Friday, July 3, 2009

Clarence Thomas Speaks at Quince Orchard H.S. Graduation

By: Angie Powell
HS129, Summer 1 2009

On June 1, 2009 I had the pleasure of hearing Justice Clarence Thomas speak at Quince Orchard High school’s graduation. When I went up on stage to receive my diploma, I, along with all my classmates, got the privilege of shaking this man’s hand. Justice Clarence Thomas was the keynote speaker at my graduation at Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. He left my peers and me with interesting and motivational words to help us in the future. After hearing what he had to say, I was interested in finding out more about this man and this gave me an opportunity to research Justice Thomas in detail. Also, the convenience that Justice Thomas was at my high school graduation also motivated me to write this post about him.
The surprised reactions and concerns that swarmed through the halls of my school when everyone found out that Thomas would be speaking at graduation were insane. Before everything, I didn’t even know who Thomas was. I was clueless. Even with no knowledge of this man, and I still felt honored that a Supreme Court Justice would take time out of his busy schedule to come talk at Quince Orchard High’s graduation. Walking from class to class, I overheard multiple opinions about Thomas. Some classmates reacted positively and were really excited the Quince Orchard managed to get a Supreme Court Justice. Others however didn’t react so positively.

The controversy that has gone on throughout Thomas’s life concerning sexual harassment charges took a toll on some of my classmates. One classmate in particular actually threatened a strike or to stand up and turn their back while Thomas was speaking. The principal of my High school, Carole Working, warned this student that they wouldn’t be able to receive their diploma if they disrespected the speaker. She couldn’t stop her from a strike since it would violate the first amendment but the strike never happened. In reaction to this classmate’s threats about what she would do at graduation, many believed she would ruin it. I remember hearing someone say “I know she has a right to free speech and everything, but she still shouldn’t ruin this day for everyone else.”

The controversy about Thomas heightened so much that I spent an entire period, 45 minutes, in my Advanced Placement Environmental Science Class discussing what graduation would be like and what our one classmate might do that may ruin it for many if not everyone. One person who took part in that discussion was Stanford bound football player and my classmate, Terrence Stephens. Stephens along with another football player and classmate Jason Ankrah were the reason for Thomas speaking at graduation.

Ankrah and Stephens were on a flight back from Nebraska where they were being recruited for football when they met Thomas. They sat in coach, and Thomas surprisingly did to. Terrence told my environmental class during our discussion that he had no idea who Thomas was when he approached him and Ankrah on the plane. Thomas asked them if they were the football players from Quince Orchard named Terrence Stephens and Jason Ankrah. Not knowing who he was, Ankrah and Stephens were terrified. After a little conversation, they found out he was Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. During conversation, Stephens brought up the issue of not having a keynote speaker for graduation at that time. Thomas agreed that he would speak and one of his reasons for being at Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall on June 1st was because of Ankrah and Stephens.

When Thomas got up to speak, no one knew what to expect. He talked about perseverance through adversity, overcoming obstacles to capture your dream, and his life. His speech was heartfelt and I feel as if everyone took something from his words. Whether it was being inspired or just learning about Thomas’s life, I am sure that everyone will remember the day when Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas spoke at Quince Orchard High School’s graduation on June 1st, 2009 and received a standing ovation.

Hours before Thomas entered Constitution Hall in Washington D.C., some men from secret service swept through the Hall swabbing for gun powder and maybe even anthrax, one of my friends told me. They had earpieces in their ear and were stationed throughout the hall when Thomas arrived until he left. I am not sure about how he arrived or left, but he made a lasting impact on everyone in Constitution Hall that day, even my classmate who threatened to strike.

Clarence Thomas was born on June 23, 1948 in a small, impoverished African American community in Pinpoint, Georgia. It was settled by freed West African slaves known as Gullahs (Kroft). His family descended from slaves in the South. Thomas’ father left his family when Thomas was only two and when he was seven, he and his younger brother moved in with their Grandfather. When Thomas was ten, he began to work on the fields that his grandfather owned from sunrise to sunset. He was what CBS news called a “field hand.”

Thomas was the only African American at his high school and at the age of sixteen, since his Grandfather was Catholic, he considered entering the priesthood. He attended St. John Vianney’s Minor Seminary on the Isle of Hope. After that, he attended the Conception Seminary College which was a Roman Catholic seminary in Missouri. He left the church due to a racist comment from one of his classmates about the shooting of Martin Luther King Jr. A nun from the seminary suggested going to the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. There, he founded the Black Union in the school and he received multiple deferments from the military draft. Many young African American men received deferments to enter the Vietnam War, like Thomas. He ended up avoiding the draft due to curvature of the spine, and he went on into the study of law (The Oyez Project).

In 1971, Clarence Thomas graduated High school with a cum laude in English literature and went on to Yale Law School. In 1974 he earned a Juris Doctor degree and graduated towards the middle of his class. Between 1974 and 1977, he was appointed and served as the Assistant Attorney General in Missouri under John Danforth (Cornell). In 1977 to 1979, he became an attorney with a lawyer named Monsanto in St. Louis, Missouri.

In 1979 Thomas moved to Washington D.C. where he again worked under John Danforth, this time as a legislative assistant. In 1981 he joined the Reagan administration and was then appointed Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education until 1982. In 1982 Thomas became chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission which he served for eight years.

In June of 1989 he was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. He took the oath of office on March 12, 1990 and lasting until October 1991, Clarence Thomas served on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. When news came about concerning the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, President Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to take his place. Thomas took the oath of office in October 23, 1991 and to this day he remains one of the Supreme Court Justices in the country (Cornell).

However, Thomas’s journey to get to office is complicated and filled with controversy. When Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall announced his retirement, Bush decided to nominate Thomas. Many opposed this nomination especially minority groups who opposed Thomas’s views on civil rights. Before Senate voted to appoint Thomas, he had to go through questioning from the Democrat-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee.

What delayed his appointment was a last-minute witness named Anita Hill. She accused Thomas of sexual misconduct when she worked for him. Many were appalled and surprised about the accusation put on Thomas by Hill but the Committee was not able to find convincing proof that the allegations were true. Senate voted 52 to 48 to confirm Thomas’s nomination to the High Court. Even though nothing was proven, the accusation split black community’s views over Thomas’s nomination but nevertheless he became a Supreme Court Justice. To this day, people still believe that Thomas was involved with sexual harassment shown by the reactions of some of my classmates, but nothing has been proven (The Oyez Project).

The treatment of blacks throughout the country has improved since the pre Civil War era, but it still lacks in some respects because of expectations of some people. In a CBS interview, Thomas states that people think that because he is black, he must think a certain way. He told the interviewer, "I'm black. So I'm supposed to think a certain way. I'm supposed to have certain opinions.” He states that some people to this day still make judgments based on what you look like. This statement proves that racism is still exists today. Even though racism still is present in our society, future historians should note the change between now and back then. Back then, African Americans were thought of as an inferior race but now they are acknowledged as human beings that deserve the same treatment as whites, even if they may not receive it.

Throughout Clarence Thomas’ life, he has overcome adversity and has accomplished so many things that no one would have ever thought possible. From working on his grandfather’s fields like a slave to becoming one of the most influential and important men in the country, Clarence Thomas has proved most of the society wrong. After a trivial case based on allegations of sexual harassment by his subordinate, Thomas was still appointed as one of the Supreme Court Justices (Kroft). Clarence Thomas stands as the second African American to serve as a Supreme Court Justice, an accomplished and successful black man, and someone that everyone should know. He is the epitome of the Marty McFly’s statement, “if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.”

Works Cited:
"'If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything' - Marty McFly."Muze Clothing Blog. Muze. 06 June 2009 .

"Clarence Thomas." The Oyez Project. 06 June 2009 .

Kroft, Steve. "Clarence Thomas: The Justice Nobody Knows - CBS News." CBS News - Breaking News Headlines: Business, Entertainment & World News. 30 Sept. 2007. 06 June 2009 .

"LII: US Supreme Court: Justice Thomas." Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School. 06 June 2009 .

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