The opening of the new Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture has been marred by a controversy over a political bias in the celebration of African American leaders. While the museum’s displays largely ignore Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, it celebrates the heroism of his accuser from his confirmation hearings, Law Professor Anita Hill. The failure to honor Thomas, in my view, is outrageous. His life story is not just one of the inspiring accounts in African American history, it is one of the most inspiring of American history. His triumph over abject poverty and discrimination should be celebrated by all Americans regardless of how you view his jurisprudential views. Now the Smithsonian has responded and its explanation is hardly compelling.
Thomas has the quintessential American story of perseverance and ambition in overcoming odds that would have left many in hopeless despair. Clarence Thomas was born on the Georgia coast in Pin Point, Georgia, on June 23, 1948. He grew up speaking Gullah, the creole dialect. His home was a one-room shack with dirt floors and no plumbing. He grew up without a Dad, who left him at two. As a result, at the age of seven he and his younger brother were sent to live with their grandfather, Myers Anderson, and his wife in Savannah, Georgia. He used his Catholic education to overcome segregation and prejudice to eventually go to Holy Cross and gained admission to Yale, Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania law schools. After a series of legal positions, he became the chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1982 and later became just the second African American to join the Court.
Linda St. Thomas, chief spokesperson for the Smithsonian, insisted that it was just not a story that made the cut among the stories to be told: “There are many compelling personal stories about African Americans who have become successful in various fields, and, obviously, Associate Justice Thomas is one of them. However, we cannot tell every story in our inaugural exhibitions.” Really? But Anita Hill is such a story? I am not taking away from Hill or taking sides in their dispute. Yet, Thomas should have been on the top of any objective list of the great achievers among contemporary African American figures.
That is a story that should feature prominently in any museum on American leaders. The American public funded half of the cost of this $540 million museum and gave the museum a prime location on the mall. It should expect better.