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Supreme Court Justice Defies Protesters, Speaks At School

June 11, 1996

SEAT PLEASANT, Md. (AP) _ Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas taught students a valuable lesson when he showed up at a school awards ceremony despite angry protesters, some parents and officials said.

``I give a lot of credit to Thomas for showing up,″ said parent Mark Grisar of Mount Ranier, who is white. ``By showing up he showed that one person or one group of people shouldn’t and couldn’t stand in the way.″

Thomas entered the awards ceremony for eighth-graders at the Thomas G. Pullen Creative and Performing Arts School to loud applause.

Thomas’s appearance in this majority black suburb of Washington, D.C., was in doubt until the last minute because of protests by some members of the county school board who said the sole black member of the Supreme Court has undermined his own people by decisions against affirmative action.

Marcy Canavan, president of the Prince George’s County Board of Education, pointed out that students of both races gave Thomas a standing ovation several times.

``I think it’s mostly because they learned a valuable lesson, that you don’t bow to threats and disruption,″ she said.

About 50 protesters held an alternative program in another room of the school in Seat Pleasant where the ceremony was held. The Pullen school is in Landover.

Signs reading ``No Uncle Tom in our county″ and ``Uncle Thomas is a traitor″ were countered by ``Say no to hate and bigotry, let Thomas speak.″

Thomas was nominated to replace Thurgood Marshall in 1991. He has been in the court majority for decisions that struck down black-majority congressional districts and set in motion a rollback of federal affirmative action programs.

``I deeply regret having brought some unwanted attention to this wonderful ceremony of you all’s,″ Thomas said. ``However, I gave you my word that I would be here at this most important event, and I fully intended to keep my word.″

The justice seemed to refer obliquely to protesters when he told students, ``Good manners will open doors that education cannot and will not. Even though you have strong feelings about something, that does not give you license to have bad manners.″

Thomas was first invited by the school, then disinvited by the county school superintendent because of the planned protest, then reinvited by the county school board.

``The majority of us wanted him there,″ said Talia Hicks, a Pullen seventh-grader who is black.

``It was supposed to be special because of his presence, not a debate,″ said Susan Szerenyi, a white student at Pullen.

In his remarks, which were interrupted frequently by applause, Thomas stressed the need for his audience to study hard, be positive and obey their elders.

He also encouraged the students to think for themselves: ``You can think for yourself and not be led mindlessly.″

But many protesters said Thomas’ presence was a slap in the face.

``I would be ashamed if my grandchildren knew I had an opportunity to protest against a man who hates himself and hates black people, and I stayed at home,″ said one protester, Roscoe R. Nix, a former school board member in neighboring Montgomery County, Md., who is black.

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