Black state lawmakers pan plan for Clarence Thomas Capitol monument

Clarence Thomas shaking hands with Kay KirkpatrickU.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas shook the hand of state Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick following his keynote speech at a dedication of the Nathan Deal Judicial Center. Speaking from the Senate floor Monday, Kirkpatrick called Thomas “a great example for all Georgians about how people can rise from poverty regardless of their color or their background to the highest levels of American society.” Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder (File 2020)

By Ross Williams, Georgia Recorder
February 8, 2022

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas could be honored with a statue on the grounds of the state Capitol, despite outcry from Democrats who say the plan to honor the conservative African American justice is racially insensitive, with one senator calling the Georgia native “a hypocrite and a traitor.”

The state Senate approved a bill to create a committee to design and build a statue of Thomas 32 to 21 along party lines. If approved by the House and signed by Gov. Brian Kemp, the statue will be paid for using donations rather than public money.

Thomas, who was born in Pin Point near Savannah, became the second African American to serve on the Supreme Court when he assumed office in 1991. Senate Republicans said a statue at the state Capitol will honor his rise from poverty to the nation’s highest court.

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“I’m going to speak to you as a son born in a Puerto Rican brown family and the impact Clarence Thomas has had on our family and millions of Americans across Georgia in the United States,” said the bill’s sponsor, Dallas Republican Sen. Jason Anavitarte. “Clarence Thomas was born in poverty in Pin Point, a community founded by freed slaves, and spoke Gullah as his first language. Clarence Thomas left seminary college in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. because he did not believe the church was doing enough to address racism. Clarence Thomas helped found the Black Student Union at (the College of the) Holy Cross and organized student walkouts. Those are facts, ladies and gentlemen, those aren’t myths. That’s real life.”

McDonough Republican Sen. Brian Strickland said he hopes schoolchildren on field trips to the Capitol will be inspired by Thomas’ story after seeing his statue.

“The story of Clarence Thomas is the story of somebody that rose from being from a city that was named and founded after freed slaves,” said. “Somebody that grew up without a father, who left at an early age, somebody that was homeless from an early age, was the first person in his family to go to college and then went on to go to Yale Law School.

“The story of Justice Thomas is a Georgia story,” he said.

Senate Democrats begged to differ.

Atlanta Democratic Sen. Emanuel Jones, who is Black, said he respects Thomas as a man who overcame adversity, but he finds his beliefs reprehensible.

“As I’ve listened to these arguments, I’m realizing there’s something in here that a lot of the members on the other side of the aisle just don’t get,” he said. “And let me tell you what I mean by that. This is not a Georgian story. This is a Black American who lived in Georgia and grew up in Georgia’s story. And as such, those of us that are of color are very sensitive to that. We can’t whitewash history, we can’t change the melanin in our skin. When you see Justice Thomas, first you’ve got to see a Black man. Regardless of what kind of rulings he may make in the position that he currently occupies, you’re still going to look at him as being a person of color. And as such, all of us that are people of color are very sensitive to that. That’s why I said you just don’t get it.”

Emanuel and others listed numerous decisions Thomas wrote or agreed with that put him at odds with other Black people on topics including affirmative action, prosecutors withholding exculpatory evidence and the right to an attorney for those accused of a crime.

“He’s not well-received by the Black community, not sure if some of you guys know that,” said Democratic Sen. Nikki Merritt of Grayson. “I’m not saying I speak for every Black American, but I come from those families. I listen to the conversations. I think I have a pretty intimate knowledge and a grip on how we, Black people as a collective, feel about Justice Thomas. It’s not that we have a problem that he’s a conservative or a Republican. We think he’s a hypocrite and a traitor.”

Thomas is perceived as a hypocrite because he is against affirmative action even though he benefited from it, Merritt said, and he is perceived as a traitor because of his opposition to the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Merritt also raised the blistering confirmation testimony of Anita Hill, a lawyer who said Thomas sexually harassed her before he was named to the Supreme Court. Thomas denies the charges, and Hill maintains they are true.

“You’re really asking us to raise him to the status of a Dr. Martin Luther King,” Merritt said. “A visionary, a bridge builder, our beloved John Lewis, President Carter, we have evidence where these types of leaders promote goodwill. They deserve monuments, and I find it hard to believe that we think that Justice Thomas deserves that same honor, the same level of respect of some of our more respected leaders, I think we can think of a little more.”

Carter is the only person honored with a statue at the Capitol who is still alive. One other man, former governor and U.S. Senator Herman Talmadge, was still alive when a statue of him was built at the Capitol, lawmakers said.

Democrats said only dedicating statues to those who have died or at least retired from public service is a good practice because a living person may do something to tarnish their name.

“There may be years ahead for Justice Thomas, none of us know what the future holds,” said Atlanta Democratic Sen. Nan Orrock. “And that’s the wisdom of not elevating and naming things and then setting up statues prior to a person’s conclusion of their public service. I don’t know if we’re trying to have a precedent-breaking session, but this would certainly break all precedents that I can think of.”

Orrock authored an amendment to add Thomas’ wife, Virginia Thomas, to the statue. Virginia Thomas is an outspoken conservative activist who has raised questions about judicial neutrality with her vocal support of conservative causes and former President Donald Trump.

“I submit to you, if you want to put up that statue, include his wife along with it, as she plays such a full role and as his witness, all across social media today, her very own emails and her own words of the things that she’s been doing to augment her husband’s service on the Supreme Court,” Orrock said.

Orrock withdrew the amendment before the senate could vote on it.

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

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