Mark Davis was 11 years old when he opened a handwritten letter that changed his life. It was from a black Southern lawyer that he had not yet met.
"He encouraged me to study hard in school," said Davis, who is also African-American. "He was very inspiring for me."
The lawyer who penned the inspirational letter was Clarence Thomas, a year before his historic 1991 nomination fight for the U.S. Supreme Court divided the country. Oct. 23 marks the 25th anniversary Justice Thomas' arrival on the high court and makes him the nation's longest serving African-American justice. Famously silent on the bench and rarely given to interviews, Thomas is perhaps the most private man in American public life. Alternatively hated and revered, he is known mainly to his family and a close circle of friends and former law clerks.
Justice Thomas' connection to Mark Davis shows the public a new, more personal side of this intensely quiet man and complicates the simple narrative that Thomas had somehow separated himself from the black community. In fact, Thomas maintained friendships through letters and phone calls with a number of black Americans, without seeking any kind of publicity. These letters and friendships show a different side of the jurist.
Davis' life really began to change when he wrote back to Thomas. "I had to write a letter back to Justice Thomas thanking him," said Davis. "I was excited about receiving his letter and we started a pen pal friendship."
Davis felt a kinship with Thomas because they shared a similar humble start: Each grew up in Georgia, about 260 miles apart. Davis grew up in Decatur, Georgia; Thomas lived in a dirt-floor shack in Pin Point, Georgia, and was raised in Savannah. Both Thomas and Davis were homeless at young ages while their families struggled financially. Both knew hunger and the loneliness of being a good student in schools where many dropped out.
"I was living with my mom and living with my brother," said Davis. "We didn't have a lot of financial resources; it was pretty tight for us. I read about Justice Thomas who came from rural Georgia, and from similar circumstances, like me. He was very supportive."
The support from Thomas started in 1990, when Davis was in 5th grade. Davis' mentor Frank Winstead, then-director of educational media for the Dekalb County, Georgia, public school system, sent a letter to Thomas telling him about Davis and his background, and explaining that the young man could use a bit of encouragement. Davis' father was, essentially, missing in action. "I wrote Mr. Thomas and I told him that Mark is a remarkable kid," Winstead, now 75, recalled. "And I said that Mark admired him and that Mark wanted to be a doctor."
Winstead was stunned when Davis received a handwritten letter from Thomas.
The letter was straightforward and focused on Davis, not the famous lawyer writing it. "Mark, you can be a doctor if you really want to, but it's not going to be easy. In fact, it's going to be very hard," Thomas wrote. "That means you will have to go home and study when other kids are goofing off."
In the library of his elementary school, Davis sat at a desk, reached for a pen, and began writing to the man who helped change his life. He said Winstead would often peer over his shoulder and help him phrase his thoughts while he wrote to Thomas.
It was the beginning of a correspondence with Thomas that spanned 25 years. The last letter Davis received from the Supreme Court justice arrived after Davis graduated from Texas A&M University in 2011. "He sent a letter congratulating me on graduating from college and he sent a gift: stone bookends with the scales of justice," Davis said. "It was very significant for me."
Davis said he exchanged a total of about 12 letters with Thomas over the years. He recalls sharing his experiences with Thomas when Davis was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, while serving in the U.S. Navy as a corpsman attached to a Marine Corps unit. Inside his barracks on the naval base, Davis said, he would sit at a small desk near his bed and write to Thomas about the Japanese culture, which he found fascinating, and about his travels around the globe. "Seeing the world and learning about different cultures, broadened my horizons," Davis said. "And I shared my experiences with Justice Thomas."
Today, Davis lives in Houston, Texas – not far from Winstead, who lives in Magnolia, Texas, a suburb of Houston. Davis moved to Houston in 2005 and now works as a salesman at a car dealership. Recently he became engaged to be married. He still has dinner with Winstead often.
Davis didn't become a doctor, but he finds his job rewarding and he gives back to the community by volunteering at his church, where he helps young people prepare for the workforce. "I feel obligated to give back," Davis said, "because people like Justice Thomas helped me."
When Thomas was sworn in as the nation's second African-American Supreme Court Justice in 1991, Davis and his mother were invited to the ceremony. Davis later had dinner with Thomas, his wife Virginia, and other guests. "It was a great experience," Davis said.
Twenty-five years later, as Thomas celebrates a quarter century on the U.S. Supreme Court, Davis said he doesn't study the justice's opinions on the high court or his legacy as a jurist. Davis only sees Thomas as the man who wrote letters of encouragement when no one else did, when Davis was young and vulnerable, and needed it most.
"I don't focus on the politics or the court cases," Davis said. "And I don't understand all of the legal policies. I only know what he did for me. He inspired me; he is a great man; and he elevated me. I respect him for the role model he was for me."
Many others still see Thomas in political terms. William Murrain, a former civil rights lawyer from Atlanta, had a harsher view of Thomas. "His presence on the court does no honor to history," Murrain said. "I have no respect for his appreciation, interpretation or application of the law. His presence and rulings on the bench are not worthy of a Supreme Court Justice."
Others see him in racial terms. "As a Supreme Court justice, Thomas remains wary of tests that purport to gauge merit," Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher wrote in their 2007 book Supreme Comfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas. "But his suspicion is eclipsed by his feeling that affirmative action only undermines the accomplishments of black students,"
"It was at Yale that Thomas first encountered white classmates who were openly skeptical of his credentials. If Yale could not say whether he would have been admitted had he been white, who could blame white students for questioning his presence there?" Merida and Fletcher wrote.
Meanwhile, Thomas makes no effort to shift his opinions and rarely grants interviews. His office declined requests to comment for this article. But Thomas talked about race during a 2007 appearance on CBS' "60 Minutes."
"It's fascinating that there's so many people now who will make judgments based on what you like," Thomas said. "I'm black. So I'm supposed to think a certain way. I'm supposed to have certain opinions. I don't do that. You don't create a box and put people in and then make a lot of generalizations about them."
Racial politics aside, Thomas' former law clerks describe Thomas as a devoted public servant and one of the most brilliant legal minds of his generation. They also said Thomas, as the longest-serving African American Supreme Court justice in history, should be featured in the new Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum does not mention him at all.
"Having had the privilege of clerking for Thomas over 20 years ago, I can testify that his character remains unchanged," Mark Paoletta, a former law clerk for Thomas told American Media Institute.
"To my mind, he is the most approachable justice, each year spending hundreds of hours with school kids, law students and members of the public," Paoletta said. "He seems to know everyone at the Court, from the guards, to the cleaning staff, to the law clerks who come and go. He is ever respectful of the institution and its place in American society, even as he seeks to reshape some of its doctrines. The justice speaks his mind, marches to his own beat, and stays true to his duties, as he understands them."
Saikrishna Prakash, a law professor at The University of Virginia, clerked for Thomas in 1994 and 1995.
"His taciturn nature on the bench misleads people," Prakash said. "They think he is quiet by nature. Anyone who has seen him speak in public, and there are thousands, know the opposite is true. He is funny, gregarious, and voluble--but only when he wants to be. He also has a gift for connecting with people and for names. He remembers everyone he meets and makes a point of connecting with ordinary people, be they tourists, janitors, cooks, or visitors to the Court."
For Davis, all of this is neither here nor there. His connection with Thomas is personal. Thomas' father abandoned his family when Thomas was young. So did Davis' father. That sad commonality slowly built a bond.
Davis never knew his father— until recently. He eventually traced his father to Nigeria, and found him in a small village called Arondizuogu, 300 miles from the capital. "I met my father for the first time when I was 37 years old," Davis said. "I remember crying when I was a boy because I didn't have a father, but Justice Thomas and Frank [Winstead] helped me become a man out of dire conditions."
Davis said he would like to shake hands with Thomas again— and thank him as an adult. "I would like to see him again and thank him," Davis said. "I will always be thankful for the time we had as pen pals. Any success that I claim is because he inspired me and gave me a role model to look up to."