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You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow!

Jean Birkenstein Washington

Boston Herald

MSNBC feature

Robin Washington

One-time Mrs. Clarence Thomas showed class during adversity

Duluth News Tribune, May 6, 2008

I don’t remember Kathy’s new last name, and I won’t look it up for the purpose of this column. She was Kathy Thomas when we first met in 1990 at the Freedom House, a Boston community center where she worked and where I was shooting a television piece about inner-city youth.

Sometime during the day, she passed me a note about a thin man with long dreadlocks who also worked or volunteered there. He had an amazing story to tell, she wrote, either as a Vietnam vet or wrongfully convicted prisoner or both, and I should put him on TV. I stuffed it into my shirt pocket and never got to it.

A year later, it was my turn to write a note. By then, the whole country wanted to know whatever anyone could dig up about Clarence Thomas, who was then in the midst of his bitter Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Word quickly spread in Boston that Kathy was his ex-wife.

She had left the Freedom House job and her home phone was unlisted, but I had the address of her townhouse, which was on my daily commute. With a cameraman waiting in a car down the street, I knocked on the door. No answer. I then took out the note I had prepared: Kathy, I recall writing, I remember your help at the Freedom House and your good advice that I do a piece about …

Then I got to the point: I respect your privacy and I am not interested in the details of your marriage or divorce. I only want to verify comments your ex-husband made…

The specific remark was, before the United States Senate, Clarence Thomas’ sworn testimony that he had never discussed abortion with anybody. Thomas, the subject of a new biography, “Supreme Discomfort,” that deals in part with his early years, married Kathy Ambush in a Catholic ceremony in 1971. They were together in 1973 when Thomas was at Yale Law School and the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade. He hadn’t discussed abortion with anyone? Not even Kathy?

I couldn’t find the mailbox at her front door and went around the building. There was a mail slot in the back door, and I slipped in the note.

Immediately I realized that was a bad idea; it was her kitchen and clearly not where the mail was supposed to go. I left, expecting no call and got none. No one else got the interview, and her house entered my repertoire as entertainment to visiting friends: “There’s Clarence Thomas’ ex-wife’s house,” I’d say, adding that sometimes her son, who lived with his dad, would visit. “Oh my God,” I said once when a stretch limousine crowded her parking space, “There he is.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee never subpoenaed Kathy to ask her the obvious question. With Sen. Ted Kennedy as a member, it’s unlikely they wanted to start the precedent of grilling ex-wives, and Thomas was confirmed.

Two years later, I was the managing editor of the Bay State Banner, Boston’s African-American paper, and one of my reporters was trying to get in touch with Kathy, this time for a story about a private school where she was now working. The publisher overheard the reporter’s call and said to us both afterward, “You know who she is, don’t you?”

“I know,” I said.

“She’s Clarence Thomas’ ex-wife.”


“She had a hell of a time during those confirmation hearings!”

“I know,” I said, getting quieter.

“She said it got so bad, somebody threw something on her kitchen floor!”

“Uh… That was me.”

But she didn’t hold it against me, nor, for that matter, did anyone else in her family. At a restaurant, I said “Kathy!” to a woman biting into a sandwich, who, when she could talk, said she was Kathy’s identical twin. Not long after, Kathy saw me at a reception and called out to me. We talked about the Freedom House, her sister and people confusing the two of them, and my various media jobs. She never once mentioned the note. Neither did I.

More unexpectedly, I ran into her four years ago at a cable access TV station where she was volunteering and I was being interviewed — a role reversal from our first encounter. By now, I ranked hugs. She had moved to a different suburb, had a new and very fulfilling job working with immigrants and most of all, had remarried and was very happy.

And she has a new last name, which nobody needs to know. But I’ll look for it and call her someday.

Robin Washington is editorial page editor of the News Tribune and a commentator on National Public Radio’s “News & Notes.”

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