The Greatest Speech Justice Clarence Thomas Almost Didn't Give

Seven years into his term as an Associate Justice on the United States Supreme Court, Justice Clarence Thomas accepted an invitation from the National Bar Association, the nation's largest association of Black attorneys, to address the group's annual conference. But a month before he was scheduled to speak, he was disinvited. According to the New York Times, the offer was tendered by Justice Bernette J. Johnson of the Louisiana Supreme Court, who was then head of the association's judicial council. The Times wrote that when the 25-member Board learned of the invitation it "provoked a strong reaction," leading members of the board to disinvite Thomas.

Justice Thomas wasn't having it. He went anyway.

From the Times:

Senior members of the National Bar Association...have said Justice Thomas has told them he expects to give his speech that day and does not accept the legitimacy of the letter disinviting him.

The members, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Justice Thomas had told them he was undeterred by a letter he received this month withdrawing the invitation because the people who wrote it were not those who first invited him.

In honor of Black History Month, we share highlights from the speech Justice Thomas' almost didn't give in Memphis on July 29, 1998. In it, he spoke of overcoming abject poverty in the segregated South and his struggle to control the "rage, anger, and resentment" that ate away at him in the years following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He explained the journey that led him to champion individual identity over the politics of group identity.

The summer of 1971 was perhaps one of the most difficult of my life. It was clear to me that the road to destruction was paved with anger, resentment and rage. But where were we to go? I would often spend hours in our small efficiency apartment in New Haven pondering this question and listening to Marvin Gaye’s then new album, “What’s Going On?”

To say the least, it was a depressing summer. What were we to do? What’s going on?

As I think back on those years, I find it interesting that many people seemed to have trouble with their identities as black men. Having had to accept my blackness in the caldron of ridicule from some of my black schoolmates under segregation, then immediately thereafter remain secure in that identity during my years at all-white seminary, I had few racial identity problems. I knew who I was and needed no gimmicks to affirm my identity. Nor, might I add, do I need anyone telling me who I am today. This is especially true of the psycho-silliness about forgetting my roots or self-hatred.


Any effort, policy or program that has as a prerequisite the acceptance of the notion that blacks are inferior is a non-starter with me. I do not believe that kneeling is a position of strength. Nor do I believe that begging is an effective tactic. I am confident that the individual approach, not the group approach, is the better, more acceptable, more supportable and less dangerous one. This approach is also consistent with the underlying principles of this country and the guarantees of freedom through government by consent. I, like Frederick Douglass, believe that whites and blacks can live together and be blended into a common nationality.


It pains me deeply, or more deeply than any of you can imagine, to be perceived by so many members of my race as doing them harm. All the sacrifice, all the long hours of preparation were to help, not to hurt. But what hurts more, much more, is the amount of time and attention spent on manufactured controversies and media sideshows when so many problems cry out for constructive attention.

I have come here today not in anger or to anger, though my mere presence has been sufficient, obviously, to anger some. Nor have I come to defend my views, but rather to assert my right to think for myself, to refuse to have my ideas assigned to me as though I was an intellectual slave because I’m black. I come to state that I’m a man, free to think for myself and do as I please. I’ve come to assert that I am a judge and I will not be consigned the unquestioned opinions of others.

But even more than that, I have come to say that isn’t it time to move on? Isn’t it time to realize that being angry with me solves no problems?

Isn’t it time to acknowledge that the problem of race has defied simple solutions and that not one of us, not a single one of us can lay claim to the solution?

Isn’t it time that we respect ourselves and each other as we have demanded respect from others?

Isn’t it time to ignore those whose sole occupation is sowing seeds of discord and animus? That is self-hatred.

Isn’t it time to continue diligently to search for lasting solutions?

I believe that the time has come today.


Justice Thomas' unwavering commitment to individual liberty and freedom, his determination to interpret the Constitution using an Originalist approach, and his triumph over what he called "particularly bilious and venomous assaults," make him a national treasure.