WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court (search)'s only black justice said Tuesday that he has been wrongly maligned for not embracing the views of black civil rights leaders.
Justice Clarence Thomas (search), one of the court's most conservative members, told a group of students, most of them black, that he believes the death penalty is constitutional and that there's more to diversity than skin color.
And he told the students at Benjamin Banneker High School in Washington that they don't have to base their beliefs on being black although "we've reached a point where people are very comfortable telling blacks what they ought to believe."
Asked about his disagreements with civil rights leaders, Thomas said: "I think they're struggling with me. I'm not struggling with anybody."
"I have my own opinions and my ideas. They're mine," he said. "I won't tell you you must believe certain things because of your skin color or because you're bad for not agreeing with me. That's all I can see, is that people are upset because I disagree with them."
Thomas was quizzed by the students about his views on affirmative action; about his vote in Bush v. Gore, which ended candidate Al Gore's chances of winning the presidency; and about replacing civil rights trailblazer Thurgood Marshall (search) as the second black justice on the court.
He repeatedly turned the subject to the futures of the high school students -- as lawyers, doctors and journalists.
Thomas talked about his unlikely rise from poverty in rural Georgia to his nomination to the Supreme Court in 1991 during the first Bush administration.
"I was a little nappy-headed little kid. That's what they called me 'nappy-headed little kid,' running around barefoot in Pinpoint [Georgia]. Who would have known what was in there? Nobody knew," said Thomas, who considered becoming a Catholic priest before picking the law as a career.
Thomas said that with the encouragement of his grandparents, he worked hard and after college moved away from Georgia when he couldn't get a job there. The justice said he still rises each morning about 4 a.m. because he can feel his grandfather's spirit hovering over him, saying, "Get up! Think you're rich?"
The court's youngest justice, 54, identified the lingering effects of slavery as a continuing concern. "The race problem has never been solved," said Thomas, who has one grown son and is raising his great-nephew.
Thomas, who was participating in an educational series televised by C-SPAN, refused to discuss his views on affirmative action because of two cases pending at the Supreme Court that challenge the constitutionality of admissions policies that help minorities. He did mention a recent speech to a diverse college crowd.
"So often you go to universities and it's all white or predominantly black. I looked out there and it was a mix of everybody. And it's wonderful.
"But are you telling me you all can't learn in this group?" he asked the students. "Now you know you can."