Ramsey Clark, the former U.S. attorney general who drafted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and played a key role in the Civil Rights movement, was the most principled person I have ever known. His passing on April 9 at 93 comes at a time of a new reckoning about justice in the United States with the death of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests, a white supremacist attack on the U.S. Capitol itself and a pandemic that laid bare social inequity in America.
His life offers some modern-day lessons and reminders. He believed that the “rule of law” is an absolute, guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and to be applied equally to one and all. On the day when I last saw him, I asked about democracy in America. On my way out the door he said, “You might not ever get there but you got to get closer and you got to keep trying and have faith that we shall overcome.” He considered Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to be the greatest American.
Clark should be remembered for the courageous leadership that he provided in connection with securing and protecting the emerging civil rights of America’s Black citizens, reorganizing the Federal Bureau of Prisons to emphasize rehabilitation, drafting the legislation that became the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and taking stands against what Ted Kennedy called “the awesome pressures of reaction.”
Although Clark was 90 years old when I first met him, I never thought he would die. During these difficult times he remained hopeful and optimistic, moral and compassionate, and expressed empathy for those who were less fortunate, marginalized or persecuted. A good life, in his view, had little to do with personal gain; it was all about being of service to others.
In August 2018, I became a graduate student at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. American History was my subject, and Ramsey Clark plays the featured role in my dissertation. Before leaving for Ireland, I visited him in New York City to record a two-hour oral history interview. The night before, I made flash cards that might help him recall events and experiences from the past decades. He did not need them.
His home was on the second floor of a residential co-op in Greenwich Village. The leather-bound chair that he sat in at Cabinet meetings when he was attorney general was perched alongside a set of tall windows. On the floor were two stacks of books and a copy of the New York Times. He was reading Randall B. Wood’s Prisoners of Hope: Lyndon B. Johnson, the Great Society, and the Limits of Liberalism and two other books on the 1960s, a tumultuous decade that was obviously still on his mind.
After a few moments, he walked slowly down the hallway pushing an aluminum walker. Wearing khaki chinos and a pale-blue short-sleeved shirt with a buttoned-down collar, he reached out and shook my hand. He had a strong grip that belied his age. With a Southern drawl, he welcomed me and offered a glass of iced tea.
Moments later, I began showing the flash cards to the man who accompanied James Meredith in 1962 during his attempt to become the first Black student at the University of Mississippi, the man who provided security for Dr. Martin Luther King, John Lewis and other voting rights activists on their historic march from Selma to Montgomery, the man who helped draft the legislation that became the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the man who later in the summer helped quell the Watts riot by patiently and respectfully listening to angry Black Americans who had lost the War on Poverty and had no reason to believe in a Great Society.
Later as attorney general, he suspended federal executions, eliminated J. Edgar Hoover’s wiretaps of King’s phone calls, directed the search for the men who killed King and Robert Kennedy, and warned Mayor Richard J. Daley that he would prosecute him and his police force if they shot looters or used unreasonable force to quell the students who were in Chicago to protest against the Vietnam War during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Without any prompting, Clark told me that President John Kennedy’s “vision was inspiring,” that “when he was killed it was the only time in my life, I thought that I would never be happy again.” When he went on to talk about President Lyndon Johnson, he said he “was bigger than life, with all his faults.” He insisted that “for all his pragmatism he was an idealist and had an idea of what he wanted to do for the country. ... He had boundless ambitions and a big heart.”
But, to my mind, Ramsey Clark had the biggest and noblest heart of all. Owen Fiss, professor emeritus at Yale Law School and a former special assistant to the assistant attorney general who served under Clark, once commented: “The idealism that so marked his tenure as attorney general never wore off. Ramsey Clark was relentless in his pursuit of justice, whether he was representing the United States or the damned. He lived greatly in the law and provided an example for all to follow.”
Other than Edward Levi, the attorney general tasked with rebuilding America’s faith in justice after the taint of the Watergate scandal, what other Justice Department official has set such a great example in both the causes for which he fought and the life he led? As we mourn his death, we should draw inspiration from his courage and follow his lead by striving to build a society of liberty and justice for all.
Woody Hanson earned his Master of Liberal Arts degree in Florida Studies at the University of South Florida, Saint Petersburg, and currently is a doctoral candidate in history at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. His email address is email@example.com.