This month marks two historic occasions: the inauguration of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall and the 25th anniversary of the confirmation of Clarence Thomas as the second black Supreme Court justice. Ideally, the two historic moments should converge in a celebration of the journey of progress of African Americans up from slavery to their rightful place among the pantheon of American life and culture. But it’s obvious that won’t be the case.
The museum noticeably snubs Thomas, mentioning him only briefly within the context of a reference to his accuser, Anita Hill, another groundbreaking black lawyer. Hill appeared at Thomas’s 1991 confirmation hearings and reported lewd behavior directed toward her by the nominee, who was her boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission while Thomas chaired the agency. As those who fought in that battle recall, Hill’s allegations caused quite a media furor over Thomas’s fitness for the high court — a firestorm Thomas famously called a “high-tech lynching.”
The wounds of that bruising confirmation have apparently not completely healed during the intervening quarter-century. In chronicling the impressive strides black people have made since the civil rights movement, the museum covers the achievements of Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, and of course the historic election of Barack Obama. But for some reason, there is no direct reference to Thomas, whose compelling personal journey from humble roots in Pin Point, Ga., to the nation’s highest court helped to pave the way for many black Americans — including President Obama — who rose to power after him.
No matter your view of Thomas’s conservative politics, it is simply undeniable that his record of jurisprudence on the Supreme Court over the past 25 years makes him one of the most important black figures of the post-civil rights era. While Thomas has not presented himself as a “race” leader per se — he’s much like Obama in that regard — the very fact that he wields the quiet power of the court and helps to settle so many of the nation’s most contentious and complex legal controversies cements his place in African American history.
Thomas must be given his due. Like him or not — and personally I admire him very much — he has been a groundbreaking advocate of the textualist approach to constitutional interpretation, perhaps even exceeding the record of the late justice Antonin Scalia. He has meticulously sought to remove what he regards as barnacles that have attached themselves to American law over the years. One of the most notable examples was his 2005 dissent in Kelo v. City of New London, a case in which the majority stretched to extremes the plain meaning of the Constitution to affirm the power of a local government, in cahoots with private developers, to seize and demolish the homes of citizens — indeed an entire thriving neighborhood — to make way for a corporate office complex.
Thomas has authored many important opinions, but Kelo should stand out for African Americans because it was written in dissent. Moral dissent has been a hallmark of the contribution of African Americans to the American social fabric. The African American Museum serves as a testament and visible reminder of this tradition seen early on in the patriotism of Crispus Attucks (the first person to die in the American Revolution) and that courses through the dissenting voice of David Walker’s radical appeal against slavery in 1829, on to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and beyond. Thomas’s jurisprudence fits perfectly within the revolutionary African American tradition of speaking truth to power.
It is something of an irony, then, that Thomas was left out of the African American Museum because of what can only be his principled dissent from the political orthodoxy of today’s African American leadership. By erasing Thomas in this way, however, the curators of the museum have done a grave disservice to the legacy of the African American experience in this country. And by denying Thomas a rightful place among the pantheon of African American achievers and strivers, they also deny themselves the very legitimacy they are seeking by erecting a monument in the heart of the nation’s capital.