Justice Clarence Thomas '71 Receives Honorary Degree from Holy Cross

In remarks, gives praise to President Emeritus Fr. Brooks

Stating how deeply humbled he was, Clarence Thomas '71, associate justice of the United States, accepted an honorary degree from Holy Cross during Academic Convocation on Jan. 26.  Before a capacity audience in the Hogan Ballroom, he delivered a moving address — at one point pausing to collect his emotions —and expressed gratitude to Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J. ’49, president emeritus, for his mentorship and for the connections and intellectual growth he experienced at the College, in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The honorary degree was presented in recognition of his legal career, service to the College as a former trustee, and especially to students who study in the Washington Semester Program, and his tenure on the nation’s highest court.

"I must say that I'm a little embarrassed and uncomfortable receiving this honor for doing what I'm expected to do as a graduate of Holy Cross and required to do as a citizen for this great country," he told students, faculty and staff in the Hogan Campus Center Ballroom. "I am appreciative and humbled and I'm unworthy yet I am profoundly and deeply honored. It is I who should be honoring Holy Cross and all the wonderful teachers, administrators, and staff who helped me more than four decades ago. And it is I who should be boldly expressing my gratitude for all that they did for me."

In the traumatic wake of Rev. Martin Luther King’s murder, Justice Thomas had quit the seminary where he was studying to be a priest, and been kicked out his home by his grandfather. He said he would not be where he is today without Fr. Brooks, and the education he received at Holy Cross left him a changed man.

"From predestination to existentialism and from natural law to nihilism, Holy Cross required that I travel the disciplined and rugged terrain of theory and thought of the transcendent and the palpable," he said. "It is here that I enjoyed the first brief glimpses of what it meant to be educated. It is here that I came to enjoy classical music and reading. It is here that I tried to exchange the cloak of animus and self-pity for that of hopefulness and charity. It is here that I tried to sort out the difference between collectivism and individualism and came to treasure the latter and abhor the former. It is here that I came to more fully understand deferred gratification, struggle and commitment."

Thomas said it was the College that also helped him find his faith once more: "It was here directly in front of the [St. Joseph] chapel, on the morning of April 16, 1970 that I promised Almighty God that if he took hate out of my heart, I would never hate again. He did, and I have not."

In his remarks, Thomas talked about his relationship with Fr. Brooks, whose commitment to the ideals of equality and social justice, brought him and scores of other African-American men to Holy Cross.

"When all is quiet at the end of this life, I hope that those few, those very few, who might have cause to remember that one day long ago," Thomas said before pausing to hold back tears, "a lonely kid from Georgia had no place to go, and when they wonder who took him in and helped him to heal and to prosper, let them hear their answer in the quiet whispers of the wind sweeping across Mount St. James: the Cross, the Cross, always the Cross."

In his welcoming remarks, Rev. Philip Boroughs, S.J., president, emphasized the importance of the event.

"It is highly unusual for the College community to convene outside of Commencement season to confer an honorary degree on an individual, so indeed today is a very special day," he said.

Following the convocation, Diane Brady, author of the critically-acclaimed book, "Fraternity," which follows five African-American men, including Thomas, through Holy Cross and their relationship with Fr. Brooks, conducted a lighthearted question-and-answer session. Their discussion touched on many topics, including the atmosphere at the College in the late 1960s, the protest that served as the African-American students' bold statement against racism at the College, and the importance of children's education and a liberal arts education.

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