By Bruce Poli
Ramsey Clark, U.S. Attorney General for LBJ’s Great Society (1967-69), author and supervisor of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, and one of the largest and most prominent figures in the development of civil rights legislation in America, died at age 93 on Friday, April 9th at his West Village home.
I have published three interviews with Ramsey Clark in WestView News before…so much has been shared.
It is so difficult to state and measure his extraordinary effect and vast accomplishments that I refer you to his obituaries, bios and Wikipedia page. I hope you will read and enjoy them!
Recruited into power by the Kennedy brothers, who sent him to the South in the early ‘60s to help develop their civil rights agenda, Ramsey was chosen for his intelligence, wit, legal acumen, sense of justice, and, not least of all, because he was from the South…Texas…and would blend into southern racist culture easily whereby he could witness racial injustice and then help develop future solutions to it by the federal government. He toured prisons across the South and found the incarceration programs and systems horrendous and degrading. This set him on a path to principled civil rights reform, from which the Kennedy administration flourished despite great opposition.
Ramsey Clark’s father Thomas Clark was a Supreme Court justice who resigned his post June, 1967, citing conflict of interest when his son was appointed attorney general. LBJ anticipated replacing him with Thurgood Marshall, the country’s first African American justice on the Court.
Ramsey was one of Johnson’s popular and successful cabinet appointments, being described as “able, independent…and soft-spoken,” and representative of the New Frontier liberals. As a devout anti-Vietnam War member of the Johnson cabinet while the war escalated, however, he was a thorn in the president’s side, so much so that he was accused by the hawkish LBJ of helping Richard Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey in 1968. The two didn’t speak to each other for the entire last year of the Great Society and Clark was excluded from all cabinet meetings.
An increasingly radicalized liberal, Ramsey Clark is one of the most quoted public officials in government history: “A right is not what someone gives you; it’s what no one can take from you.”
“U.S. foreign policy is the greatest crime since World War II…American aggression has already created incalculable levels of misery for the world.”
“The world is the most dangerous place it’s ever been now because of what our country has done, and is doing, and we have to take it back.”
“Our overriding purpose, from the beginning right through to the present day, has been world domination—that is, to build and maintain the capacity to coerce everybody else on the planet: nonviolently, if possible; and violently, if necessary.”
Ramsey also vigorously opposed the death penalty and the War on Terror.
I could go on with dramatic episodes during Ramsey Clark’s life, with which he helped shape the America that is now undergoing a serious self-reflection of its civil rights practices.
According to his assistant, he was “catatonic for a month” when Donald Trump was elected.
When I met him on the street, shortly after Trump’s victory, I went up to him and said “We need your voice.” “No one’s listening” was his reply.
Not only was he right then, but his views are still true today. His death was not mentioned on many television news reports even though the John Lewis Voting Rights Act of our future was his creation, and John Lewis was his great friend whom he accompanied for years in the South, including on Bloody Sunday and the crossing of the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma.
Despite his radical legal support for extremist figures like Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, and Mohammar Ghadhaffi, I cannot fall short of praising Ramsey Clark for his unparalleled courage, dignity, and standing up for what is right for America and humankind. He loved peace and he loved people and justice. We will never see another figure like him.
This brings me to one of my favorite Bob Dylan quotes and a statement about the state of civil rights in America today: “He not busy being born is busy dying.”
Thank you Ramsey Clark for keeping it real. Your life was a testament to America’s forward-moving destiny, and you are an example for all of us.
And, as Ramsey so often said to me, “We Shall Overcome.”
I recommend “Defending the Public’s Enemy: The Life and Legacy of Ramsey Clark” by Prof. Lonnie Brown, published by Yale University.