Bat­tle rages as Thomas snubbed at African Amer­i­can mu­seum

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY BRADFORD RICHARDSON

Of the 112 jus­tices ap­pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court since its in­cep­tion, only two have been black — and the sec­ond one ap­par­ently isn’t worth con­sid­er­a­tion, as far as the new Na­tional Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory and Cul­ture is con­cerned.

The Smithsonian mu­seum still has “no plans” to in­clude in its ex­hi­bi­tions a ref­er­ence to Supreme Court Jus­tice Clarence Thomas, one of the high court’s con­ser­va­tive stal­warts who cel­e­brates his 25th an­niver­sary on the bench this year.

From his dirt-poor begin­nings in Pin Point, Ge­or­gia, where the fam­ily home had no in­door plumb­ing, to his Catholic school ed­u­ca­tion, Yale law de­gree and fed­eral judge­ship, Jus­tice Thomas’ life em­bod­ies his­tory as it spans the Jim Crow era, the civil rights move­ment, af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion and “post-racial” mod­ern times sig­naled by the elec­tion of Pres­i­dent Obama.

But lib­eral crit­ics have long dis­missed the black con­ser­va­tive ju­rist’s achieve­ments, ques­tioned his “au­thencity” and de­nied his in­flu­ence on the court.

John East­man, found­ing di­rec­tor of the Clare­mont In­sti­tute’s Cen­ter for Con­sti­tu­tional Jurispru­dence, says Jus­tice Thomas’ ex­clu­sion from the African-Amer­i­can mu­seum is part of a broader ef­fort to dis­ap­pear black conservatives who deign to think for them­selves.

“The per­sis­tent ef­forts to un­der­mine Jus­tice Thomas and his com­pelling body of jurispru­dence, and to ig­nore the spec­tac­u­lar Ho­ra­tio Al­ger story of his life, are part of a de­lib­er­ate strat­egy to si­lence a con­ser­va­tive voice from some­one who might serve as a trans­for­ma­tive role model in the African-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity in par­tic­u­lar, and the Amer­i­can com­mu­nity more broadly,” says Mr. East­man, a for­mer clerk for Jus­tice Thomas. “Sad, re­ally, that the tax­payer-fi­nanced in­sti­tu­tions of our own gov­ern­ment would join in such ef­forts.”

Con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans this week sought to rec­tify the sit­u­a­tion.

Texas Sen. John Cornyn in­tro­duced a res­o­lu­tion ask­ing the Smithsonian In­sti­tu­tion to rec­og­nize the “his­tor­i­cal im­por­tance” of Jus­tice Thomas. A cor­re­spond­ing ver­sion was in­tro­duced in the House by Ge­or­gia Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter and Texas Rep. Pete Ses­sions.

“I look for­ward to work­ing with my col­leagues in the Se­nate and the Smithsonian to hope­fully cor­rect this,” Mr. Cornyn said in a state­ment.

A Cornyn aide said the sen­a­tor’s of­fice has been in con­tact with the Smithsonian since the res­o­lu­tion was in­tro­duced.

Linda St. Thomas, chief spokes­woman for the Smithsonian, said the mu­seum still has “no plans” to in­clude a men­tion of Jus­tice Thomas in any of its ex­hi­bi­tions.

“We do not have plans to cre­ate an ex­hi­bi­tion on Jus­tice Clarence Thomas or any Supreme Court jus­tice as part of the mu­seum’s in­au­gu­ral ex­hi­bi­tions,” Ms. St. Thomas said. “The mu­seum’s ex­hi­bi­tions are based on themes, not in­di­vid­u­als.”

The 45-mem­ber Con­gres­sional Black Cau­cus — all Democrats — did not re­spond to sev­eral re­quests for com­ment.

The late Thur­good Mar­shall, the Supreme Court’s first black jus­tice, fig­ures in the mu­seum for his role as an at­tor­ney in the Brown v. Board of Ed­u­ca­tion of Topeka, the land­mark 1954 case that launched pub­lic school de­seg­re­ga­tion na­tion­wide. Mar­shall’s mem­ber­ship card from a black fra­ter­nity is also on dis­play, and the mu­seum’s on­line data­base shows three black-and-white pictures of the ju­rist.

A search for Clarence Thomas, who suc­ceeded Mar­shall on the high court, comes up empty.

‘An in­spir­ing story’

The mu­seum does men­tion one in­di­vid­ual tan­gen­tially re­lated to Jus­tice Thomas — in the form of a pin-back but­ton read­ing “I Believe Anita Hill.” Ms. Hill fa­mously ac­cused the ju­rist of sex­ual ha­rass­ment in his 1991 Se­nate con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing.

“The con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing for Clarence Thomas is part of ‘A Chang­ing America: 1968 and Be­yond,’ be­cause, as the la­bel states, it ‘pro­voked se­ri­ous de­bates on sex­ual ha­rass­ment, race loy­alty and gen­der roles,’” Ms. St. Thomas said.

In­deed, while the post-1968 ex­hi­bi­tion couldn’t find space to spare for Jus­tice Thomas, Anita Hill, the Black Pan­thers and the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment are well rep­re­sented.

“This sec­tion il­lus­trates the im­pact of African Amer­i­cans on life in the United States — so­cial, eco­nomic, po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural — from the death of Martin Luther King Jr. to the sec­ond elec­tion of Pres­i­dent Barack Obama,” the de­scrip­tion of the ex­hi­bi­tion reads. “Sub­jects in­clude the Black Arts Move­ment, hip-hop, the Black Pan­thers, the rise of the black mid­dle class and, more re­cently, the #Black­LivesMat­ter move­ment.”

Ron­ald D. Ro­tunda, a pro­fes­sor of jurispru­dence at Chap­man Univer­sity’s Dale E. Fowler School of Law, said Jus­tice Thomas is widely re­garded as one of the most in­flu­en­tial ju­rists the Supreme Court has ever seen.

“I have no idea why the Na­tional Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory and Cul­ture makes no men­tion of him,” Mr. Ro­tunda said. “Any ob­jec­tive telling of the his­tory of blacks in Amer­i­can could not ig­nore him, even if you do not agree with him on any­thing.”

Car­rie Sev­erino, chief coun­sel and pol­icy di­rec­tor at the Ju­di­cial Cri­sis Net­work, said the slight is ap­palling not only be­cause Jus­tice Thomas is one of the na­tion’s finest le­gal minds, but also be­cause his per­sonal story of over­com­ing poverty and op­pres­sion speaks to what is best in the Amer­i­can spirit.

“His story is re­ally that of the Amer­i­can dream,” said Ms. Sev­erino, a for­mer Thomas law clerk. “Aban­doned by his fa­ther at a young age, his mother wasn’t able to care for him. His grand­fa­ther was not a highly ed­u­cated man, but by the force of his char­ac­ter, he was able to raise Jus­tice Thomas and his brother with those kinds of values and char­ac­ter traits that made it pos­si­ble for them to rise out of poverty.”

She said the jus­tice’s story is one that mu­se­ums are built to tell.

“It would have been enough for him to be a suc­cess­ful col­lege grad­u­ate — that would have been his­tor­i­cal, to be the first in his fam­ily,” she said. “But to be not just a grad­u­ate from Yale Law School, but to be sit­ting on the Supreme Court of the United States, it’s just hard to imag­ine the dis­tance in his life that he trav­eled. It’s re­ally an in­spir­ing story.”

The Na­tional Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory and Cul­ture is the 19th to be built on the Na­tional Mall.

The strik­ing 397,000-square-foot struc­ture — not one square inch of which is ded­i­cated to Jus­tice Thomas — houses more than 37,000 ob­jects over 12 ex­hi­bi­tions, de­tail­ing the African-Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence from the fight to erad­i­cate slav­ery to the strug­gle to se­cure civil rights.

The mu­seum’s open­ing this Septem­ber was at­tended by the two most re­cent pres­i­dents and their fam­i­lies. In a touch­ing show of bi­par­ti­san­ship and na­tional unity, for­mer Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush and first lady Michelle Obama hugged on stage.

Ms. Sev­erino said the glar­ing omis­sion of Jus­tice Thomas spoils what should have been a na­tional cel­e­bra­tion.

“I think it shows a sig­nif­i­cant blind spot for the or­ga­niz­ers of the mu­seum,” Ms. Sev­erino said. “It’s an un­for­tu­nate one, be­cause both his per­sonal story and his in­cred­i­bly sig­nif­i­cant role in our gov­ern­ment was com­pletely over­looked.”


De­spite in­clud­ing Thur­good Mar­shall, the Supreme Court’s first black jus­tice, the Na­tional Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory and Cul­ture makes no men­tion of Jus­tice Clarence Thomas (top).

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