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Monday, January 16, 2023
Why I Think of Clarence Thomas and the Nuns Who Inspired Him Each MLK Day
Supreme Court Justice Clarence
Thomas is hailed by many for his inspiring life. But
through it all, good or bad, Thomas stays focused on the
important things in life.
He never has forgotten those who
helped him along the way. For many years on Martin Luther
King Jr. Day, the justice would visit his eighth-grade
teacher, Sister Mary Virgilius Reidy, and dozens of her
fellow nuns, in a retirement convent in New Jersey.
Clarence Thomas was born into
abject poverty in the segregated Deep South to parents who
were poor and uneducated. His father left when he was 2,
and he ultimately was sent to live with his grandparents
in Savannah, Georgia.
His grandfather enrolled Clarence
and his brother in St. Benedict’s, a segregated,
all-black, Catholic elementary school. It was run by the
Missionary Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception
(most of them from Ireland), who endured disparaging
slurs, including the N-word, for dedicating their lives to
teaching black students.
The Franciscan nuns changed his
life, and Thomas always has been grateful for their love
and support. The nuns held their students to the highest
academic standards, and did not allow them to make any
excuse, even though these students lived under
As Thomas recounts in “Created Equal”:
“You knew they loved you. When you think somebody loves
you and deeply cares about your interests, somehow they
can get you to do hard things.”
In the 1980s, when he was part of
the Reagan administration, Thomas sought out Sister
Virgilius, who was living in Boston. Thomas recalls: “I
went by to see her, and I sat with her, and I thanked her
for teaching me and making me believe that we could learn,
and for not letting me slip into victim status and forcing
me out of it.”
In 1984, Thomas returned to his
hometown of Savannah to pay tribute at an event honoring
the Franciscan Sisters, where he said:
There was no
way I could have survived if it had not been for the
nuns—our nuns, who made me pray when I didn’t want to
and didn’t know why I should—who made me work when I saw
no reason to—who made me believe in the equality of
races when our country paid lip service to equality and
our church tolerated inequality—who made me accept
responsibilities for my own life when I looked for
excuses. No, my friends, without our nuns, I would not
have made it to square one.
Thomas again thanked the nuns
when he was nominated by President George H.W. Bush to the
Supreme Court in 1991, and Sister Virgilius, then 80 years
old and nursing a broken arm, later testified on behalf of
her former student at his confirmation hearings.
After Thomas joined the Supreme
Court, for many years on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we
would leave his home around 6 a.m. and drive up to
Tenafly, New Jersey, to spend the day with Sister
Virgilius and her fellow sisters, many of whom also taught
Thomas and others at St. Benedict’s.
We had lunch in the cafeteria
with all the nuns, and Thomas’ face displayed such joy as
he reminisced about those days and caught up on how the
nuns were all doing. He would visit sisters who were
bedridden in the infirmary.
When Sister Virgilius passed away
in 2013 at age 100, we attended her funeral together.
In October 2021, many celebrated
Thomas’ 30th anniversary on the
Supreme Court and his influence on
American law, including a daylong celebration at The
Heritage Foundation with remarks by the justice himself.
But Thomas was more focused on an event earlier that week:
the blessing of a statue of Sister Virgilius and two
students at a cemetery where 200 Franciscan sisters are
On a beautiful October day, in a
small, private ceremony attended by more than 20 nuns,
many of whom were in their 80s, along with friends and
family members, Thomas greeted all of them with hugs and
When he made his brief remarks,
Thomas fought through tears to thank the nuns who changed
his life. It was a beautiful moment that captured his
“This extraordinary statue is
dedicated to you sisters—to all of you who have given so
much and who have asked for so little,” he said.
As Martin Luther King Jr. Day
comes around every year, I always think of how these nuns
changed the course of Clarence Thomas’ life, and how this
great man, our nation’s greatest Supreme Court justice,
always found time to honor those who helped him under the
most difficult of circumstances.