He wore a black beret and army fatigues, warned people that a revolution was coming and memorized the speeches of Malcolm X.
"I now believed that the whole of American culture was irretrievably tainted by racism," he once said, describing his reaction to the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Soon, that same man is expected to help the U.S. Supreme Court bury two pillars of the civil rights movement: the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action.
There may seem to be a contradiction between the Clarence Thomas who was the angry campus radical in the 1960s and the conservative hero who sits on the Supreme Court today. But some legal observers say Thomas sees himself as a "prophetic civil rights leader" who is still fighting for the same cause -- a colorblind America.
Thomas is an American hero, says Henry Mark Holzer, author of "The Supreme Court Opinions of Clarence Thomas."
"A lot of people who are what I call professional Negros have ridden white guilt and socialism to very lucrative lives," says Holzer, who uses the term "Negro" because he says he doesn't classify people by skin color.
"Thomas didn't," Holzer says. "He made a very deliberate and gutsy decision to go where his intellect and his study took him, and that's heroic."
One man's hero, though, is another man's sellout. During his 22 years on the nation's highest court, Thomas has been called a self-loathing "Uncle Thomas." His impact, though, cannot be ignored. His judicial opinions have transformed America. And no other contemporary Supreme Court justice has spoken with such raw emotion about race or has embodied the subject's complexities.
Yet he is still a mystery to many. There are questions about Thomas that have persisted even after two decades on the Supreme Court as its lone African-American justice.
Here are three of them:
Question 1: Why does Thomas condemn affirmative action if he benefited from it?
When the Supreme Court issues a ruling soon on the constitutionality of using race in college admissions, the impact could be momentous. The court will decide if the University of Texas violated the constitutional rights of some white applicants by considering race in the admissions process.
There seems to be little mystery about how Thomas will vote.
He consistently votes against affirmative action policies because he says they're divisive, unconstitutional and harmful to their recipients. He cites his own experience as an example.
Thomas was born in poverty in rural Georgia but managed to gain admittance to Yale Law School. He acknowledges that he made it to Yale because of affirmative action but says the stigma of preferential treatment made it difficult for him to find a job after college.
In his memoir, "My Grandfather's Son," Thomas says he felt "tricked" by paternalistic whites at Yale who recruited black students.
"I was bitter toward the white bigots whom I held responsible for the unjust treatment of blacks," he wrote, "but even more bitter toward those ostensibly unprejudiced whites who pretended to side with black people while using them to further their own political and social ends."
Some observers, though, counter with one question:
If affirmative action is so bad for its recipients, how come you've done so well?
"His entire judicial philosophy is at war with his own biography," said Michael Fletcher, co-author of "Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas." "He's arguably benefited from affirmative action every step of the way."
For many blacks, affirmative action is "the contemporary equivalent of the Emancipation Proclamation," Fletcher explains in his book. It's one of the most important legacies of the civil rights movement. The expansion of the black middle class was driven by affirmative action policies, he says.
Some blacks detest Thomas not because he's conservative, Fletcher says, but because he rules against affirmative action policies, closing the door that was opened for him.
The black community has accepted conservatives as varied as Booker T. Washington, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Many members of the community dislike Thomas for another reason.
"Some say he's a traitor and hypocritical," says Fletcher, an economics correspondent with The Washington Post.
Thomas first attracted public attention in the early 1980s when the late President Ronald Reagan asked him to lead the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces federal discrimination laws. Thomas' opposition to affirmative action and criticisms of civil rights leaders during his tenure made headlines.