorsement for any product or service.


Rod Dreher is assistant editorial page editor and columnist for The Dallas Morning News. He is the author of Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, and their diverse tribe of countercultural conservatives plant to save America (or at least the Republican Party).

Copyright © 2007The Dallas Morning News

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