Clarence Thomas was born in 1948 in Pin Point, Georgia. When he was two, his father abandoned the family, leaving his mother to care for two sons. When Thomas was seven, they moved into his grandfather’s tenement building in Savannah, where they shared their one-room apartment’s kitchen with other residents. His maternal grandfather had a fuel oil business that also sold ice, and Thomas helped make deliveries. His grandfather had a strong work ethic and often told his grandson, ‘Never let the sun catch you in bed in the morning.’”
During his early childhood, Thomas attended segregated public and parochial schools. He spent four years studying for the priesthood before changing his mind and enrolling at Holy Cross College in Massachusetts. He graduated in the top 7 percent of his class and went on to receive a law degree from Yale in 1974.
Thomas worked for Sen. John Danforth (R-MO) when Danforth was Missouri’s attorney general. When Danforth was elected U.S. senator, Thomas became his legislative assistant. Barely two years later, Thomas became assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education. That job led to his appointment as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In 1991, after less than two years on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Thomas was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Thomas’s life has been shaped by discipline, faith, and his own power of positive thinking. Since he was in his teens, he has kept a file of positive statements by other people. One of his favorites is from Abraham Lincoln, who said, “I will prepare myself, and when the time comes, I will be ready.” Thomas has used positive reinforcement throughout his life to counter what he calls the constant “barrage of negatives that reaffirm failure in the minds of young people. Many young people are drowning in negatives and hopelessness.”
Thomas, who received much guidance along the way, is committed to doing the same for others. He addresses youth groups and often greets schoolchildren who are visiting the Supreme Court. “You know what I see in those little kids who come here? I see myself,” he says. “I see myself looking for hope, for a way to be a productive member of society, not necessarily to go out to make riches or anything like that, but to do the best I can.”
A strong supporter of the Horatio Alger Association, Thomas has in recent years hosted receptions at the Supreme Court to honor the organization’s winners. “The Horatio Alger Association is committed to giving at-risk students a college education—the first step toward a bright future,” he says. “I am proud and honored to be a part of that.”