Be Heroes Not Victims, Thomas Tells UGA Grads
By ANDREA JONES
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas told University of Georgia Law School graduates to become heroes, not victims, in a commencement speech Saturday that touched on his own challenges as a young lawyer.
Thomas, the first Supreme Court justice to speak at UGA in 30 years, said that after graduating from Yale Law School in 1974, he faced an uphill battle finding work in the South.
"I was rejected by every law firm in Atlanta. . . . I watched my dream of going back to Savannah evaporate," he told the crowd gathered at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens. "It didn't seem to matter that I had tried so hard."
Thomas said he took the only job offered to him -- an assistant Missouri attorney general position in Jefferson City.
He urged the 230 graduates not to allow themselves to become victims -- despite the "trials and tribulations" they might face.
"Today as the fabric of society is saturated with complaint and protest, each of you has the opportunity to be a hero," he said. "Do what you know must be done."
While Thomas got a standing ovation inside the building, outside, a handful of students from the University of Michigan held up red signs protesting Thomas' appearance. The students, part of a youth action group for civil rights, are traveling around the country demonstrating at events where justices speak. The Supreme Court is still deliberating a decision in the university's landmark affirmative action case.
"We want them to know that we are holding them accountable," said Neal Lyons, 22.
Nearby, about 20 UGA students and faculty gathered at the student center to hear law professor Donald Wilkes deliver a counterspeech attacking Thomas' record on human rights, saying that his opinions on civil liberties and affirmative action were too extreme to allow him the honor of speaking at graduation.
Wilkes also complained that faculty and students were not involved in the decision to bring Thomas to UGA.
Despite the small protests, UGA Law School Dean David Shipley said the graduation ceremony "went off without a hitch."
"We had a completely normal turnout," he said.
Thomas, known as a quiet justice who rarely speaks or asks a question on the bench, was "very much the opposite" in person, Shipley said.
"He was just as outgoing and gracious as could be," Shipley said. "He was a wonderful guest."
Law school graduate Rebecca Wasserman, 27, said while some of her classmates were not thrilled with Thomas' selection as commencement speaker, she didn't have a problem with the choice.
"Whether or not you agree with his decisions, he is still a Supreme Court justice and this is an honor," the Decatur native said. "We're lawyers; we should get used to hearing different points of view."
Clarence Thomas Urges Graduates to Persevere
By Stephen Henderson
Knight Ridder Newspapers
ATHENS, Ga. - On the day he graduated from Yale Law School 29 years ago, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas remembers being so outwardly over-confident his grandfather thought he was a know-it-all.
But inside, Thomas told the University of Georgia Law School's graduating class Saturday, he was crushed.
Despite all his hard work and accomplishments, he had been rejected by every law firm in Atlanta. They didn't hire blacks. And his dream of working in the Savannah area, close to his home? It, too, had dissipated into a haze of rejection letters.
"No biographer can peer into your soul and really know what you're feeling at that moment," Thomas told the graduates. "No one can ever know the trials and tribulations, the loneliness, the swirl of emotions."
In a deeply personal speech delivered to a receptive, integrated audience, Thomas recalled the stinging discrimination he suffered as a young graduate - and what he did to overcome it - to inspire Georgia's future lawyers. He told them they should persevere through hardship and consider themselves "heroes" rather than "victims" who have no options.
"Twenty-nine years ago, I didn't think like that," said Thomas, who is one of the court's most conservative and controversial justices. "But 29 years from now, I implore you to be able to say you did your best."
Thomas was the first sitting Supreme Court justice in 30 years to deliver Georgia Law's commencement address, and the first Georgia-born justice to do it. Some law students and professors had objected to his selection, and two small protests were held on campus while he spoke, one focused on his well-known opposition to affirmative action.
Thomas' speech avoided direct mention of hot-button issues, producing instead a revealing look at the underpinnings for his views. Thomas said he took a job in the Missouri attorney general's office after being universally rejected in Georgia, and that his boss at the time tried to encourage him. "There's plenty of room at the top," Thomas recalled him saying.
"Easy for him to say," Thomas said. "He was white. I was black."
But Thomas used that opportunity as a stepping stone, rising to eventually become a legislative aide to a Missouri senator, head of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal appeals court judge and, finally, supreme court justice. He said he still has the pile of rejection letters from 1974.
Thomas said he takes his cues from his own heroes, the family and friends who raised him in Pinpoint.
"They knew their responsibilities and obligations," Thomas said. "They accepted life on its own terms" and refused to complain, he said.
Thomas said a small child asked him recently if he ever felt like giving up.
"A hundred times a day," he said. "There will be days when you believe you can't take it anymore. But those days are just part of life."
Law School dean David E. Shipley said, "I was unaware until now of how difficult it was for an African American lawyer to get a job in Georgia in 1974."
Shipley said integrating the University of Georgia and its law school also took a long time; the first black graduated in 1966, the second not until 1970. The law school is now about 10 percent black, Shipley said, about double the percentage at the entire university. But, "There's a long way to go," Shipley said.
Many of the students who heard Thomas' speech were impressed, whether or not they agree with his views.
"It's good to reflect on things that are reality, as opposed to things that are sugar-coated to try to motivate you," said Rasheda Cylar, one of the graduates. She said she's familiar with Thomas' opinions and his politics, and the speech didn't do anything to change her mind about him. "But it's not the messenger that matters, it's the message," she said.