A year after opening its doors, the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture has finally seen fit to pay tribute to one of the most enduring names in the storied history of the Supreme Court: Justice Clarence Thomas. One of the most prominent conservative black men to ever reach the heights of Washington power, Thomas was conspicuous in his absence from the museum’s 37,000 objects and displays.
Last year, many conservatives expressed disbelief that Thomas was missing from the museum, despite there being plenty of room for artifacts commemorating the Black Panthers, rap music, Black Lives Matter, and even Anita Hill – the law assistant who famously brought sexual harassment charges against Thomas before his confirmation hearings in 1991. All of that, and yet…no Clarence Thomas. A few Republicans at the time thought something fishy was going on.
Last December, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas introduced a resolution calling on the museum to recognize the historic role Thomas had played on the nation’s highest court.
“Justice Thomas’s humble beginnings, brilliant mind, and indelible contributions to American jurisprudence are nothing short of remarkable,” Cornyn said. “His omission from the National Museum of African American History and Culture is troubling and reflects a disregard for the historical significance of his service to our country.”
The museum rectified the glaring omission this weekend, announcing a new exhibit on the Supreme Court. In the case, Thomas shares space with Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice and the man whose seat Thomas famously took after the legendary Marshall retired in 1991.
By including Thomas, the museum sidesteps one of its major controversies: It’s inclusion of Colin Kaepernick earlier this year.
“The National Museum of African American History and Culture has nearly 40,000 items in our collection,” curator Damion Thomas told USA Today at the time. “The Colin Kaepernick collection is in line with the museum’s larger collecting efforts to document the varied areas of society that have been impacted by the Black Lives Matter movement.”
That wasn’t enough to assuage conservatives this summer and it was only destined to become more controversial in the wake of the NFL’s latest protests against the flag. Perhaps in correcting a major misstep by honoring Clarence Thomas, the museum can be a bridge over the racial divide without become just another space for political divisions.