This past weekend the United States, and anyone who believes in justice around the world, lost a very special jurist, William Ramsey Clark (December 18, 1927 – April 9, 2021), a man unique among lawyers for his steadfast commitment to justice for all.
He served his country as the 66th Attorney General of the United States from 1967 to 1969 under U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson. As Deputy and Assistant Attorney General he was instrumental in drafting some of the leading civil rights and environmental legislation that any generation before or after has produced. His hand contributed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the legislation that later inspired the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency or EPA. After leaving public office he ran for U.S. President in 1972 and U.S. Senate in 1974 and 1977.
He was the son of a Supreme Court Justice and former Attorney General, and had his son Tom rose to a senior position in the Department of Justice before his life was ended prematurely by illness. He was married to Georgia (Welch) who he met while they were students at the University of Texas. He was always fond of recalling his travels with Georgia right after they were married when they drove as far South in Central America as they could before turning around and heading all the way back to Chicago. Georgia passed away in 2010. Their daughter Rhonda survives them.
At 17-years of age toward the end of World War II he enlisted in the Marines. He was a courier as the war was winding down and had the opportunity to observe the Nuremberg Tribunal that was being held after the war to punish the war criminals of the losing side. After the war he took advantage of the GI Bill to get a bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas, and a master’s degree in American history, and subsequently a law degree from the University of Chicago. He became a member of the Texas Bar in 1950 and was a lawyer in the family law practice in Dallas, Texas, until he went to Washington D.C. to join Robert F. Kennedy’s Justice Department. Even as he aged and had no time or later little opportunity to return to Texas, he remained a Texan as much as a New Yorker or Washingtonian. He always kept his Texas drawl and always talked fondly of Austin’s music venues and San Antonio’s Riverwalk.
As a private lawyer, he argued the case of Environmental Protection Agency et al. v. Mink et al., 410 U.S. 73 (1973), before the United States Supreme Court in an effort to prevent the government from hiding public information behind a cloak of secrecy. And although his client lost the case before the nation’s highest court, Congress passed legislation redeeming the position he had argued and making it law. He also taught law at taught courses at the Howard University School of Law (1969–1972) and Brooklyn Law School (1973–1981). At Howard University he taught a course on law for social justice with Thurgood Marshall. He wrote, co-authored, or contributed to dozens of books including The Fire This Time (1992) about the first Gulf War; War Crimes: A Report on United States War Crimes Against Iraq (1992) that examined the humanitarian tragedy caused by the United States use of force against Iraq; and Crime in America: Observations in its Nature, Causes, Prevention and Control (1970) calling for a criminal justice system that rehabilitates instead of merely punishes.
Abroad he was often feted as a hero to the oppressed and disenfranchised. In the United States he was admired by social justice activists but often hated by conservatives who viewed it unpatriotic to criticize the United States’ human rights record or its actions abroad. He founded the International Action Center to strive for a wide platform of social justice issues, with the goal that he aspired to, of creating a more fair and equal world with respect for the rule of law for all. While he had taken on numerous board functions after leaving public office, he gradually withdrew from them to focus on direct action that often required putting himself in danger’s way. He was recognized as a recipient of the Gandhi Peace Award (1992) and the Eighth United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights on 10 December 2008 on the 6oth anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. His representation of clients in the United States included Lori Berenson, an US citizen accused and convicted of supporting guerrillas in Peru; Father Philip Berrigan, a Catholic priest who protested against the war; Radovan Karadžić, former Bosnian Serb politician accused of war crimes during the Bosnian War; survivors and the relatives of those murdered in Waco after a siege of their compound by federal agents; Lyndon LaRouche, a political commentator, Camilo Mejía, a US soldier accused of desertion; Leonard Peltier, an American Indian activist; Charles Taylor, a Liberian leader seeking to block his extradition from the United States; Stephen Yagman, an attorney disciplined for criticizing a federal judge; Mary Kelly and five members of the Pitstop Ploughshares charged with damaging a US Naval plane in Ireland, among others.
He took up the causes of those who were suffering, oppressed, or exploited anywhere in the world. His commitment took him to Vietnam, which he visited in 1972 to protest the bombing of Hanoi by the government he had served. It took him to countries that were directly, or through proxies, the target of unlawful American aggression, including Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Libya, and Sudan. In these countries, he publicly defended their sovereignty against the inhumanity of American aggression. And he defended the rights of individuals who were demonized, often by the same government that he had served. Those who relied on his legal counsel or representation included Libyan leader Muammar Muhammad al-Gaddafi, the Palestinian Liberation Organization and its leader Yasser Arafat, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Serbian President Slobodan Milošević, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Cuban leaders Fidel and Raul Castro, and Sheikh Ahmed Omar. He advised or represented these individuals because he believed in justice and the rule of law. His commitment to the principle that anyone, no matter who they are, be allowed to receive a fair trial and that the rule of law, including international law, be respected was unyielding. No matter the level of danger he did not finch or shy away from an opportunity to defend the rule of law.
He joined the defense team of the Iraqi President Saddam Hussein because he believed that the United States had invaded Iraq in violation of international and would not provide the Iraqi President a fair trial, both views borne out as true by subsequent views expressed at the United Nations or by UN human rights bodies. He stayed part of the defense team even as four lawyers were murdered and others were threatened. While in his seventies, he stood up to the U.S. created and orchestrated Iraqi Special Tribunal and argued to the judge simply that rule of law must be respected and he must rule on the motions presented by defense counsel. His matter of fact and simple plea caused such a dilemma for the judge that instead of replying he ordered the guards to remove him from the courtroom by force.
He toured Iraq as the United States was using “shock and awe” to coward the country into submission to its will and again in the 21st Century when the US went back to finish what it started a decade earlier. He later traveled repeated to Iraq despite threats and the murder of several of his co-counsel before the Iraqi Special Tribunal. He visited Serbia while NATO was bombing it. And Sudan and Iran while the U.S. was threatening violence against their people. It was not important that he might be subjecting himself to danger, but only that he might contribute to respect for the rule of law.
There will be some who will remember Ramsey Clark as an outsider. There are many more who remember him as a friend of justice, the oppressed, the exploited, and the rule of law. Perhaps he himself would like to be remembered merely as someone who used the law to help others.