Jus­tice Thomas’s Life A Tangle of Poverty, Priv­i­lege and Race

The Washington Post Sunday - - Front Page - By Kevin Merida and Michael A. Fletcher

Drugs have been a per­sis­tent prob­lem in Pin Point, Ga., a tiny ru­ral set­tle­ment best known as the birth­place of Supreme Court Jus­tice Clarence Thomas. Neigh­bor­hood lead­ers tried ev­ery­thing to chase the scourge away — a march, a warn­ing sign along the main drag, even a pil­grim­age by the lo­cal church con­gre­ga­tion, which prayed for and sang hymns to the deal­ers one Sun­day morn­ing.

“The guys who were on the cor­ner just walked away,” said Bishop Thomas J. Sills, the pas­tor at Sweet Field of Eden Bap­tist Church. But they didn’t stay gone.

One of the lo­cal deal­ers was Clarence Thomas’s nephew. Un­til his 30-year prison sen­tence be­gan in 1999, Mark El­liot Mar- Clarence Thomas’s re­la­tion­ship with his home town, and even his fam­ily, is brit­tle and fraught. tin, the son of Thomas’s sis­ter, had been part of Pin Point’s drug prob­lem. He had been in

Adapted from the book “Supreme Dis­com­fort: The Di­vided Soul of Clarence Thomas” by Kevin Merida and Michael A. Fletcher, Dou­ble­day, New York, © 2007.

and out of trou­ble, and in and out of jail — at least 12 ar­rests, ac­cord­ing to court records. In 1997, the year Martin was con­victed of point­ing a pis­tol at an­other per­son, Thomas as­sumed cus­tody of his nephew’s son, with the nephew’s per­mis­sion. Mark El­liot Martin Jr. — “Marky,” they called him — was a pre­co­cious, curly-haired 6-year-old. The jus­tice promised to give Mark what Thomas’s grand­fa­ther had given him at the same age — op­por­tu­ni­ties to suc­ceed be­yond what the boy had in Pin Point.

Thomas’s in­ter­ven­tion in this fam­ily cri­sis re­flects a side of him not widely known. As ar­guably the most pow­er­ful African Amer­i­can in public life, he labors un­der ex­pec­ta­tions that none of his fel­low jus­tices face. Even as Thomas goes about his work, per­haps the purest con­ser­va­tive on the high court, it is his racial iden­tity that shad­ows him. For 16 years, there have been ques­tions: Would he be on the court if he were not black? Would his si­lence at oral ar­gu­ments cast doubt on his in­tel­lect if he were not black? Would he be the sub­ject of such public scru­tiny if he were not a black con­ser­va­tive?

Ever since Thomas re­placed Thur­good Mar­shall in 1991, many have strug­gled to rec­on­cile who he is to­day with where he be­gan — as the Jim Crow-era child of de­pri­va­tion in Pin Point, a boy whose fam­ily in­su­lated its shack with news­pa­pers and shared an out­house with neigh­bors.

Ke­tanji Brown Jack­son, a for­mer clerk for Jus­tice Stephen G. Breyer, re­mem­bers sit­ting across from Thomas at lunch once with a quizzi­cal ex­pres­sion on her face. Jack­son, who is black, said Thomas “spoke the lan­guage,” mean­ing he re­minded her of the black men she knew. “But I just sat there the whole time think­ing: ‘I don’t un­der­stand you. You sound like my par­ents. You sound like the peo­ple I grew up with.’ But the lessons he tended to draw from the ex­pe­ri­ences of the seg­re­gated South seemed to be dif­fer­ent than those of every­body I know.”

For Thomas, those ex­pe­ri­ences be­gin in Pin Point with a fam­ily that has faced so­ci­ety’s most dif­fi­cult so­cial chal­lenges: poverty, il­lit­er­acy, di­vorce, child aban­don­ment, drugs, crime, im­pris­on­ment. At times, Thomas has found these prob­lems al­most too much to bear. This ac­count is based on in­ter­views with friends, fam­ily mem­bers and ac­quain­tances of Thomas, as well as court records in Ge­or­gia. The jus­tice turned down re­peated re­quests for an in­ter­view.

When he be­gan rais­ing Mark — Thomas has one adult son from a pre­vi­ous mar­riage — he al­tered his Supreme Court sched­ule. He sent Mark to pri­vate schools, gave him extra home­work to im­prove his math and reading, taught him to drib­ble with his left hand. And Mark re­sponded. He ex­celled in school, be­came a Harry Pot­ter fan and took up golf, and as a teenager he is com­fort­able around some of the most bril­liant le­gal minds in the coun­try.

A Blow to the Fam­ily

Mark’s fa­ther was an­other story. Thomas had tried des­per­ately to reach him, with­out success. Though Martin was good with his hands and worked for a time re­pair­ing piers at a ma­rina near Pin Point, he in­jured him­self and lost that job. And be­cause he was il­lit­er­ate, ac­cord­ing to his at­tor­ney, he had lit­tle means of sup­port­ing him­self. He was on pro­ba­tion and out of work when his luck turned worse.

On Aug. 19, 1998, 13 suspects — all from Pin Point or nearby Sand­fly — were ar­rested by au­thor­i­ties in a 6 a.m. raid and charged with con­spir­acy to dis­trib­ute crack co­caine. More war­rants and ar­rests fol­lowed. And soon ev­ery­one in Pin Point had an im­me­di­ate fam­ily mem­ber, dis­tant cousin or close friend brought down by “Op­er­a­tion Pin Drop,” as the 20-month un­der­cover drug in­ves­ti­ga­tion was called.

Martin was con­victed of sell­ing 17.2 grams of co­caine to a gov­ern­ment in­for­mant in two transactions. The in­for­mant turned out to be Martin’s own cousin, Ru­fus An­der­son, a re­cov­er­ing crack ad­dict who was a key fig­ure in the sting. Martin’s de­fense was en­trap­ment. The ar­rests di­vided the com­mu­nity and cre­ated lin­ger­ing ten­sion within Thomas’s fam­ily about the im­pact of the jus­tice’s le­gal de­ci­sions on poor African Amer­i­cans like his nephew.

When the drug bust went down, Thomas was so dis­ap­pointed that he of­fered no le­gal ad­vice, no pep talk, noth­ing. Thomas’s mother said he had tried in vain to help his nephew many times. “ ‘Mark, please, you got them pretty lit­tle kids. Please,’ ” she re­called her son plead­ing. But Thomas couldn’t get through, and now he re­ally was through.

This time, Un­cle Clarence just kept his dis­tance. And his sis­ter, Emma Mae Martin, didn’t say a word, “just left it alone,” as she put it. She didn’t even ask her well­con­nected brother for help. “Nope, nope, no, no,” she said em­phat­i­cally, sig­nal­ing the strain in their re­la­tion­ship. “He didn’t want to get in­volved any­way,” she added.

Reached at the Fed­eral Cor­rec­tional In­sti­tu­tion in Coleman, Fla., Mark Martin was do­ing the kind of long, dif­fi­cult stretch that saps one’s spirit. “Down here it’s hard,” he said in a tele­phone in­ter­view. “Any given day you can die.” He has since been trans­ferred to a fed­eral prison in South Carolina.

And be­ing Clarence Thomas’s nephew has no ben­e­fits in prison. “I try to avoid let­ting peo­ple know who he is to me be­cause they might want to do some­thing to me be­cause of him,” Martin said.

Thomas is not pop­u­lar among the other in­mates, the nephew em­pha­sized. Most con­sider the jus­tice a sell­out, be­liev­ing that a black ju­rist should not sup­port dra­co­nian penal­ties but should ques­tion why the na­tion’s drug laws hit low-level deal­ers and African Amer­i­cans dis­pro­por­tion­ately hard. On the court, Thomas has largely backed the gov­ern­ment’s po­si­tion on drug crimes and in­car­cer­a­tion, in­clud­ing on ques­tions of in­mate prop­erty for­fei­ture, vis­i­ta­tion rights and max­i­mum sen­tences for re­peat of­fend­ers.

“They al­ways ask­ing, ‘Why he ain’t got you out of this stuff?’ ” said Martin. “They say he could help change the law and he doesn’t.” Not long ago, Martin de­cided to try to help him­self. He fig­ured he’d study up on the law, so he asked his un­cle if he would mind send­ing him some law texts. “He said he would try to get some books to me as soon as he can.”

Ties to His Home Town

Pin Point, pop­u­la­tion 275, is just seven-tenths of a mile from one end to the other. But get­ting your mind around it takes some time. It was once a plan­ta­tion site, carved up and sold to blacks in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Many of the orig­i­nal lots are held by the heirs of the for­mer slaves who bought the parcels more than a cen­tury ago.

This is where Clarence Thomas was born twice — phys­i­cally on June 23, 1948, as the sec­ond child of M.C. and Le­ola Thomas, then sym­bol­i­cally in the sum­mer of 1991 as the hum­ble young judge who rose from poverty and was tapped by Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush as the sec­ond African Amer­i­can nom­i­nated to the Supreme Court. This turned Thomas into an em­blem of Amer­ica’s racial progress and made Pin Point a fa­bled cor­ner of the South.

But the truth is that Thomas’s rise was never an­chored in Pin Point, as White House ad­vis­ers led the public to be­lieve. His fam­ily’s house had burned down when he was 6, and for most of his young life he was raised com­fort­ably in Sa­van­nah by his grand­fa­ther My­ers An­der­son, one of the black com­mu­nity’s lead­ing busi­ness­men.

When Thomas does re­turn to Pin Point now, he comes qui­etly and leaves quickly. He is not a fre­quent vis­i­tor. Some res­i­dents note he missed Pin Point’s last two sum­mer reunions, in 2000 and 2004. Thomas’s sis­ter says her brother has never even been in­side her home. “No, I don’t think so,” Martin said.

Pin Point is beau­ti­ful, in a sleepy, an­te­bel­lum way — the tall oaks draped with Span­ish moss, the gen­tle sum­mer breezes. The com­mu­nity’s valu­able wa­ter­front prop­erty looks out on Ship­yard Creek, where commercial crab­bers still ply their trade and high tides over­take the marsh in the mid­dle of the day. Just be­yond the creek and the marsh is Moon River, named for Johnny Mercer’s 1961 bal­lad.

“This is par­adise here,” said Abe Fam­ble, Thomas’s clos­est childhood friend.

But Pin Point is not just quaint; it’s also tragic. Eighty per­cent of its in­hab­i­tants live be­low the poverty line. The lone church, which Thomas’s mother at­tends, is next to a ceme­tery where the weeds are of­ten taller than the head­stones. The one busi­ness in Pin Point — A.S. Varn and Son’s oys­ter and crab com­pany — shut down in 1985. This was where gen­er­a­tions of Pin Point res­i­dents, in­clud­ing most of Thomas’s fam­ily, picked crabs and earned 5 cents a pound. To­day, Pin Point claims a U.S. Supreme Court jus­tice as its most noted son but can’t muster enough po­lit­i­cal clout, or where­withal, to get a his­tor­i­cal marker cel­e­brat­ing this fact.

Some long-timers fear that wealthy de­vel­op­ers will con­vert Pin Point into a mini Hil­ton Head and that it will soon lose its soul and char­ac­ter. With the com­mu­nity ag­ing, some have asked, how long can peo­ple hold on to their prop­er­ties? “If ever there was a time to stick to­gether, it’s now,” said Charles Har­ris, pres­i­dent of the Pin Point Bet­ter­ment As­so­ci­a­tion. He only wishes Thomas would take more of an active in­ter­est in his birth­place. “It looks like to me a per­son of his sta­tus could tell us some­thing or give us some ad­vice on how to save it.”

Sure, Sills says, the jus­tice’s ad­vice and con­tacts could help the qual­ity of life in Pin Point. But the pas­tor thinks that too much is ex­pected of Thomas. “I think if our peo­ple took more time to en­cour­age him,” ad­mon­ished Sills, “he’d do more.”

Pin Point Comes to Thomas

Thomas main­tains a dis­tant but emo­tional at­tach­ment to his home town. He is al­ways cu­ri­ous. Some­times he will ask his old friends about Pin Point’s youths. Why are so many of them throw­ing their lives away? He’ll talk about the need to sit with some of the se­nior cit­i­zens be­fore their per­spec­tives on history are lost. Each sum­mer, his cu­rios­ity is stoked fur­ther when a slice of Pin Point comes to him.

Fam­ble and his wife, Odessa, rent a van and drive from Ge­or­gia to Fair­fax Sta­tion to visit the Thomases. They bring with them Thomas’s mother and step­fa­ther, who live in Sa­van­nah, Thomas’s cousin Isaac Martin, and usu­ally the jus­tice’s sis­ter. They spend a week re­lax­ing and rem­i­nisc­ing. They bar­be­cue on his deck, drop in at the Supreme Court’s gift shop, stay up late play­ing cards in the kitchen (“I De­clare War”). They go to the out­let malls. They take day trips: One sum­mer it was Lu­ray Cav­erns, a pop­u­lar tourist at­trac­tion in Vir­ginia’s Shenan­doah Val­ley; an­other year it was Get­tys­burg, Pa., where they toured the Civil War bat­tle site.

“When we get there,” ob­serves Fam­ble, “he lets the whole world go and deals with us.”

And there is a lot to let go. Some who have vis­ited Thomas in his cham­bers at the court have no­ticed how much he broods — about the slights of his childhood, the teas­ing he ab­sorbed over his dark skin, the racism he en­coun­tered in sem­i­nary, the re­jec­tions he faced com­ing out of law school. Strug­gle is a theme he re­turns to again and again, even in public ap­pear­ances.

Dur­ing a visit once to the Vir­ginia Home for Boys & Girls, he en­coun­tered a hy­per­ac­tive boy who had trou­ble con­cen­trat­ing. He had never sat still longer than 15 min­utes, he told Thomas. “It’s hard in school,” the boy said. “I know it,” Thomas replied, “but it’s hard for me.”

Re­con­nect­ing With Fam­ily

Thomas hails from a fam­ily in which he has no peers — no one ed­u­cated at a lead­ing uni­ver­sity, no one who eats out at four-star steak­houses, no one who trav­els to Italy to lec­ture or com­mands $1.5 mil­lion for a mem­oir. Given a gen­er­ous boost from his grand­par­ents, Thomas flour­ished. The am­biva­lence — at times, per­haps shame — he felt about some mem­bers of his fam­ily has been hard to shake.

Emma Mae Martin, who was once pub­licly sin­gled out by her brother as an ex­am­ple of the de­bil­i­tat­ing ef­fects of wel­fare de­pen­dency, is a high school dropout who later earned her diploma in night school as an adult. She and her brother don’t talk pol­i­tics or law or phi­los­o­phy. Their con­ver­sa­tions tend to be about, “well, not much re­ally,” Martin said. “Find out how I’m do­ing, what I’m up to, that’s about it.”

She lives her life and lets him be. “He’s supposed to be a judge,” she said, “but you can’t judge any­body un­less you judge your­self. I’ve never judged any­body, but peo­ple judge me all the time.”

For many years, Thomas and his mother were not close, either. Her fa­vorite son was My­ers Thomas, Clarence’s younger brother, who died in 2000 of a heart at­tack suf­fered dur­ing a morn­ing jog. “My­ers was the kind­est-hearted one,” she said. He called of­ten, came to visit when she was lonely, took her for rides. “I had more deal­ing with My­ers,” she ex­plained. “Me and My­ers were more re­ally open and close to­gether.”

Though Thomas had not al­ways thought the best of his mother as a par­ent, when My­ers died sud­denly, it tore him apart and caused him to re­ex­am­ine the life he was lead­ing. “When my brother died,” Thomas said later, “it showed me the other per­spec­tive, that not only do we do things in our pro­fes­sional life, but there is the fam­ily side of life — the things that re­ally mat­ter.”

He knew what My­ers had meant to his mother, and grad­u­ally Thomas stepped into the role his brother had played.

In one par­tic­u­larly poignant mo­ment for Le­ola Williams, the name she took af­ter her fourth mar­riage, to David Williams in 1983, Thomas read­ied his mother for some­thing he had long in­tended to tell her. “And I’m just sit­ting up, now I want to hear what it is,” she re­counted. And Thomas told her: “I just want to let you know that I love you. Hadn’t been for you, I wouldn’t have been here to­day. Hadn’t been for you hav­ing me, I wouldn’t be where I am to­day. So I give it all to you.”

Dur­ing sum­mer, af­ter the court has ad­journed, Thomas loves noth­ing more than to be be­hind the wheel of his 40-foot mo­tor home, tool­ing down the open road with his wife, Ginni, and his great-nephew Mark — and a slice of Pin Point in tow. Grow­ing up, he had never ven­tured be­yond three coun­ties in Ge­or­gia. Now, the ex­pe­ri­ence has be­come es­sen­tial to his hap­pi­ness.

As Thomas once put it: “It al­lows me a sense of free­dom.”



When Supreme Court Jus­tice Clarence Thomas’s nephew was caught sell­ing crack, Thomas’s sis­ter, Emma Mae Martin, did not call on Thomas for le­gal ad­vice or fa­vors. Their re­la­tion­ship was strained enough. She “just left it alone,” she said, adding: “He didn’t want to get in­volved any­way.”


Clarence Thomas watched as pall­bear­ers car­ried for­mer chief jus­tice Wil­liam H. Rehn­quist’s cas­ket. Thomas, the only black Supreme Court jus­tice, is a com­pli­cated fig­ure for many African Amer­i­cans be­cause of his pol­i­tics, as con­ser­va­tive as Rehn­quist’s.

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