Twenty-five years ago, Thurgood Marshall, the first black person to serve on the Supreme Court, announced his retirement from the bench. President George H.W. Bush nominated his replacement: Clarence Thomas, a federal judge in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the same court current Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland hails from. Thomas had been appointed to that position only 19 months earlier, but was black—and perhaps more crucially, a conservative.
What followed was a contentious confirmation process, mired in ideological political theater, and a not unfounded concern from liberals and a small contingent of conservatives that Thomas was not sufficiently qualified to serve on the country’s highest court. But questions of Thomas’ qualifications proved merely the foreground to a controversy that follows him today, and serves as the center of the new docudrama Confirmation: that of his former assistant, Anita Hill, coming forward and accusing Thomas of sexually harassing her during their time working together at two government agencies.
While Thomas was ultimately confirmed by a narrow margin (52–48), Hill’s testimony, unfolding before a reported 20 million viewers, would serve as the catalyst for a new movement and national conversation about how women are treated in the workplace.
Confirmation depicts those hearings, with dialogue taken directly from the confirmation hearing transcripts. Scandal’s Kerry Washington plays Hill with the same quiet dignity (with some behind the scenes fuming) that people at home saw during those three days of hearings. The Wire’s Wendell Pierce plays Thomas as a man of principle who believes he’s become the subject of a witch hunt. Like the events it chronicles, Confirmation leaves it up to the viewer as to who is telling the truth, even while stacking evidence in one corner.
Here's a refresher on what you need to know before watching the movie, premiering Saturday on HBO.
Clarence Thomas is an associate justice on the Supreme Court. His judicial style is that of a Constitutional restorationist—or, he bases his opinions and decisions on what he thinks “the delegates of the Philadelphia and of the state ratifying conventions understood it to mean.”
He’s recognized by legal scholars on both sides of the political spectrum as a very learned judge, able to back up his decisions with "lots of historical sources." His tenure on the court has been marked by relative silence: he hadn’t spoken during oral arguments for seven years until 2013; just this February, he asked his first question in a decade.
Thomas joined the Department of Education in 1981 under Ronald Reagan's administration as assistant secretary in the Office for Civil Rights and employed a lawyer named Anita Hill as an adviser. Hill would follow Thomas to the the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), where he was named chairman in 1982. He joined the Court of Appeals in 1990.
Anita Hill, fairly fresh out of Yale Law School, worked with Thomas for two years: first as an attorney-adviser at the Department of Education and then as an assistant at the EEOC. Following her time as a staffer for Thomas, she became a professor at Oral Roberts University's school of law and then held a similar position at the University of Oklahoma's college of law.
While vetting Thomas for the Supreme Court, the FBI interviewed Hill after receiving a tip that she had been sexually harassed by Thomas during her years working with him. The transcripts of that interview were leaked to National Public Radio’s Nina Totenberg, casting Hill into the national spotlight, something she never intended.
Hill affirmed that the Senate Judiciary Committee had approached her and "asked [her] specifically about [Thomas and] harassment and issues involving women in the work place." However, she continued, "I felt that as a citizen, as an individual who had information, that it was my obligation, when approached, to come forward."
At this point, the Senate had already held its hearing to confirm Thomas, but with pressure from women in the House of Representatives mounting (at the time, there were two women in the Senate), then-Senator Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, moved to delay the vote on Thomas' confirmation to seek further testimony from him and Hill.
Watch for yourself. The more than six hours of testimony has been preserved by CSPAN.
But the basics of Hill’s testimony are this: She stated that repeatedly during her two years as Thomas' assistant, he made sexually explicit comments and pressured Hill to go on dates with him, even after being rebuffed several times. Thomas had separated from his first wife, Kathy Grace Ambush, in 1981, the same year Hill started working with him.
In her opening statement, Hill describes the beginning of their working relationship:
During this period at the Department of Education, my working relationship with Judge Thomas was positive. I had a good deal of responsibility and independence. I thought he respected my work and that he trusted my judgment. After approximately three months of working there, he asked me to go out socially with him.
She explained that she told Thomas she didn't think it was appropriate to date a supervisor, saying, "I was very uncomfortable with the idea and told him so." But according to Hill, Thomas persisted. For several weeks. Hill told the committee that Thomas then began turning work conversations into discussions of a sexual nature.
His conversations were very vivid. He spoke about acts that he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals and films showing group sex or rape scenes. He talked about pornographic materials depicting individuals with large penises or large breasts involved in various sex acts. On several occasions, Thomas told me graphically of his own sexual prowess.
Hill said that she made concerted efforts to change the topic of their discussions, but her "efforts to change…the subject were rarely successful." She stated that Thomas' pursuit of her, and frank sexual discussions, abruptly ended and months later, she was faced with the decision to follow Thomas to his new appointment at the EEOC. She did, and they worked together in a professional capacity for several months again, but it did not last. Hill said that Thomas soon began pressuring her to go on dates with him yet again. And the sexual talk started up again soon after.
One of the oddest episodes I remember was an occasion in which Thomas was drinking a Coke in his office. He got up from the table at which we were working, went over to his desk to get the Coke, looked at the can and asked, "Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?" On other occasions, he referred to the size of his own penis as being larger than normal, and he also spoke on some occasions of the pleasures he had given to women with oral sex.
After Hill secured her teaching job at Oral Roberts (after having started a job search to escape the alleged nightmare of working with Thomas), Hill said she reluctantly accepted a dinner invitation (extended "as a professional courtesy") from Thomas after her last day at the EEOC, where Thomas allegedly "said that if I ever told anyone of his behavior that it would ruin his career. This was not an apology, nor was it an explanation. That was his last remark about the possibility of our going out or reference to his behavior."
Hill also discussed the times since leaving the EEOC in 1983 that she came into contact with Thomas, including several phone calls that would prove crucial to the hearings, but only in that they were red herrings.
This was her closing statement:
It would have been more comfortable to remain silent. It took no initiative to inform anyone — I took no initiative to inform anyone. But when I was asked by a representative of this committee to report my experience, I felt that I had to tell the truth. I could not keep silent.
Hill was inundated with the same line of questioning from the Senate Judiciary committee. Here's Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter (then still Republican):
The committee grilled Hill on her decision to follow Thomas from the Department of Education to the EEOC, to which she time and again responded she felt that the "overtures" had ended.
There was one woman, Angela Wright (played by Jennifer Hudson in the movie), a reporter for the Charlotte Observer who had been Thomas' press secretary at the EEOC after Hill had decamped for Oral Roberts, who made a statement to the Committee, but she was not called to testify. Republicans on the committee didn't want a second female witness making similar statements as Hill and Democrats were worried about her credibility. She'd been fired from the EEOC by Thomas, allegedly for calling a male staffer "a faggot," but still, her statement read similar to Hill's testimony: Thomas had asked her on dates, commented on her body, and had fired her after repeatedly turning him down.
Rose Jourdain, another EEOC employee, spoke to judiciary committee staff and corroborated Wright's statement. Jourdain said Wright complained to her that she was "increasingly nervous about being in his presence alone" because Thomas had made comments "concerning her figure, her body, her breasts, her legs."
Sukari Hardnett, another former Thomas aide at the EEOC, wrote a letter to the committee saying, "If you were young, black, female and reasonably attractive, you knew full well you were being inspected and auditioned as a female.”
Each of these women was available to testify but were not called by the committee.
He categorically denied every charge leveled against him in Hill's testimony.
"I deny each and every single allegation against me today that suggested in any way that I had conversations of a sexual nature or about pornographic material with Anita Hill, that I ever attempted to date her, that I ever had any personal sexual interest in her, or that I in any way ever harassed her."
But what burnished his denial in the national consciousness at the time was this evocative soundbite:
This is a circus. It's a national disgrace It is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order you will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate rather than hung from a tree.
Here's a clip of Thomas' entire testimony.
A highlight of the cross-examination was Orrin Hatch asking Thomas if sexual harassment at the EEOC was OK.
Then there’s Hatch asking Thomas whether he had ever used the phrase "Long Dong Silver," a reference to a pornographic film Hill alleged Thomas had made to her.
A few character witnesses testified in support of both Hill and Thomas. Her witnesses, including a judge, were in agreement that she wasn't the type to make up such serious allegations.
The witnesses for Thomas were similarly unanimous, all agreeing that the man they knew could not have done this. Thomas’ character witness testimony coalesced around a sinister line of thinking: that Hill wanted to have a relationship with Thomas, and that the allegations stemmed from her rejection.
The Committee adjourned after more than 32 hours of testimony and on Oct. 15, Thomas was approved by the Senate by a vote count 52–48.
There were books written in the immediate aftermath of the hearings that painted both Hill and Thomas in poor lights.
The Real Anita Hill by David Brock, of the conservative American Spectator magazine, was released in 1993 and notably accused Hill of being romantically obsessed with Thomas. Brock would later apologize to Hill and say he lied throughout the book to protect Thomas' reputation.
Strange Justice, by then-Wall Street Journal staffers Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson followed a year later, and would prove to be one of the definitive texts on the controversy. According to Mayer and Abramson, a "preponderance of the evidence" (a video store clerk says Thomas frequented the X-rated section and had Playboy centerfolds on the wall of his bachelor pad, to cite two examples) suggests Thomas lied under oath.
Yes. As soon as a year later, according to Time:
Sensitivity to sexual harassment has deepened. Labor lawyers, corporate personnel managers and academics report more interest in the subject; the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) logged a record 9,920 harassment complaints in the past year, a rise of 50% over the previous year.
And people came around to Hill's version of events. Again, via Time:
In a curious measure of the shifting sympathies, recent surveys show that today more people believe Hill. According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 44% of registered voters now say Hill was telling the truth, up from 24% a year ago, while support for Thomas' version of events has dropped from 40% to 34%.
1992 was "the year of women" in Congress after 24 new female members of the House of Representatives were elected. In the other half of the legislative branch, Carole Moseley Braun became the first African-American woman to be elected to the Senate.
She thinks more women became politically active because of her testimony and she has no regrets about participating in the hearings. She left the University of Oklahoma law school in 1996 after five years of conservative pressure to force her out, including attempted legislation that would have shuttered the law school.
She taught at Berkeley for a year before settling at Brandeis where in 2015 she was named University Professor. Hill teaches social policy, law, and women’s, gender and sexuality studies.
Thomas released a memoir in 2007 called My Grandfather’s Son where he calls into question Anita Hill’s character and motivation for participating in the hearings. She responded with an op-ed in The New York Times. A taste:
Justice Thomas offers a litany of unsubstantiated representations and outright smears that Republican senators made about me when I testified before the Judiciary Committee — that I was a “combative left-winger” who was “touchy” and prone to overreacting to “slights.” A number of independent authors have shown those attacks to be baseless. What’s more, their reports draw on the experiences of others who were familiar with Mr. Thomas’s behavior, and who came forward after the hearings. It’s no longer my word against his.
Yep. She told our friends at The Root in 2011:
"I knew it was a concern, and it weighed on me at the time," she says. "But for me, African-American experience has always been moved forward by us being able to tell the truth about our lives. Women, as well as men, need to be able to talk about what life is like for them and how they face inequality. Only through that can we make progress and move forward together."
David Matthews operates the Wayback Machine on Fusion.net—hop on. Got a tip? Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org