One year ago this week, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture opened its doors to an American public eager to celebrate the accomplishments of black Americans and to commemorate their struggles.
From the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow, to the triumphs of Reverend Martin Luther King and President Obama, the museum seemingly covered the field in recounting the heroism of barrier breakers in sports, music, science, academia, literature, media, and politics.
The museum dismissed the fact that Anita Hill failed in her attempt to derail Justice Thomas’s elevation to the bench and subsequently faded away into practical obscurity. Meanwhile, Justice Thomas soared in his ensuing 25 years on the bench, issuing landmark rulings and dissents and exerting a profound influence on American law.
Justice Thomas, who grew up poor and abandoned in the segregated South, who clawed his way to college and Yale Law School, and who has inspired a generation of attorneys both black and white to love the Constitution and respect the law, didn’t get so much as a head nod from the museum. What can explain the museum’s grotesque inversion of African-American history? Two things: Justice Thomas is a constitutional conservative and a Republican-appointed justice.
The backlash against this display of rank partisanship and a left-wing bias from a publicly funded institution prompted a firestorm of criticism.
Although it took them a year, the museum has finally gotten the message and recently remedied its error, at least partially. When I visited the museum earlier this week the information desk attendants couldn’t tell me quite where to find the Justice Thomas exhibit, but I eventually found it on my own, tucked into a corner in the middle of the Civil Rights Era section.
The exhibit is actually a combination display featuring Justice Thurgood Marshall, America’s first black Supreme Court Justice, and his immediate successor, Justice Thomas. It includes Justice Marshall’s robe, watch, and iconic glasses, along with photos of Marshall. Behind the robe is an oversize photo of Chief Justice Rehnquist escorting Justice Thomas as they made their traditional descent down the steps of the Supreme Court on Justice Thomas’s symbolic first day on the job. It also has explanatory panels that discuss the role of the Court in the fight for civil rights.
The exhibit does a good job highlighting the continuity of the two justices and their impressive individual accomplishments while also accurately contrasting their profoundly differing views of the law, saying, “Where Marshall advocated judicial action, Thomas encouraged judicial restraint. ... On the Supreme Court, (Thomas) self identifies as an independent thinker who interprets the Constitution’s original intent.”
The exhibit also includes this fitting quote from Thomas:
“The reason I became a lawyer was to make sure that minorities, individuals who did not have access to this society, gained access. … I may differ with others on how best to do that, but the objective has always been to include those who have been excluded.”
Although the Anita Hill exhibit is still around, and the combined Marshall-Thomas exhibit still takes up less museum space than Oprah Winfrey’s couch (also on display), I’m glad to see the Smithsonian finally recognize Justice Thomas’ role as one of the most significant black Americans of this century.
Carrie Severino, a former law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, is chief counsel of the Judicial Crisis Network.