Thomas' new autobiography, "My Grandfather's Son," shows how the second black justice on the Supreme Court came to oppose affirmative action after his law school experience. He was one of about 10 blacks in a class of 160 who had arrived at Yale after the unrest of the 1960s, which culminated in a Black Panther Party trial in New Haven that nearly caused a large-scale riot.
The conservative justice says he initially considered his admission to Yale a dream, but soon felt he was there because of his race. He says he loaded up on tough courses to prove he was not inferior to his white classmates but considers the effort futile. He says he was repeatedly turned down in job interviews at law firms after his 1974 graduation.
"I learned the hard way that a law degree from Yale meant one thing for white graduates and another for blacks, no matter how much any one denied it," Thomas writes. "I'd graduated from one of America's top law schools, but racial preference had robbed my achievement of its true value."
Thomas says he stores his Yale Law degree in his basement with a 15-cent sticker from a cigar package on the frame.
His view isn't shared by black classmate William Coleman III.
"I can only say my degree from Yale Law School has been a great boon," said Coleman, now an attorney in Philadelphia. "Had he not gone to a school like Yale, he would not be sitting on the Supreme Court."
Coleman's Yale roommate, Bill Clinton, appointed him general counsel to the U.S. Army, one of several top jobs Coleman has held over the years.
Thomas said he began interviewing with law firms at the beginning of his third year of law school.
"Many asked pointed questions unsubtly suggesting that they doubted I was as smart as my grades indicated," he wrote. "Now I knew what a law degree from Yale was worth when it bore the taint of racial preference."
He said it was months before he got an offer, from then-Missouri Attorney General John Danforth.
Steven Duke, a white Yale law professor who taught when Thomas attended Yale, said Thomas is right to say that the significance of someone's degree could be called into question if the person was admitted to an institution on a preferential basis. However, he said that could be overcome by strong performance, noting that two Yale graduates — Danforth and President Bush — put Thomas into top jobs.
"I find it difficult to believe he actually regrets the choice he made," Duke said. "It seems to me he did pretty well."
Some classmates say Thomas — who was raised poor in Georgia and stood out on campus in his overalls and heavy black boots — faced a tougher transition than black students who came from middle-class or privileged backgrounds.
Frank Washington, a black classmate and friend of Thomas who also came from a lower-income background, said he had 42 interviews before he landed a job at a Washington law firm.
"It seemed like I had to go through many more interviews than a lot of my other non-minority classmates," said Washington, now an entrepreneur who owns radio and television stations.
Other black classmates say their backgrounds didn't matter.
Edgar Taplin Jr., raised by a single parent in New Orleans, said he landed a job after graduation at the oldest law firm in New York, and does not recall black graduates struggling more to get jobs than their white classmates.
"My degree was worth a lot more than 15 cents," said Taplin, who retired in 2003 as a global manager with Exxon Mobil.
Thomas has declined to have his portrait hung at Yale Law School along with other graduates who became U.S. Supreme Court justices. An earlier book, "Supreme Discomfort," by Washington Post reporters Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher, portrays Thomas as still upset some Yale professors opposed his confirmation during hearings marked by Anita Hill's allegations that Thomas sexually harassed her.
Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh turned down requests for interviews about the justice's book, but said in a statement that he and his predecessors have invited Thomas to have his portrait done and the offer still stands.
Koh said they met for several hours about a year ago. "He made it clear that he had greatly enjoyed his time at Yale Law School, and that he had great affection for his fellow students and for several professors who are still here," he said.