My Grandfather's Son
A Memoir
by Clarence Thomas

HarperCollins: New York, 2007

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson
289 pages October 2011


Clarence Thomas' memoir, My Grandfather's Son, omits some topics we reasonably might expect: Constitutional issues, except in passing while recounting his life story; and cases he helped judge as a Supreme Court Justice, since the book ends with his swearing-in after his hard-won confirmation to the Court. What it does include, as we may gather from the title, is his values-laden upbringing by his stern grandfather, Myers Anderson. There is a lot about Thomas' family over the years 1948-1991, the aspects that went well or poorly or missing altogether. Family, faith, and education permeate the memoir.

Thomas describes his early childhood in Pinpoint, Georgia, as "idyllic". Certainly it was cash-poor, but kids led a happy life. This struck a chord with me, since I fondly remember as a boy walking out my door to wander Oregon fields and woods, and riding my bicycle to either side of Eugene; often by myself. City kids get something different; with black poor segregated kids something much worse, as Thomas and his brother abruptly found when they had to move to Savannah:

Overnight I moved from the comparative safety and cleanliness of rural poverty to the foulest kind of urban squalor.

It was against this destructive environment that Myers Anderson was determined to strengthen Clarence Thomas and his brother. He applied strict rules of ethics and behavior, had the kids help with his delivery business, sent them to a Catholic school that applied quality educational standards to everyone. It was not just an oasis of safety that his grandfather provided, but the inner strength that true values build into one's character.

There are vivid and often sharp descriptions of Thomas' later educational institutions, up through Yale Law School. Then, into the work force as a young lawyer, the most important connection he made was with Attorney General Jack Danforth of Missouri, who gave him his first job in the legal profession. Later, as a U.S. Senator, Danforth backed Thomas decisively all the way through the Supreme Court confirmation fight.

Thomas writes about his jobs as the executive running the Office of Civil Rights and later the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). He probably is too modest here. For much more detail, as well as the reasons why so many praised his job performance, see Clarence Thomas: A Biography, by Andrew Peyton Thomas.

He talks about race and racism, sometimes bitterly. Sometimes he surprises us with where or how indirectly racism attempted to besmirch him. And finally, with restraint, he describes the Supreme Court nomination and the ensuing Senate hearings.

My Grandfather's Son is an eminently readable book, and thoughtful readers will notice many of the strands that went into the making of a truly Constitutional jurist. The fundamental lesson Clarence Thomas wants us to take away, is less his ongoing visible journey with family, education, and career, than the values his grandfather instilled in him, and how he struggled to hold that standard. It's an American story.


© 2011 Robert Wilfred Franson

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