One of the most striking things about Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court nominee, is simply the story of his life.
It’s led me to label this whole controversy “The Resurrection of Old Man Can’t.”
Let me explain. Old Man Can’t isn’t a real person, but when Clarence Thomas was a young boy he heard about him a lot anyway. His grandfather saw to that.
Clarence and his brother moved in with their grandparents in Savannah, Georgia, in the summer of 1955. His grandfather owned a company that delivered ice and fuel oil. He was barely able to read and write, but he did read his Bible.
Young Clarence didn’t know it at the time, but this semi-literate elderly man was to become the single most important influence in his life.
The old man was a rock. He taught Clarence and his brother that the way to beat discrimination was through hard work and good education. He had those two boys up early in the morning to do chores and help with the business. Clarence raised chickens, pigs, and cows. He cleaned the house and yard, painted and roofed, fixed the plumbing, maintained his grandfather’s oil trucks, and made deliveries.
His grandfather’s moral training was spiced with home-spun sayings, like: “There’s no problem elbow grease can’t solve.” And “Old Man Can’t is dead. I helped bury him.” “Old Man Can’t” stood for an attitude of helplessness in the face of adversity. Whenever Clarence became discouraged, he heard about “Old Man Can’t.”
And it paid off. Clarence learned to study hard in school. And he discovered he it. His mother recalls that if you couldn’t find Clarence, there was one place you always knew to look: in the library.
His love of learning eventually took him to Holy Cross College, where he earned an English degree with honors, and from there to Yale University, where he graduated from law school.
Now that Clarence Thomas has been nominated to the Supreme Court, people opposed to his nomination are coming up with all kinds of excuses why it won’t work.
It’s “Old Man Can’t” come back to life.
Some people say Clarence no longer identifies with the struggles blacks face. But that excuse won’t fly. Clarence has spoken out on several occasions for black causes: He chastised Republicans for being indifferent to black voters; he chided the Reagan Administration for dragging its feet on the Voting Rights Act extension.
Besides, in spite of his successes, Clarence still knows first hand what it’s like to be discriminated against. He finds that taxicabs won’t pull over for a black man standing on the curb—especially in Georgetown, that mecca of yuppy liberalism.
No, the real reason “Old Man Can’t” is trying to keep Clarence Thomas off the Supreme Court is simple: Thomas’s rise from the red clay of Georgia to the steps of the highest court in the land shows that a hard-working American can still make it without massive intervention from the state or from its self-appointed do-gooders. His success story affirms the historic Christian virtues of faith, family, education, and honest work.
If Thomas’s nomination is confirmed, it will signify much more than a second black man making it to the Supreme Court.
It will mean Old Man Can’t is back in his grave for good.
This is the seventh in a seven-part series on Clarence Thomas.