On February 15th, the Law Library of Congress hosted the 2018 Supreme Court Fellows Program Annual Lecture with Associate Justice Clarence Thomas. Jeffrey P. Minear, Executive Director of the Supreme Court Fellows Program and Counselor to the Chief Justice of the United States, and Jane Sánchez, Law Librarian of Congress, introduced the program. Hon. Gregory E. Maggs, a former law clerk for Justice Thomas who was recently confirmed as a Judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, moderated the conversation.
The Supreme Court Fellows Program, founded in 1973, selects four talented individuals each year to broaden their understanding of the judicial system through exposure to federal court administration. The annual lecture is held in conjunction with events honoring the current class of Fellows and selecting next year’s Fellows from a small group of finalists, and was held in partnership with the Law Library of Congress for the first time this year. The lecture took place in the historic Coolidge Auditorium in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress.
At the event, Justice Thomas reflected on his autobiography, “My Grandfather’s Son.” He explained the title by saying that he first met the man he considered his father, his grandfather, when he was nine years old. Justice Thomas described his grandfather as his hero, explaining that although his grandfather had very limited formal education and a hard life, he never complained about his hardships and his favorite quote was “Old man can’t is dead.” Justice Thomas described his family as having similarities to characters in the film, “The Help,” in that they faced difficult circumstances but kept their dreams alive—even dreams that would only be fulfilled by subsequent generations.
I didn’t have a radio. I didn’t have a telephone . . . . And I certainly didn’t have a car. It wasn’t a problem, because you had your dreams, you had your energy, you had more than the people you grew up around. I grew up around a world of total illiteracy. That’s the beauty: I am in the Library of Congress.
The Justice said his family members were people who saw beyond their circumstances and refused to be limited by those circumstances or wallow in the hardship of those circumstances. The Justice also noted that his grandfather taught him the value of service, imparting that he had an obligation to do well, so he could do good for others. And Justice Thomas touched in some detail on the impact that libraries had on his life.
At night, [my grandfather] would let me go to the Carnegie Library, where I’d started going in the summer of 1955 for the noble reason that in the summer of 1955, I was seven years old, and we had just moved into this little tenement on the east side, and on Saturday they gave you cookies and juice. So I went for the very high-minded reason of getting cookies and juice . . . . But it gave me this image of the library as this place to learn, and it became a haven. So I walked in here, I said: “Look where I am. I come from this world of illiteracy to a place where they treasured learning, and I get to be in a place of learning.”
You can watch the entire interview with Justice Thomas about his life and work on the Library of Congress YouTube channel.