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Justice Clarence Thomas urges graduates to persevere | (KRT) ATHENS, Ga. - On the day he graduated from Yale Law School 29 years ago, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas remembers being so outwardly over-confident his grandfather thought he was a know-it-all.

But inside, Thomas told the University of Georgia Law School's graduating class Saturday, he was crushed.

Despite all his hard work and accomplishments, he had been rejected by every law firm in Atlanta. They didn't hire blacks. And his dream of working in the Savannah area, close to his home? It, too, had dissipated into a haze of rejection letters.

"No biographer can peer into your soul and really know what you're feeling at that moment," Thomas told the graduates. "No one can ever know the trials and tribulations, the loneliness, the swirl of emotions."

In a deeply personal speech delivered to a receptive, integrated audience, Thomas recalled the stinging discrimination he suffered as a young graduate - and what he did to overcome it - to inspire Georgia's future lawyers. He told them they should persevere through hardship and consider themselves "heroes" rather than "victims" who have no options.

"Twenty-nine years ago, I didn't think like that," said Thomas, who is one of the court's most conservative and controversial justices. "But 29 years from now, I implore you to be able to say you did your best."

Thomas was the first sitting Supreme Court justice in 30 years to deliver Georgia Law's commencement address, and the first Georgia-born justice to do it. Some law students and professors had objected to his selection, and two small protests were held on campus while he spoke, one focused on his well-known opposition to affirmative action.

Thomas' speech avoided direct mention of hot-button issues, producing instead a revealing look at the underpinnings for his views. Thomas said he took a job in the Missouri attorney general's office after being universally rejected in Georgia, and that his boss at the time tried to encourage him. "There's plenty of room at the top," Thomas recalled him saying.

"Easy for him to say," Thomas said. "He was white. I was black."

But Thomas used that opportunity as a stepping stone, rising to eventually become a legislative aide to a Missouri senator, head of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal appeals court judge and, finally, supreme court justice. He said he still has the pile of rejection letters from 1974.

Thomas said he takes his cues from his own heroes, the family and friends who raised him in Pinpoint.

"They knew their responsibilities and obligations," Thomas said. "They accepted life on its own terms" and refused to complain, he said.

Thomas said a small child asked him recently if he ever felt like giving up.

"A hundred times a day," he said. "There will be days when you believe you can't take it anymore. But those days are just part of life."

Law School dean David E. Shipley said, "I was unaware until now of how difficult it was for an African American lawyer to get a job in Georgia in 1974."

Shipley said integrating the University of Georgia and its law school also took a long time; the first black graduated in 1966, the second not until 1970. The law school is now about 10 percent black, Shipley said, about double the percentage at the entire university. But, "There's a long way to go," Shipley said.

Many of the students who heard Thomas' speech were impressed, whether or not they agree with his views.

"It's good to reflect on things that are reality, as opposed to things that are sugar-coated to try to motivate you," said Rasheda Cylar, one of the graduates. She said she's familiar with Thomas' opinions and his politics, and the speech didn't do anything to change her mind about him. "But it's not the messenger that matters, it's the message," she said.

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services