Clark, (William) Ramsey

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CLARK, (William) Ramsey

(b. 18 December 1927 in Dallas, Texas), United States Attorney General from 1967 to 1969, and an outspoken critic of U.S. participation in the Vietnam War.

Clark was one of three children born to Texas lawyer Tom Campbell Clark and Mary Jane Ramsey. He grew up in Dallas and Los Angeles, before his father's career in government necessitated a move to Washington, D.C. There, Tom Clark served as United States Attorney General from 1945 to 1949, when he was appointed to the United States Supreme Court by President Harry S Truman. After graduating from Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington in 1945, Ramsey Clark, then seventeen years old, joined the Marine Corps just before the end of World War II. He served at Parris Island and at Quantico, Virginia, before making several official trips to Europe. He received an honorable discharge with the rank of corporal in 1946. Years later, Clark commented that serving in the marines had been easy compared to facing the ostracism that some of his conscientious objector friends had had to endure.

An ambitious student, Clark earned his B.A. at the University of Texas in 1949 and then went on to the University of Chicago, where he earned both an M.A. in American history and his law degree in 1950. On 16 April 1949 he married Georgia Welch, with whom he later had two children. Clark was admitted to the Texas bar in 1951 and joined his grandfather and father's Dallas law firm, Clark, Coon, Holt and Fisher. Over the next ten years Clark established a reputation as both a successful trial attorney (by 1961, he had lost only one jury case) and an active booster of Democratic Party candidates. In February 1961 newly inaugurated President John F. Kennedy rewarded Clark for his support in the 1960 campaign with a Justice Department appointment as assistant attorney general in charge of the lands division.

Working under Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Clark gained a reputation as an efficient administrator, but more importantly, he demonstrated a commitment to civil rights. Kennedy tapped Clark to lead Justice Department officials in Mississippi and Alabama in 1962 and 1963, and Clark was one of the lead architects of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In February 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson, a longtime friend of Clark's father, appointed him deputy attorney general under Nicholas Katzenbach. Again, Clark's commitment to civil rights came through as he led federal officials to Alabama for the Selma-to-Montgomery march led by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and helped draft the Voting Rights Act of 1965. After Katzen-bach accepted a position in the State Department, Clark succeeded him as attorney general on 28 February 1967. To avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest, Tom Clark resigned his position on the Supreme Court.

Clark's tenure as attorney general coincided with major race riots, the rise of black nationalism, an antiwar movement committed to challenging federal law, and pressure from various sources to crack down on lawbreakers. One of those sources of pressure was Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) Director J. Edgar Hoover, who argued that the increasing number of race riots across the country reflected a conspiracy by black militants to create disorder in America. Clark, for his part, viewed urban riots as symptoms of economic inequality and de facto segregation, and therefore tried to minimize the FBI's role in response to black militants and civil rights activists. For instance, he denied Hoover's persistent requests to authorize electronic wiretapping of civil rights leaders such as King and Elijah Muhammad. (Hoover ordered the wiretaps anyway.) At the same time Clark initiated programs to improve police-community relations, and improved intelligence-gathering to predict riot conditions. He also called for gun-control legislation and promoted a federal grants program to fund youth rehabilitation projects across the country.

Just as Clark faced pressure to crack down on black militants, by the fall of 1967 the president and Congress were regularly calling on him to prosecute antiwar protesters, especially draft resisters. Here again Clark hesitated. Although his father, as an assistant attorney general during World War II, had prosecuted some of the earliest draft violation cases, Clark recalled that his conscientious-objector friends had been "permanently hurt by the social ostracization" and "needlessly damaged" by their prosecution. Consequently, he instructed U.S. attorneys to suspend prosecutions against individual draft resisters. Instead, he indicted five draft resistance "ringleaders," including the noted pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock and Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin, Jr., on charges of conspiring to aid and abet draft resisters. Years later, Clark claimed that his own opposition to the war also figured in his decision; sounding almost utopian, he argued that in any society "that wants to be democratic and free," important issues like the war and the draft should be "vigorously debated" as early as possible. A draft resistance test case, therefore, would "ventilate the issues, escalate them where they can be seen, [and] provide vigorous defense" for the defendants. He did not count on the Boston judge ruling out all discussion of the war, and ultimately saw four of the defendants convicted (though the convictions were thrown out on appeal).

When antiwar activists announced plans for demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August 1968, Clark sent representatives to meet with Mayor Richard Daley about providing the protesters with appropriate permits, but Daley refused to accommodate the demonstrators. After the convention—during which Chicago police, on Daley's instructions, attacked unarmed protesters in the city's parks and streets over several days and nights—the U.S. attorney convened a grand jury to investigate. While Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon criticized him for his failure to ensure law and order in America, Clark urged that the Chicago grand jury should focus on police brutality violations. He was ignored, and when Nixon took office, his administration indicted eight men for conspiring to foment riots in Chicago.

After leaving office in 1969 Clark joined the New York City law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison. He successfully defended the antiwar activist Philip Berrigan and others accused of conspiring to kidnap the government official Henry Kissinger, and led an investigation into the FBI killing of Black Panther Fred Hampton. In 1972 he traveled to Hanoi to condemn Nixon's escalated bombing of North Vietnam. After running unsuccessfully for the Senate from New York in 1974, Clark returned to private practice, often representing unpopular clients in political cases. He represented the Native American activist Leonard Peltier; Sheik Omar Abd el-Rahman, mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; and the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. In 1991 he initiated a mock war crimes tribunal that found President George Bush and generals Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf guilty for their roles in Operation Desert Storm, during which the United States thwarted Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

During his tenure as attorney general, Clark distinguished himself with his fierce support of civil rights and his measured response to antiwar, student, and Black Power protests. Clark's willingness to consider the issues raised by protestors angered those who were fed up with the apparent lack of civil order, thus fueling Nixon's "law and order" presidential campaign of 1968 and a changing of the guard in the Justice Department.

Clark's Justice Department papers are deposited at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, Massachusetts, and at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas. His career as attorney general is recounted in Richard Harris, Justice (1970), and John Elliff, Crime, Dissent, and the Attorney General (1971). Joseph Califano, The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson (1991), and Michael Foley, "Confronting the Johnson Administration at War: The Trial of Dr. Spock and Use of the Courtroom to Effect Political Change," Peace and Change (Jan. 2003), detail Clark's role in White House debates over prosecuting anti-war protesters.

Michael S. Foley

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