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Justice Clarence Thomas' tribute to George Mason University Economics Prof. Walter Williams at a gala dinner sponsored by the Mercatus Center

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Thank You, Walter Williams

Justice Clarence Thomas’ tribute to George Mason University Economics Prof. Walter Williams at a gala dinner sponsored by the Mercatus Center

EDITOR’S NOTE: On September 23, the Arlington, Va.-based Mercatus Center of George Mason University, along with its sister organization, the Institute for Humane Studies, and the university’s Economics Department, hosted a gala dinner “toast” in honor of Economics Prof. Walter Williams—whose columns have long appeared in HUMAN EVENTS. The dinner was held at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Pentagon City, Va. The speakers included John Stossel, co-anchor of ABC’s “20/20,” former Atty. Gen. Ed Meese, and, by video, radio host Rush Limbaugh and Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was the keynoter. Here is what he said: Well, after I was confirmed—which was no easy feat—I received a call that evening from Dr. Williams, who said to me “Clarence you don’t have to do anything up there, you know. All you got to do is just sit there. You’ll drive them nuts. You don’t have to write anything.” [Audience laughter] Can I do something? Can I say something now, Walter? It has been 12 years. Actually, it’s worked. I hadn’t said anything and it drives them nuts. Yeah. Well, thanks for the advice, Walter. The other thing is after I, we’ve labored over an opinion I get a call from Dr. Williams: “Clarence, you know almost everything you are doing is unconstitutional [laughter]. And why does it take so many pages to write something unconstitutional [laughter]. That’s great. Aristotle said that dignity does not consist in having honors but in deserving them. I think tonight it is obvious that we honor a man who truly deserves to be honored. I met Dr. Williams through his writings over 25 years ago. A friend of mine who you’ve seen (then I was just a groupie of his), Dr. Thomas Sowell, was on the faculty at UCLA, and I was trying my best to locate him. I would call and leave messages and of course, never have my calls returned, write and never get a response. I had learned of Dr. Sowell in the mid-’70s from another friend. He told me, “Clarence, there is another black guy out there who thinks like you.” So I started my research on him after that and in researching Professor Sowell, I came across Dr. Williams’ writings. I was sitting in my office at Monsanto reading his arguments or his writings on South Africa, vouchers, etc. I had had my doubts about governmental regulations on blacks since watching my poor grandfather try to run his oil business and how he was affected by the licensing process. He told me about how he attempted to start businesses and how he was prevented from doing so by governmental intrusion. Then I read some of Dr. Williams’s other works after a friend of mine, John Bolton, sent me an intellectual care package. Through Professor Sowell and Dr. Williams I became familiar with Hayek and more familiar with Milton Friedman. Dr. Williams, thank you for all your work, your insight, your courage. You helped to free me from the bondage of group thinking. Your independence gave me courage to assert my own. Your example led me not to follow you but to think for myself and to have the courage of my convictions. You, Professor Sowell, and Jay Parker are the three most independent people I have ever met. It was truly a blessing to have met you all within my first year in Washington and to realize you had the same humble beginnings and the same intellectual growth as I have had. I first met Dr. Williams, face to face, at a Heritage Foundation event, in the spring of 1980, I believe. Not surprisingly, it was at a Growth Day celebration, an alternative to the Earth Day events. He and I agreed on the way out that we should have all received a small piece of asphalt [laughter and applause]. Over the years, Dr. Williams has been steadfast in principle. In fact, a few anecdotes about him will make it clear to those who do not know him well that he has always been this way. As most of you know I grew up in the segregated South. Dr. Williams, on the other hand, is from Philadelphia. In the 1950s, an era when the highway was dotted with “Impeach Earl Warren” signs, Dr. Williams was on a bus on his way to Fort Stewart a short distance from where we farmed in Liberty County. When he arrived in Savannah, he refused to go to the back of the bus. Upon his arrival in Hinesville, Ga., the local authorities advised him it would not be safe for him to leave the military base. I have never had the courage to ask him if he ever left. Upon his arrival in Korea, he declared himself Caucasian [laughter and applause]. I’m not telling the story out of school, am I? [Thomas looks toward Williams.] Upon his arrival in Korea, he declared himself Caucasian, since whites got better assignments than blacks. Only when he was assured he would not be discriminated against, did he change the designation. I’ve not had the courage to ask him what his designation was. Later there would be in the military what Professor Sowell termed in a recent column “a brush with a court-martial.” Surprise. But even then, I think, Dr. Williams showed no timidity in bringing his own counter-claim and winning. In 1981, after Ronald Reagan was elected President, Dr. Williams volunteered to work with the transition team at the Department of Labor. There’s a marriage made in hell [laughter and applause]. It is my understanding that he resigned before noon of his first day. My reaction was “what took so long?” He’s usually a lot more decisive than that. I am waiting to see it as an episode on that what-was-I-thinking program that comes on TV, where people are jumping over buildings or eating oysters that are ten days old in the sun. I can see him: “What was I thinking when I went to the Labor Department.” What were you thinking, Walter? Can you imagine him sitting in meetings with GS-11’s? [Laughter] I can’t. But just knowing this about Dr. Williams, in the words of Thomas Sowell: It should not be surprising he did not conform to the racial orthodoxy of the ’60s. In fact, it is not surprising that he is his own man, content and able to do his own thinking. Dr.Williams, some years ago, you wrote a book titled All It Takes Is Guts. You have guts, my friend. Thank you for being you and showing those of us who look up to you that the rewards of intellectual independence are far greater than the rewards of ideological or racial orthodoxy. God bless you, my friend.

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Mr. Thomas is a United States Supreme Court Justice.

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