In his concurring opinion in that case, Thomas once again reached for the history books, this time tracing the 14th Amendment’s origins to the antislavery movement and to the efforts of the Radical Republicans of the 39th Congress, who sought to force the former Confederate states to respect fundamental rights after the Civil War—including the right to keep and bear arms, a provision of particular importance to the recently freed slaves, who were now facing the South’s incipient Jim Crow regime.
That focus on black history even earned Thomas a rare compliment from liberal Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy, who marveled, “His advocacy for black self-defense is straight from the heart of Malcolm X,” while likening the opinion to “a mix of black history lesson and Black Panther Party manifesto.” Milloy’s sentiment was accurate, though he should have reached further back for the comparison. Thomas’ advocacy for black self-defense came straight from the heart of Frederick Douglass, whose writings Thomas repeatedly cited in the McDonald opinion. “The liberties of the American people were dependent upon the ballot-box, the jury-box, and the cartridge-box,” Douglass once wrote. “Without these no class of people could live and flourish in this country.”
Which brings us back to Wesley Morris’ Django review. Had Morris bothered to glance at Thomas’ jurisprudence, rather than opting for a lazy and ignorant smear, he would have discovered a writer whose work is steeped in African American history, and who grapples repeatedly with the long shadows cast by slavery and Jim Crow. Clarence Thomas may not qualify as a modern liberal, but there is no question he remains part of a civil rights tradition that started with Frederick Douglass.