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PBS looks at Thomas hearings impact

A year ago, Americans sat transfixed before their television sets watching the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings, which included Anita Hill's sexual harassment charges against her former boss.

Newspapers and television played the Hill-Thomas hearings as another chapter in the never-ending battle of the sexes. Thomas eventually was sworn in as a Supreme Court justice, and Hill became a heroine to many women because she brought the previously taboo subject into the spotlight. The sexual harassment issue galvanized women around the country into running for political office this year.

But to the African-American community, the issue of the hearings was race. The new Frontline documentary, "Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill: Public Hearing, Private Pain," which airs tonight at 9 p.m., locally on WEDU-Ch. 3, explores how the hearings affected African-Americans.

Emmy-winning producer Ofra Bikel spent nine months interviewing dozens of male and female African-Americans, including ministers, politicians, civil-rights leaders, journalists, college students and writers, to comprehend the painful impact of the hearings.

Bikel, who is white, said that when she watched the Hill-Thomas hearings, "I got mad like everybody else." In fact, she set out to make a documentary on the battle of the sexes angle of the controversy. But 10 days into production she scrapped her original plans after interviewing a middle-age black woman.

"I said to her, "Isn't it wonderful? Race didn't play any part in the hearings. It didn't matter.' She said, "It didn't matter to you. But it mattered to us.' She was angry and contemptuous. Then by chance, I interviewed a couple of more blacks and I was so stunned by the difference. Everything they said was a surprise to me."

When President Bush nominated Thomas in June 1991 to replace the only black Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall, Bush insisted race was not an issue. Thomas said that it was not an issue. But it was to many in the black community.

"There were blacks who were opposed to him," Bikel said. "The senators were afraid to question him. (Thomas) used race to make a point (saying) how poor he was."

Liberal senators were seen as too timid in asking difficult questions, especially on Thomas' stand on abortion. They didn't press him when he gave unspecific answers, such as when he said that he didn't recall his opinions 20 years earlier on Roe vs. Wade.

Attorney Lester Johnson, a childhood friend of Thomas from his hometown of Pinpoint, Ga., admits in the documentary: "I think Clarence Thomas knew he was getting an easy ride because he was black. That's why he answered the questions the way he answered. I think he probably got a kick out of the fact."

But when Anita Hill brought up her charges, the black community's feelings toward Thomas altered radically.

"There was this horror of being exposed in front of the white community, which (blacks) couldn't stomach," Bikel said. "The white senators dealing with a black man and a black woman's sexuality. Many of them told me they never suffered that much than what they suffered in those days."