Bankole: Clarence Thomas belongs in national museum
Museums are not only depositories of history but a guiding light into the future by providing a comprehensive and unbiased understanding of past events.
They are educational institutions that should evoke rigorous debate about contemporary issues through powerful expressions and symbols in those archives no matter our positions about them.
That is why I was surprised during a visit to the newly opened Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., that out of all the exhibits — of notable African-Americans in public life — there was nothing about Clarence Thomas, the only African-American on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Thomas, who belongs to the conservative wing of the court, succeeded the legendary Thurgood Marshall, an architect of the legal battles to desegregate public schools in America.
As I toured the museum last week, I realized the only mention of Thomas was in reference to the sexual harassment allegations brought against him by lawyer Anita Hill during his 1991 Senate confirmation hearings.
The museum explained Thomas’ absence by saying it cannot tell every story.
No matter Thomas’ positions — including his fierce opposition to affirmative action, stating in the 2013 Fisher v. University of Texas case that “as should be obvious there is nothing pressing or necessary about obtaining whatever educational benefits may flow from racial diversity” — there should be an exhibit of him in the museum to present a well-rounded view of black history.
Moreso, Thomas has been on the court for 25 years and may stay longer than Marshall. Though Thomas is wrong on affirmative action, those planning pilgrimages to the museum ought to know who he is for the benefit of a complete and unfettered historical presentation.
If the museum can chronicle the eras of slavery, civil rights and the Black Lives Matter movement, why can’t there be an exhibit of the only black justice on the Supreme Court? Many in the black community consider his positions injurious, but they reflect the diversity of thought in the community.
There are black conservatives who view Thomas as a hero. Their views are part of the collective of black history.
“I think it does a disservice to our community to have him not represented,” said Detroit lawyer Kerry Leon Jackson, a Republican. “Controversial or not, you can’t tell black history without him. I understand when you are setting up a museum there is so much space you can deal with but I definitely think he needs to be there.”
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts spoke at the opening of the museum detailing the court’s impact on African-Americans.
Roberts wrote the 2013 decision that struck down Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which designated that certain states must have changes to their voting laws cleared by the federal government or in federal court.
It is puzzling the museum saw fit to invite Roberts to its grand opening, while ignoring Thomas’ contributions.
“Whether one likes the decisions or philosophy of Justice Thomas should not matter for any public history institution ,” said Mike Smith, a Detroit historian and principal archivist at the University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library.
Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson” on Super Station 910 AM weekdays at noon. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.