In 2016, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas delivered the commencement address to graduates at Hillsdale College in Michigan. While many speakers use commencement addresses to boost graduates’ confidence with lofty platitudes about following one’s dreams or believing in one’s potential, Justice Thomas chose to go a different route.
He spoke not about what the world has to offer to young people, but instead what they ought to offer the world. He emphasized to the graduates that as they entered the public square, they must be aware of what it means to be an American citizen. Citizenship, he told them, is a duty—not a privilege.
Justice Thomas asserted that in keeping with a long philosophical tradition, the reverse side of freedom is responsibility; there’s a vital relationship between the liberty of a thriving constitutional republic and the day-to-day sacrifice of individual citizens. In his view, liberty comes with deep and abiding obligations.
He concluded that instead of trying to dedicate their lives to changing the world, students should instead begin to practice responsibility, dignity, and gratitude in their lives. Instead of fixating on implementing sweeping social changes from the top down, they should first examine how they treat those closest to them.
Those words, spoken five years ago by Justice Thomas, epitomize the man, who this week is celebrating his 30th anniversary as an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Born in abject poverty in Pin Point, Georgia, abandoned by his father when he was just 2 years old, and suffering from the racism that was prevalent at the time as a black child in the South, Justice Thomas started out life seemingly with three strikes against him. He could have chosen to be a “victim” of his unfortunate circumstances and respond in anger to his situation.
But instead, he was fortunate to have a mentor in his grandfather, Myers Anderson, a self-made man who became successful in business despite also being born into poverty. It was Anderson who taught the young boy the value of hard work, self-reliance, and a good education. With Anderson as an inspiration, Justice Thomas would become the first member of his family ever to attend college, and eventually earned a law degree from Yale.
Justice Thomas had taken the lessons he received from Anderson to heart, and instead of focusing on what the world supposedly owed him, he chose to focus on what he owed to the world—gratitude and personal responsibility regardless of the circumstances. He knew the value of personal sacrifice, and his life is one that embodies the obligation he feels to invest in those who come after him so they too can have a brighter future.
For those young people who have been fortunate enough to serve as clerks to Justice Thomas, they could not find a better mentor. Justice Thomas invests in the relationships with his clerks, providing the same sort of mentorship that he received from Anderson, and many have gone on to be leaders in government, law, and the private sector.
But it’s just not his law clerks with whom Justice Thomas shows interest—those who have had the honor of meeting him in his chambers at the Supreme Court have found a man of exceeding kindness and a wonderful sense of humor. He greets and treats all as if they are close personal friends.
Justice Thomas understands that being a good citizen requires standing firm in one’s beliefs while treating everyone with dignity, even those with whom he disagrees or who hurl personal attacks against him. In doing so, he serves as a role model for us all and shows us through personal responsibility, self-sacrifice, gratitude, and dignity what citizenship and duty is all about.
So, as we celebrate the 30th anniversary of this humble servant’s service as an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, let us all strive to follow the words he gave those graduating students at Hillsdale College and that he has lived out throughout his life—to see citizenship as a duty that requires sacrifice and not a privilege that demands special treatment.
That’s the legacy of that young boy from Pin Point, Georgia. His life is a testament to how being a good citizen will result in both personal and national restoration.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.