Of all the influences in the life of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, little attention has been paid to the Reverend John E. Brooks. During his time at Holy Cross and in the years since, the Jesuit priest has been, in Thomas' words, "a combination of friend, uncle, priest, father, saint, Good Samaritan." In this exclusive interview with BusinessWeek senior writer Diane Brady, Thomas reflects on racial politics, his job, his college crowd, and the influence of Brooks on his life. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:
Thank you for meeting with me.
Father Brooks asked me to do it. One of the reasons I don't do media interviews is, in the past, the media often has its own script. One reason these stories are never told is that they are contrary to the script that people play by. The media, unfortunately, have been universally untrustworthy because they have their own notions of what I should think or I should do.
Why is Father Brooks such an important person in your life?
That was an era of in loco parentis. It was a transition period unlike today when you have these notions of race entrenched. It was a time, actually, when there was no set road map for kids. Father Brooks understood something intuitively, that we were just kids. He knew we were from a lot of different environments.
Father Brooks made a point of trying to recruit a lot more African Americans to campus in the months before you came. Do you think that recruitment drive helped you?
Oh no. I was going to go home to Savannah when a nun suggested Holy Cross. That's how I wound up there. Your industry has suggested that we were all recruited. That's a lie. Really, it's a lie. I don't mean a mistake. It's a lie.
I had always been an honors student. I was the only black kid in my high school in Savannah and one of two or three blacks in my class during my first year of college in the seminary. I just transferred. I had always had really high grades so that was never a problem. It was the only school I applied to. It was totally fortuitous.…The thing that has astounded me over the years is that there has been such an effort to roll that class into people's notion of affirmative action. It was never really looked at. It was just painted over. Things were much more nuanced than that….You hear this junk. It's just not consistent with what really happened.
What did Father Brooks do?
Father Brooks realized that we needed to be nurtured—not that we needed it every day—but that we were going to have unique problems. When you have six blacks in a class of 550 kids, you need that. We all came from very different backgrounds. That's something that gets lost in this weird notion of race—that somehow you can come from New York and Savannah and Massachusetts and somehow you're still all the same. That's bizarre, and it denigrates individuals. Father Brooks understood that. He saw people who were individuals who happened to be black who had very different outlooks.
What was your mind set when you got to Holy Cross?
I was a kid. I was confused. I was 20 years old. I had no place to go. I had no precedent for anybody going to college. I had no precedent for anybody being in New England. I had no road map. I didn't know anybody to call. I had nobody to talk to. I had nobody to give me advice. Now, what do you do? You were just a kid, trying to make all these choices.
Were you angry?
Sure. I was upset. I was upset with a lot of things. You get there and you sort it out. Look at that neighborhood there [Thomas points to a photo of a desolate strip in Georgia]. How do you go from that to Holy Cross? How do you do it? That's why some of us were really concerned about throwing some of these kids into those environments without thinking because you have a theory. That's the neighborhood I lived in before I went to live with my grandparents. Doesn't look very good, does it?
There were a lot of changes to absorb. Just to think about it was fatiguing. It's still really fatiguing. It's also fatiguing that people assume we all showed up the same. A friend of mine sent me that print there. [A sketch of an African American man, draped over a desk with his hands extended toward the floor.] He has since passed away. He thought it captured my life.
Oh yeah. That's why I keep it there. Look at the hand. Look at the exhaustion.
What sort of exhaustion?
Everything. Mental. Physical. Spiritual. Just constant change. You just want to slow down. You see people take a walk and you want to, too.
Isn't this where you want to be, where you can have the greatest impact?
Nah. I don't think you should do these jobs with that in mind. I don't think you should relish affecting people's lives like that, because you don't know whether you have the right answers. Along the way, you learn that.
Would you approach your education any differently, knowing what you know today?
I didn't come with a lot of confidence. People were attaching a lot of the racial baggage at the time, and a lot of us were very upset about that. You're young. If I could go without all of that, I would go to school a lot differently. There were things that I would enjoy, that I would take in, things that I rejected.
Simple things, like different classes. Maybe I would have taken classes like Russian history or more science, maybe, more math courses. I would have taken more history courses, more philosophy courses. Maybe I would have gone to more events, some plays. I rejected all that. I would have been more open to some of the offerings that were different from the life I had become accustomed to. If you're intellectually alive—which you are at that time—you want to explore.
You lived in a black students' residence when you were there. Was that important to you?
No, I voted against that. I didn't like segregation and I still don't like it. But we were young and I think that was a good decision. We voted as a Black Student Union. I voted against it, but we had this thing we called solidarity. I went on board with the group.…If somebody puts you in a predominantly male, black environment—let's say 2,300 black males and there are 50 white females—what would be your comfort zone? It may not have been a complete identification but it was the obvious identification.…People were searching for a comfort zone because everything was uncomfortable. Everything was new to kids from inner-city areas or predominantly black schools. I was fortunate because I had already been in that environment.
In retrospect, did it turn out to be a good thing?
No. There's a lot of discomfort with learning from each other. What I learned by being the only black in my school was that it's hard but it's necessary. The rest of the world isn't going to accommodate you. You can't just go into a cocoon. At some point, you have to deal with it and the world has to deal with you. If others are comfortable with being over here, while you're comfortable with being over there, it makes it less likely that learning will occur. It's certainly comfortable because you don't have to put up with conflicts and the discomfort of being one of the few blacks on campus. But it's not as easy as the theorists think it is. They should try to be the only one in an environment. I had been the only black student in my high school. I knew what that was about.
So why did you help run the Black Students' Union?
Because I wanted to. That's basically it. I thought it was a good idea. We were all for change. You're 20 years old. Would I have joined if I were 50? I don't know, but I wasn't 50. I was 20. The war was upside down. We were upset about things and it seemed like a natural decision.
Why did you quit Holy Cross when some black students were suspended after the GE demonstration?
I thought: Fair is fair. If you take pictures with a bunch of white guys and two or three blacks, it's easy to pick out the people with dark complexions. The black kids were being treated unfairly. I said: Look, if we're not going to be treated fairly here, let's leave. And let's leave in a disciplined, professional way. That's hence the way we retired. Thank God for Ted [Wells] and Art [Martin] and Father Swords and Father Brooks. They worked it out. Where was I going to go?
Did you think about the repercussions of walking out?
You don't think about things like that when you're making impulsive decisions. You think about that later. And when you do, you think: I'm not going to do that again. I wasn't leaving like that again. What if Father Brooks did not understand that we were kids and we were confused and were maybe unjustifiably impulsive in leaving? What if he didn't prevail upon Father Swords and others to say: Look, let's just work this out with these kids? What if he had just said: Let them go? God only knows where I would be. Father Brooks was the kind of person who understood how difficult it was for us.
Did you have a lot in common with the other black students?
The assumption is that, since you're all black, you have something in common. That's like saying because you're all women, you have a lot in common. You might have nothing in common with these people. There were some white students that I actually had a lot in common with. I had a great roommate. He's now a pediatrician in the Hartford area. I didn't have any difficulty making friends. I had already been through this—finding common ground with kids who were ostensibly of different backgrounds. I didn't have difficulties getting along with anybody—black or white. Be clear about that. And I was a good student from the beginning and academically got along with everybody.
Did you get caught up in the politics of the era?
We all did. I felt very connected to it, probably more than some other kids. But that was a flash in the pan. If you're upset and you don't have the answers, you latch on to things. That wasn't so unusual, whether it was the race issues or the antiwar issues. But then you have sane people around—you have adults around like Father Brooks—who give you a long leash but hold you accountable.
That's what people don't like to talk about. In the end, we were all held accountable. There were people who flunked out. There were people who were dismissed for academic and other reasons. You were held accountable. Those of us who did well were rewarded as students. It was an environment in which you had an opportunity to excel. Father Brooks always understood we were in a tough situation and he wanted to make it work. He wasn't trying to prove a point. He wasn't making any kind of a statement. He was trying to bring kids there who could benefit from that environment. That's one of the reasons he was so successful. He was just trying to help. The school was trying to help. He wasn't making a statement. He was just doing the right thing.
What about other teachers?
Virtually every single one—even the ones who didn't pay you much attention—just held your feet to the fire. There were rules. You obeyed them. I took Renaissance Prose from Dr. Lawler and I got a C+. That stood out. He never let me off the hook. I remember getting a composition back and the red ink was all over the place. My French teachers kept talking about preparation. I remember we were translating The Stranger in class and working hard to do it. And you're doing this with all the other cultural things swirling and making adjustments to New England.
It doesn't sound very inspiring.
I'm not a school person. I never liked school. My best day of school was the day I graduated. There was too much else going on.
Is it just serendipity, you think, that so many of your peers from that era were successful?
No. It was Father Brooks.
But doesn't that denigrate the efforts and intelligence of all of you?
There are lots of intelligent people. Who brought them in? If a coach recruits the best players in the country and wins the national championships, don't you give the coach credit? That's what he did.
But you weren't recruited.
I was never recruited. That was total serendipity. I just showed up. But somebody had to recognize it was a good place to be, and it was a Franciscan nun. The others were recruited.
One of the things we had going for us was that we were not put in a position where we could not be successful. The programs weren't out of our reach. We were exactly where we belonged. Maybe if we had been at another school where we were above where we should have been, it might not have worked. There are times when you should be in Triple-A ball and not the Major Leagues, or Double-A and not Triple-A. We weren't overmatched. There was so much else there that was difficult to deal with. At least we weren't overmatched.
Father Brooks laments the fact that the school didn't have the same success with black students, say, 10 or 20 years later. Why do you think that is?
I always thought part of the problem was that there was much more competition for the kids. So there was a greater chance that kids were being pulled into situations where they were overmatched. Kids were going to School A, who should have been at School B, and the ones at School B should have been at School C. So everybody was pulled up a level above where they should be. And you began to have problems that we did not have. We did not have those mismatches early on.
You went to Yale later on. Would you have wanted to do your undergraduate degree there?
No. No, I belonged at a school like Holy Cross. In fact, in today's world, I probably belonged at a place like the University of Georgia. Holy Cross was perfect for me at that time. I had enough on my platter.
Do you feel a sense of fraternity with the people you went to school with?
In a distant way, I absolutely do. We don't pal around. I absolutely admire Ted Wells and he and I are quite different. He's one of the finest lawyers in the United States. But you know what? It's not unpredictable. It's something that could have been predicted. Think of the people who took chances on him.
There was a wonderful fraternity—The Cross. When you were a crusader, you looked after each other—no matter where you were. That doesn't mean they would always be in a position to do you a favor. But they were there, just as a friend. I've never been turned away by a graduate of The Cross.
How did you find your experience at Yale?
Let me put it this way: It wasn't the kind of environment Holy Cross was and I would not have done well there. I don't fit in there. It wasn't about them. I just didn't fit. I don't fit in an orchestra. I don't care how great the orchestra is. It's nothing against Yale. I'm extraordinarily pleased that through serendipity or, I like to think, almost divine providence, I wound up at Holy Cross.
Why do you think some people are so eager to cast you as a beneficiary of affirmative action?
That was the creation of the politicians, the people with a lot of mouth and nothing to say and your industry. They had a story and everything had to fit into their story. It discounts other people's achievements. Ask Ted how many all-nighters he pulled. It discounts those. It's so discouraging to see the fraudulent renditions of very complicated and different lives of people who were struggling in a new world for them. Everything becomes affirmative action. There wasn't some grand plan. I just showed up.
How is the world different for college kids today?
You don't go to college to be a decoration. You're not there to please other people. You're there to do better in your own life. The only answer I'm interested in is to the question: Are these kids better off for having gone to a college? If they are, how? Ask that question about the first black kids who went to Holy Cross and the answer is a resounding 'Yes.' Yes, they are better off. Ask yourself that today. What's the attrition rate? It used to be up around 40% or something like that. There was no attrition in my class.
Is it solely because of a mismatch of students and the schools that admit them?
I don't know. I don't think people even ask the question any more. I tried for years to get focus on why you actually went to school as opposed to diversity and multiculturalism. I didn't go to school for any of that stuff. I went to school to learn and get on with my life. I wasn't there to prove or disprove anybody else's point.
I've thought a lot about these things, and I've spent the bulk of my life, beating my head against a wall, trying to get people to see that they can have their grand theories but, in the end, you can't impose them on other people's kids. How many kids do you have? They're different, aren't they? If your kids are different—and they're all yours—what about just some kids who happen to be different shades of black, different degrees of Negro? They're all from different family settings—some two parents, some no parents, some raised by grandparents. Come on. How can you just all of a sudden treat them as all the same?
Were you treated the same?
There was no requirement that we all be the same. There were faddish things, like you wear an Afro. Father Time takes care of the Afro. Holy Cross never once required us to be anything other than ourselves and good people.
Doesn't every college want that?
Oh no. I think there are different points of views that are not acceptable. I go around this country and the poor kids who want to dissent from a prevailing point of view have no room. There's no room for them.
Because of political correctness?
Oh yeah. Come on, that's obvious. You don't even have to ask. That's obvious. Otherwise, there are people who have set notions of what blacks should think. But I rejected that years ago. I rejected that back when I was considered radical.
Is it harder to be an African American heading to college these days?
I don't know. I'm not going to dissect these schools now. I'm just glad I went when I went, before everybody had all the answers and theories about blacks. I'm sure it was hard to make your own way but maybe it worked better that way. Maybe it made us better, stronger people.
Did you encounter much racism at Holy Cross?
Not really. That's an easy word to throw around. I'm going to just leave that. Holy Cross was not a racial problem for me. I had no incident the entire time I was there. None. The problem wasn't that other people hated you. That wasn't it. Of course, they didn't understand you. Of course, we all sort of thought of the whole world as bigoted against us, and asked what they thought of blacks. We all thought those things.
We weren't required to be anything. In Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison writes about that. Nobody had a prescription for us. We had little faddish prescriptions about what it meant to be black, and we were probably rough on the other students about that. But the institution didn't have any fad. It didn't prefer one way over the other. It didn't reward one way over the other. We were just kids. And, after we left, the institution didn't respond with some preconceived notions of what we should become.
Does that happen a lot?
Oh goodness, yes. Anybody who says it doesn't is lying to you. Why do you think I get in so much controversy? People have a model of what they think a black person should think. A white person is free to think whatever they want to think. But a black person has to think a certain way. Holy Cross has never ever done that. We did it to each other but we were just kids.
The institution didn't sanction it. Father Brooks didn't sanction it. He didn't stereotype. I love Father Brooks. I love him. He's a great man. He did right by us. He did right by the school. It was hard and not everybody made it through. Look at the standards they kept and the kids they admitted. A lot of us were Catholics so we fit right in…educated you with philosophy and history and metaphysics and modern language. And you became their kid. As long as you were honest and constructive and working hard, they were fine. You are who you are. It's almost existential.
Was it a happy period?
No. But neither is boot camp. There are lots of things that are good for you that are not a happy experience. It was a different time. There were people who were happy. There were happy moments. We got along. I was not an unpleasant person to anybody. But I was not happy. Think about what was going on in my life. It's a hard period. There's a lot going on. It was very difficult.
I don't think you should underestimate how nurturing that school was, without being warm and fuzzy. It was all male so you didn't have to deal with all those complications. It was predominantly Catholic…probably still is. It had rules because it was Catholic. So there were lots of things that were off the table. And it was a crazy time. The school was changing. I wouldn't downplay the centrality of Father Brooks and the Jesuits' role.
Was it a loss for Holy Cross to rely more on lay professors?
Yes. They're not Jesuits. They lost the religiosity. A priest is a priest. A nun is a nun. For me, it's better. It's a Catholic school. It looks more identifiably Catholic when you have religious people running it. I think it's a loss. I liked it the way it was. I was not a practicing Catholic when I went there. I had left the church. But I just feel strongly that it's a Catholic school. I'm a practicing Catholic now, in part because I went to Holy Cross.
Do you keep up with the people you met there?
I'm 58 years old now. I went there when I was 20 years old…I've been focused on these jobs which consume your life. One of the downsides is you don't see your friends much. But I consider them all friends. It brings me great joy to see them. If Ted has a barbecue again, I'm there. I really think the world of that whole group of people. I think the world of Holy Cross. That era, for me, was formative.