Thomas urges grads to defend conservative values

Simon Schuster
Special to The Detroit News

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas urged graduates to live by example and defend conservative values in a “world that seems to have gone mad with political correctness,” during his commencement address at Hillsdale College Saturday afternoon.

The high-ceilinged field house was humming before the ceremony began, and not just with pride for the 353 graduates. The private liberal arts college is a longtime bastion of conservative education and its president, Larry Arnn, said Thomas had been near the top of the student body’s list of desired speakers all of the 16 years Arnn has been at the college.

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas delivers the commencement address to the 2016 Hillsdale College graduating class in the Margot V. Biermann Athletic Center, Saturday afternoon, May 14, 2016.

Thomas’ speech interwove his judicial philosophy into lessons from his childhood, born to impoverished farmers in segregated Georgia.

“If we didn’t work, we didn’t eat. If we didn’t plant, we didn’t harvest,” he said. “There was always to be a relationship between our responsibilities and our benefits.”

He spent much of his address reflecting on what he characterized as an erosion of traditional values, where “today there is much more focus on our rights as citizens and what we are owed.”

“Hallmarks of my youth, such as patriotism or religion, seem more like outliers, if not afterthoughts,” Thomas said. “We were taught that despite unfair treatment, we were to be good citizens and good people.”

Thomas has been the most conservative member of the Supreme Court since his nomination by President George H.W. Bush in 1991. Thomas’ perspective is closely aligned with Hillsdale’s ethos, and he said the school “stood fast on its principles and its tradition at great sacrifice and great cost.”.

The college has challenged affirmative action policies in court, and eschews all federal and state funding in favor of private aid. Its board of trustees has also passed resolutions critical of the Obama administration.

Thomas also briefly discussed the current state of the court, calling it a “most difficult term.” The Supreme Court remains short a justice after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, another conservative stalwart and Thomas’ closest ally on the court, in February.

“Over the almost 25 years that we were together, I think we made the court a better place for each other,” Thomas said to applause. “He was kind to me when it mattered most, in those early days.”

Senate Republicans have refused to hold hearings for President Barack Obama’s nominee for the seat, Merrick Garland.

Matthew Sauer, a history major who will be working at Hillsdale as an admissions counselor, said Thomas’ appearance speaks to Hillsdale’s values.

“Hillsdale stands for something larger than itself and I think that mission was communicated to people on a national level, including Justice Thomas,” he said.

Thomas concluded his address with a call to action, and expressed confidence the graduates would rise to the challenge.

“The greatest lecture or sermon you will give is your example. What you do will matter far more than what you say,” Thomas said. “I have every faith you will be the beacon of light for others to follow.”

The graduates received him with a standing ovation. Faith Liu, who graduated with degrees in Music and English and will be attending the University of Southern California for graduate school, thought Thomas’ address “defied expectations.”

“I think a lot of us were expecting something glamorous, but I really appreciate the simplicity of his statement,” Liu said. “I think we need something like that in this day and age.”