By Paula Chin
Updated July 22, 1991 12:00 PM

THIS DOWNTOWN STRETCH OF EAST 32nd Street in Savannah, Ga., is usually quiet, the kind of neighborhood where a cool breeze off the river will be followed by a wake of comments from people sitting on their front stoops. But for the past few nights, the weather has been replaced in conversation by the ruckus at No. 542—the small cinderblock house where Clarence Thomas was raised. A television minivan is pulling up; reporters are parked at the curb and sitting on the porch. Inside, Thomas’s mother, Leola Williams, 62, a nurse’s assistant, struggles to cope. “There was just no warning,” she says, smiling brightly though looking a little dazed. “I walked in the door from work and the phone was ringing and a lady said, ‘Turn on Channel 6, your son’s on it.’ There was Clarence standing behind the President and a message flashing on the screen saying he was the nominee to the Supreme Court. Well, I screamed so loud I dropped the phone. President Bush speaking so nice of him made me feel so good, but it was still shocking, you know. I had no idea.”

At one time, Thomas, too, would have found the idea of ascending to the nation’s highest court an impossible dream. During his boyhood in rural Georgia, he lived with poverty, segregation and bigotry. He nevertheless managed to graduate from Yale Law School, to reach the top ranks of government under President Reagan and, most recently, the post of federal appeals court judge in Washington, D.C.

While making that long and difficult journey, Thomas, who at 43 could become one of the youngest Supreme Court Justices this century, came to believe that hard work, not government handouts, was the key to success. His conservative views—which include opposition to racial quotas—certainly helped him when it came time for Bush to nominate a successor to retiring Justice Thurgood Marshall. But Thomas’s staunch ideas about self-sufficiency will also provoke a bitter fight over his confirmation. And his philosophy highlights an irony that Thomas must certainly appreciate: that after a lifetime based on the principle that no one should be treated differently because of race, he stands to take the court’s so-called black seat vacated by Marshall.

Thomas was born in 1948 in Pin Point, Ga., a marshy, dirt-poor town with no sewers or paved roads. Two years later Thomas’s father, M.C., abandoned his wife and three babies. Leola Thomas earned $25 a week picking crabmeat and managed to keep her family together until a fire destroyed their small wood house in 1955. After that, Thomas and his brother, Myers, were sent to live with Leola’s father, Myers Anderson, in Savannah. It was a time when blacks were forced to the back of buses, banned from restaurants and the town library. It was also the first time Clarence lived in a house with plumbing.

He began learning the lesson—from his grandfather and the nuns at his Catholic school—that he could be anybody he wanted to. “Daddy was strict with the boys. He was constantly on them to get better grades,” says Leola. “The thing he always beat in our heads was that you have to work for what you want.”

After attending St. John Vianney Minor Seminary in Savannah, where he was the only black among the nine seniors in the class of 1967, Thomas went to Immaculate Conception Seminary in Missouri, hoping to become a priest—until the prejudice he encountered there changed his mind. The turning point came just after the shooting of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, when Thomas overheard a white seminarian say, “That’s good. I hope the s.o.b. dies.” “That was the last straw,” Thomas has said. “I knew I couldn’t stay in this so-called Christian environment any longer.”

He enrolled at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., where he helped found the Black Student Union and became a Black Panther sympathizer. Still, he voted against the establishment of an all-black dormitory, explaining later that blacks should “understand the white majority we will always have to deal with.”

Over the years, he further refined that idea of assimilation. After entering Yale Law School—he was admitted under the school’s affirmative action policy—Thomas sat in the back rows of lecture halls, he explained, to ensure that he would not be given special treatment just because of his race. He accepted his first job offer in 1974 as a lawyer in Missouri Attorney General John Danforth’s office only after being assured his race would not influence his work assignments. In 1979, after Danforth was elected to the Senate, Thomas followed him to Washington. Two years later the Reagan Administration named him Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education—an appointment, he later disclosed, that initially “insulted” him because it disregarded his specialty in tax and corporate law.

In 1982 Thomas was named chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. His tenure at the agency, which enforces federal laws against discrimination, was tumultuous. His public statements that affirmative action and rigid quota systems amounted to “a supreme waste of time” and his refusal to use minority-hiring statistics as a basis for bringing suits against employers drew fire from civil rights leaders. Thomas, in turn, said his opponents just wanted to “bitch, bitch, bitch.”

Privately, Thomas is in fact something of an enigma. He lives in Alexandria, Va., with his second wife, Virginia, a congressional affairs officer at the Department of Labor, and his son Jamal, 18. (His 13-year marriage to Kathy Grace Ambush ended in a bitter divorce in 1984.) He’s not much given to talking politics; neighbors know him best for his cigar smoking, washing the car and a deep, booming laugh that carries down the block whenever he’s out barbecuing.

The coming nomination fight may quiet that laugh, at least for a time. Thomas’s strict Catholic upbringing and his writings calling for constitutional protection of “the inalienable right to life of the child-about-to-be-born” have prompted pro-choice activists, including the National Organization for Women, to declare war against his confirmation. Meanwhile, Thomas’s supporters insist that he cannot be typecast. “He will be very independent,” says Senator Danforth. “He will be the people’s justice. He understands the ordinary citizen through the disadvantages of his own experience.” His mother, Leola, agrees. “[His grandfather] always said, ‘Don’t look down, look up, and don’t look back, because what you’re trying to get is in front of you.’ I know Clarence will never forget what’s behind him—none of us will. Clarence knows where he came from.”


GAIL WESCOTT in Atlanta, and bureau reports