Ramsey Clark, Gandhi Peace Prize winner and former United States attorney general of the United States under President Lyndon B. Johnson visited campus October 28th under the auspices of the Virginia Tech Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention. Our Institute organized a roundtable discussion for graduate students and faculty with Clark, a key architect of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, who is now in his early 80s and still very sharp and active. Clark is no stranger to controversy and has galvanized intense opposition and outrage throughout his long career. As an attorney, his lengthy list of socially ostracized clients has included H. Rap Brown, Huey Newton, Saddam Hussein and David Koresh. This roll could be extended, but Clark’s client roster likely needs no amplification. He has long defended the reviled, the unwelcome and the otherwise unwanted in American and international courts of law. He has done so on the view that justice demands faithful advocacy of the rights of all accused, not just popular figures. That his personal political views were decidedly in sympathy with many of those he defended was no doubt serendipitous, but not the central reason for his actions on their behalf. Instead, he was, in principle, dedicated to ensuring their spirited defense under relevant law.
This deeply ingrained habit of mind and heart was also much in view as Clark reflected on the nation’s challenges during the roundtable talk. He said he remains concerned about our own nation’s decision to circumscribe citizen civil liberties in the guise of the USA Patriot Act in the wake of the September 11 attack in 2001. He is also troubled about the role fear is playing as a mobilization strategy in American politics and he is deeply distressed at the level of U.S. military expenditures which exceed those of all other major nations of the world combined. Indeed, Clark echoed President Dwight Eisenhower by reflecting on the corrosive power for a democracy of a sustained and institutionalized military establishment in its midst. As a notable dimension of that issue, he also is alarmed, as many before him, about the political lobbying power of the military industrial complex. Beyond these matters, it was apparent Clark, who remains active in civil rights cases, was quite skeptical of claims that the nation has put the matter of race in the past.
When asked, however, if this listing of important and even potentially politically delegitimating concerns had caused him to become cynical or jaded, Clark said he most certainly was neither. Instead, he observed, “I am an optimist.” In so stating, it was clear Clark was not arguing he was prepared to set aside the very significant concerns he had articulated or that somehow he could pollyannishly wish them away. Instead, it was plain he had adopted that stance of hopefulness as a matter of principle. And it was also apparent as he spoke that he had long ago allied that optimism to a deep modesty and an active and empathetic imagination. Clark can and apparently does empathize profoundly with the powerless, the afflicted and the accused around the world, even as he refuses to romanticize any of these groups or the individuals who constitute them. Instead, he seemed to look to each person with profound regard and respect and see them as valuable for their humanity, which accords each dignity, at least before the law, if not always among all men and women.
In short, what impressed me about Clark as man and leader was his humility, his capacity to empathize without requiring “warm and fuzzy” feedback from those with whom he interacts and his devotion to what I perceived to be a few basic core principles. The last listed can be linked directly to his deeper sense of humankind and to his own roles as husband, father and grandfather in addition to his public service efforts. For Clark, humility and an active moral imagination mediate against hopelessness and despair. One stays in the fray to help those who otherwise cannot help themselves, or to protect cardinal democratic or legal principles while staying free of dogmatism or the enervating anger that can accompany it. In sum, Ramsey Clark evidences profound moral courage. Whether one respects or loathes his specific policy stands and legal choices, Clark struck me as at once an admirable, wise and deeply courageous figure. Small wonder he has cut such an enduring path over his long and impassioned career.