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Friends Say Supreme Court Nominee ‘Hasn’t Forgotten His Roots’

July 3, 1991

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) _ The community of Pinpoint, which nestles against a velvety green marsh south of here, has a few dozen humble houses, a graveyard, a church - and a bursting pride that one of its own, Clarence Thomas, may reach the Supreme Court.

Some critics have said Thomas’ conservative views put him out of touch with other blacks now struggling to overcome adversity, just as he did in Pinpoint and in a Savannah ghetto.

But, said Sister Odile O’Shea, one of the nuns he paid tribute to in accepting President Bush’s nomination Monday, ″He hasn’t forgotten his roots.″

Thomas, criticized by civil rights leaders for his opposition to affirmative action and other views expressed while serving as head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and in his present position as a federal appeals judge, was born in Pinpoint 43 years ago.

″You don’t ever forget home,″ said Viola Martin, a 42-year-old resident who remembers playing with Thomas as a child up and down the community’s only street, which parallels the marshline and the Vernon River beyond where locals still catch crabs.

A number of the homes in town are in disrepair now, including one where Thomas’ sister lives, but back then things were worse. Some homes lacked electricity as late as the 1960s, Ms. Martin said, and none had indoor plumbing when Thomas lived there.

Residents on Tuesday relished the attention Thomas has brought Pinpoint and agreed that his having known poverty will make him a better justice.

″When you’re raised rich, on a high kind of level, you’re mostly interested in getting rid of a problem. If you’re poor, you want to think it through,″ said Louis Polite, 19, who recalled the time several years ago when Thomas served as tour guide in Washington to a visiting group of Boy Scouts from his hometown.

After his father moved away when Thomas was under 2, his family struggled to make ends meet.

″I remember times when we didn’t have meat to go with the beans,″ said Thomas’ mother, Leola Williams, a nurse’s assistant at a Savannah hospital. When he was growing up, she said, she worked picking crabmeat at a now-defunct factory for a nickel a pound, and did housework for $15 a week.

Mrs. Williams, too, said her son’s early hard times would help him on the high court.

″Makes you wiser,″ she said. But also, ″It makes you want to go forward. You don’t want to be in that all your life.″

Thomas’ late grandparents stepped in to help ensure he went forward, moving him at age 7 to Savannah to attend parochial schools. In his speech accepting Bush’s nomination, Thomas choked up when recalling them.

They were models for the self-sufficiency that their grandson has espoused as the alternative to government aid to minorities. ″Those who attempt to capture the daily counseling, oversight, common sense and vision of my grandparents in a governmental program are engaging in sheer folly. Government cannot develop individual responsibility,″ Thomas wrote in a 1987 article.

Myers Anderson, his grandfather, began selling coal and firewood from a wagon he built and eventually developed a fuel business in Savannah.

At the same time, said 74-year-old Thad Harris, a lifelong friend of Anderson’s, he worked at civil rights efforts, including voter registration and helping to organize boycotts of storeowners whose customers were mostly blacks but who would employ only whites.

Harris, a deacon at a church near Pinpoint where he lives, said Anderson was a religious and moral influence on his grandson: ″He said, ‘I don’t make a lot of money at the wood business because I run into so many poor people like myself.’ He gave it away. He was a Christian-hearted person.″

One of the places Anderson donated heating fuel was at St. Benedict’s School, where he enrolled Thomas.

‘I know why Clarence choked up,″ said Roy Allen, a former classmate of Thomas’ and now Georgia state senator. ″He thought about his granddaddy delivering wood.″

But also, Allen said, Thomas must have been thinking about the other major force shaping his early life: the school’s Irish-born Franciscan nuns whose tough-love educational approach called for mastering the basics or serving a ″penance″ of pulling weeds or mopping floors.

″They made us,″ Allen said. ″You have to understand the times: south Georgia, segregated community. And they were determined that these kids, these little black boys and girls, were going to be the best at whatever they wanted to be. And they made us believe that.″

Thomas wept during a speech a few years ago at a gathering to raise money for nuns in retirement, Sister O’Shea said from a New Jersey convent. ″It was his appreciation of what was done for him,″ she said. ″He hasn’t forgotten his roots.″

Another school friend, Lester Johnson, agreed. While Thomas may have drawn fire for his hard line on welfare, his background gives him the right to speak, said Johnson, also a lawyer. He said he hopes Thomas will show his critics what Johnson believes that background has made him: ″a caring person.″

″I don’t think he’s forgotten about the folks who will, unfortunately, continue to grow up in the squalor of rural communities in America and who will have to be raised by grandparents. I don’t think he’ll ever forget about them,″ Johnson said. ″I really think he in his own way is trying to set an example for them.″

Back in Pinpoint, that’s the message 22-year-old Carlton Sams took from Thomas’ nomination.

″Gives a lot of us something to look up to,″ he said.

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EDITOR’S NOTE - Christopher Sullivan is the AP’s Southeast regional reporter, based in Atlanta.

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