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Anita Hill on the Thomas hearings, 25 years later: ‘I would do it again’

April 7, 2016 at 6:25 PM EDT
Twenty-five years ago, Anita Hill testified about sexual harassment from then-nominee Clarence Thomas. Now a new HBO film dramatizes the high-profile political battle that captured the nation’s attention and changed Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Hill joins Gwen Ifill to look back at the case, her experience and how it would have been different today.
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GWEN IFILL: Twenty-five years ago this October, University of Oklahoma law Professor Anita Hill changed Supreme Court confirmation hearings forever. Twenty million households tuned in to see her testify that her former boss, nominee Clarence Thomas, sexually harassed her.

The hearings continued through the weekend, touching hot buttons of sex, power and race. Thomas called it a high-tech lynching.

HBO Films retells the story in “Confirmation,” starring Kerry Washington and Wendell Pierce as Thomas.

ACTOR: If what you say this man said to you occurred, why in God’s name, when he left his position of power or status or authority over you, why in God’s name would you ever speak to a man like that the rest of your life?

KERRY WASHINGTON, Actress: That’s a very good question. And I am sure that I cannot answer it to your satisfaction. I have suggested that I was afraid of retaliation. I was afraid of damage to my professional life.

I believed that — you have to understand that this kind of response is not atypical, and I can’t explain it. It takes an expert in psychology to explain how that can happen. But it can happen, because it happened to me.

GWEN IFILL: Anita Hill, now a professor of law at Brandeis University, joins me now.

You said you watched this film about a week ago. Did you hesitate at all to relive that again?

ANITA HILL, Former Assistant to Clarence Thomas: Well, I have relived it on other occasions, and so this wasn’t the first time.

There was a documentary a couple of years ago.

GWEN IFILL: It was called “Anita.”

ANITA HILL: It was called “Anita.”

And it’s still hard, but I — I know it’s important, and it’s something that I was willing to do, because I really wanted to know how HBO of going to tell the story.

GWEN IFILL: You know, you have lived in this your entire — the past quarter-of-a-century. Many people are just coming new to the story or remember it vaguely. Do you look back on it and think, I would do this again?

ANITA HILL: I would do it again.

Many people do remember it vaguely, but I run into people all the time who remember it vividly. As a matter of fact, when I was on the flight here this morning from Boston, a woman — I said, “Boy, you really have a good memory.”

And she says: “I remember it so well. It was like it just happened.”

GWEN IFILL: You accumulated labels during this process. You were either a liar in some people’s eyes or a truth-teller.

Do you worry that you will never be able to shed those labels?

ANITA HILL: I don’t worry about it. I just keep living my life.

It’s been 25 years. There are just people who don’t know the story.

GWEN IFILL: People who weren’t born.

ANITA HILL: People who weren’t born, don’t know the story.

And I think they’re going to find it really interesting. In some ways, it is going to seem like ancient history to them, but I think, in many ways, it is going to seem just like today, because some of the issues that were raised, as you pointed out in the introduction, are so contemporary. They haven’t gone away.

GWEN IFILL: I’m old enough to have remembered the hearings at the time. And I was shocked then. I am shocked now, reliving it and watching the things that were said, the different characters that different senators and others took on.

And I wonder if it is surreal for you, too.

ANITA HILL: It was surreal to experience that.

And, unfortunately, I hear from women in particular, but women and men, who come up against this kind of power and this kind of resistance all the time. And, unfortunately, they’re getting some of the same kinds of inaccurate statements, some of the fallacies, some of the myths that were behind what the senators were doing are being repeated over and over again.

GWEN IFILL: Have you talked to Kerry Washington about her playing you?

ANITA HILL: She and I spoke when she was preparing to play me. And she works very hard to understand the person.

And I have a lot of respect for that. I was actually comforted by it and thought, OK, well, if hard work is what it takes and skill, she — she’s going to pull it off very nicely.

GWEN IFILL: And this movie captures, you were personally — your character was dragged through the mud. I’m sure Clarence Thomas would say his was as well.

But I wonder if you have spoken with any of the senators who were on that committee since.

ANITA HILL: I have not spoken with them.

GWEN IFILL: Have they reached out to you?

ANITA HILL: Arlen Specter did at one point.

He suggested that we — what he said was, “I was thinking we might be able to work on something together.”

But I just couldn’t see that as a possibility.

GWEN IFILL: How do young women react to you now? You’re on a college campus. College campuses are hotbeds of debate for things — among other things, sexual assault cases now.

ANITA HILL: Sexual harassment and sexual assault really is something that is on the minds of young women today.

I do visit — I’m on a college campus. We’re grappling with those issues. I visit colleges all over the country. High-profile colleges like Berkeley, U.C. Berkeley, are grappling with them, making decisions, in some cases, that are just wrongheaded decisions about how to proceed with sexual harassment claims.

There are two that are out there now, one involving an administrator, the other involving a high-profile faculty member. And so these issues are very present. And I have to credit some very, very brave young women and men for taking this on, on college campuses.

GWEN IFILL: One of the things that also crossed my mind while I was watching this is whether you could have survived, whether this, any of this set of events could have unfolded in our current age in a time of instantaneous social media and Twitter and instant judgment?

ANITA HILL: I don’t upon how any of — how this would unfold today in this environment.

But I can tell you a funny story. One of the things that I tell to people is, I have a collection of faxes that I got. Well, we wouldn’t have faxes. We didn’t even have e-mail so much. Western Union, I think, fell under the crunch of the telegrams that were coming.

It would be quite different today. But I don’t — I think that the issues are such that it wouldn’t go away. It wouldn’t be instant. I think it would be different. The forums for discussing it would be different, but the issue wouldn’t disappear just because we live in an instant society.

GWEN IFILL: When — at one point in the film, the character, and presumably you, said, this was a mistake. Do you still think it was a mistake? And, if not what, changed your mind?

ANITA HILL: I think the character — my words aren’t always exactly what the characters are saying.

You know, that’s the thing about fictional adaptations.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

ANITA HILL: I don’t think it was a mistake.

I think it was something that was meant to happen, actually. I had something to say. I had an experience to share that went to the fitness of an individual who was going to be sitting on a Supreme Court with a lifetime appointment. It was important, not only to the integrity of this individual, but also to the integrity of the court itself.

And as a member of the bar, as a citizen, I had a right to come forward and to testify. I don’t think we — that is ever a mistake. And I really wouldn’t do it differently today.

GWEN IFILL: Anita Hill, professor of law at Brandeis University, thank you very much.

ANITA HILL: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: HBO’s “Confirmation” premieres Saturday, April 16, at 8:00 p.m.

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