Justice Thomas's Life A Tangle of Poverty, Privilege and Race
The excerpts below appeared in The Washington Post on April 22, 2007.
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 Martin, the son of Thomas's sister, had been part of Pin Point's drug problem. He had been in 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 well-connected 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."