Thomas was born in 1948 in the poverty-stricken Pin Point community of Georgia. His mother struggled to support the family as a maid, eventually sending Thomas and his brother to live with their grandfather in nearby Savannah. While there, conditions improved for the brothers and Thomas decided after two years of high school to pursue the Catholic priesthood by enrolling at a minor seminary.
After graduation, Thomas enrolled at the Immaculate Conception Seminary in Missouri but according to biographical sketches, faced severe racism on campus and left the school after a short time. After a short break, he enrolled at Holy Cross College where he graduated cum laude with a degree in English and was subsequently accepted to Yale’s Law School. While at Yale, he focused his studies on tax and antitrust law.
After law school, Thomas took a position in John Danforth’s state attorney general’s office in Missouri where he focused on tax cases. From there, he went on to work for the pesticide and agriculture division of the Monsanto Corporation before rejoining Danforth, who had become a U.S. senator, as a legislative assistant.
Thomas caught the attention of the Reagan administration in 1981 and was offered a position as assistant secretary for civil rights in the Department of Education. The following year, Mr. Reagan promoted Thomas to chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where he would stay until for the next eight years.
In 1990, Thomas left the EEOC when President George Bush appointed him to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. The following year, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall retired and Mr. Bush nominated Thomas to replace him. Marshall, the first African American ever to sit on the high court and a defiant liberal, was a sharp contrast to the conservative Thomas who opposed affirmative action and other traditional civil rights causes.
Thomas faced a difficult confirmation hearing from a Democratic-led Senate Judiciary Committee and also left many liberal organizations torn over whether to support the important nomination of an African American who was also such a conservative thinker. Thomas’ greatest and most public challenge came from Professor Anita Hill, who had worked for him at the Department of Education and accused him of sexual harassment. After Hill and Thomas made public statements on the allegations, the Judiciary Committee voted 7 to 7 to send Thomas’ confirmation to the Senate floor. He was confirmed by a vote of 52 to 48 and sworn into the Supreme Court on Oct. 23, 1991.
While on the high court, Thomas has been a solid member of the far right wing bloc, commonly voting along with Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia.
Thomas is married to Virginia Lamp and has one child from a previous marriage.