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Ramsey Clark and the Challenge of Morally Imaginative Leadership

Former Attorney General Ramsey Clark died on April 9, 2021 at the age of 93.[1] I was personally touched to see the notice of his passing, as Clark’s life and my own had intersected at two points and each had affected me profoundly. While in high school, I was part of a small committee of student government officers charged with suggesting possible commencement speakers to our principal. Two or three of us strongly argued that Clark should be our speaker. As it happened, the former attorney general had family ties to our school and our principal agreed to our request, so Clark did indeed deliver our graduation address. I recall his remarks as forward-looking, bracingly honest and strongly rooted in human and civil rights claims for all Americans. In short, they were much deeper than the usual fare on such occasions and I felt powerfully reenforced in my advocacy for him as a result. I thought he had made our school proud. Not all agreed, certainly, including my own father, who was not a fan of Clark’s stint as Attorney General (1967-1969) or his earlier work at the Justice Department during the Lyndon Johnson presidency. Nonetheless, I came away from that first brush with Clark deeply impressed by his soft-spoken demeanor, flinty character and deeply held beliefs and values.

I next encountered Clark when he visited Virginia Tech in 2010 as a guest of our Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention. The Center invited the Institute for Policy and Governance, which I am privileged to lead, to hold an event for him. We chose to convene a well-attended roundtable at which the former Attorney General thoughtfully assessed a number of key civil rights concerns of the day, including the implications of the mis-labeled U.S.A. Patriot Act, for the personal freedoms of Americans.[2] I had the opportunity to have dinner with Clark afterwards and found him wise, gracious, other-regarding and even courtly in demeanor. He was a careful listener and was intellectually rigorous and clear in his judgments. He knew who he was, what he believed and why. Clark also evidenced a sense of humor and it was clear he did not take himself or his manifold accomplishments too seriously. He instead focused on what he saw as the pressing concerns the nation had before it. His passion regarding those was both evident and, for me, strongly affecting. After our time together I found myself musing on our conversation, with deep respect for the individual who had kindled those reflections.

When I met Clark in 2010, he had not only overseen the development of the landmark Fair Housing Act of 1968 as Attorney General, but during that term of office he also had aggressively pressed for school desegregation, worked assiduously to prevent employment discrimination, temporarily stopped federal executions and issued a moratorium on additional prison construction. He also worked to ensure that the Supreme Court’s Miranda ruling concerning prisoner rights would be enforced as the law of the land. These steps made him a target for GOP presidential candidate Richard Nixon in the 1968 election. During that campaign, the Republican Party more deeply embraced its cynical “Southern Strategy,” first launched under Barry Goldwater in 1964, and Nixon repeatedly garnered applause when he indicated that he would fire Clark for his supposed undue liberalism and social and criminal coddling.[3] When Nixon narrowly won office, President Johnson, who had long mentored Clark, blamed him for that outcome and refused to interact with him thereafter.[4] It was an especially sad and paradoxical turn for a President otherwise so instrumental in monumental steps aimed at ensuring the civil rights of all Americans.

Clark continued to take stands that were unpopular with many after he left office and entered private legal practice. For example, he very publicly opposed the Vietnam War, which he had also opposed privately as Attorney General, by successfully defending the infamous Harrisburg Seven anti-war activists.[5] Roughly a decade later, he sought to intervene in the hostage crisis in Iran, during which he criticized prior U.S. support of the Shah of that nation.  In ensuing years, Clark became a legal defender of last resort for several individuals who were accused of prosecuting or abetting heinous crimes. Here is how the New York Times obituary described those efforts:

Mr. Clark defended these trips and these statements, saying that a citizen’s ‘highest obligation’ was to speak up when his government had violated its own principles and ‘not point the finger at someone else.’ Saying that everybody deserves the best defense counsel, Mr. Clark lent his legal talents to [Saddam] Hussein as well as Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslavian president accused of war crimes; a Rwandan pastor accused of abetting a massacre; the former boss of a Nazi concentration camp; and Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who was convicted in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.[6]

As it happened, Clark’s stance was vindicated on the legal merits in the bulk of these cases, but he was frequently pilloried nonetheless as too often supporting “evil.” He responded, as noted, that everyone has rights in a nation and international community supposedly dedicated to the rule of law. His staunch and persevering support for civil and human rights ultimately garnered him prestigious international accolades, including the Gandhi Peace Award in 1992 and the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights, given only every five years, in 2008, among other major honors.[7]

As I have reflected these past few days on Clark’s career and the ongoing controversy that persistently surrounded his principled efforts to defend civil and human rights, I have found myself concluding that he was an excellent example of someone who evidenced moral imagination and practiced moral leadership. Like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, who were each criticized on similar grounds for their unequivocal stands for equal rights and opportunity, Clark steadfastly refused to be placed in a box of others’ making, even as he strongly resisted accepting otherwise popular stands when he believed those unjust.

Mark Johnson has contended that moral action is intimately tied to the exercise of moral imagination, or as he has observed:

We human beings are imaginative creatures, from our most mundane, automatic acts of perception all the way up to our most abstract conceptualization and reasoning. Consequently, our moral understanding depends in large measure on various structures of imagination, such as images, image schemas, metaphors, narratives, and so forth. Moral reasoning is thus basically an imaginative activity, because it uses imaginatively structured concepts and requires imagination to discern what is morally relevant in situations, to understand empathetically how others experience things, and to envision the full range of possibilities open to us in a particular case.[8]

For her part, the feminist philosopher Susan Babbit has suggested that,

Grasp of facts is not enough for rational deliberation. But neither is the primacy of perception, even together with appreciation of the relevant facts. In some cases, rational deliberation requires struggle to bring about the meanings and values that make the discovery of a certain kind of perception possible. And part of that process of bringing about meanings and values consists in individual struggle to claim human worth to the extent that it can be claimed in a particular situation… it is certain kinds of valuing and committing of oneself, ones that do indeed constitute claims to human worth and dignity, that explain a person’s discovering (emphasis in original) certain moral possibilities.[9]

In this view, moral action rests first and foremost in values and imagined possibility. In free and pluralistic societies, these are always undertaken in contested landscapes not only of conflict concerning premises, but also of whether the contemplated steps accord with existing understandings. Obviously, for millions of individuals in this country, discrimination on the basis of skin color was and clearly remains acceptable, even though, as King and Malcolm X rightly argued, that stance directly and fundamentally contradicts our nation’s founding tenets. Those two leaders sought to use an in-principle claim regarding the country’s core values to contest its long practice of racial hierarchy. Each was consistently attacked and ultimately, assassinated, for the perceived temerity of their assertions. Clark found himself similarly assailed when he suggested that human and civil rights required due process and equal treatment of individuals on the basis of the values underpinning our regime or international law. In every case, he sought to contend that he was defending the principles at play and not simply the specific individuals or their actions per se. And in many, if not most of those instances, he was attacked for the fundamental precepts he had embraced. Even when he won those legal cases, his broader point was often lost amidst the acrimony arising from “How dare he” assertions rooted in existing prejudices or unreflective repulsions.

Whether one approved of the individuals Clark chose to defend to ensure their rights was not the point and was not the abiding concern for him, either. Clark was practicing morally imaginative leadership and as he did so, he repeatedly called on Americans and the citizens of other nations to live up to the principles of law, rights and human dignity they otherwise often and loudly professed to believe.

It is a deep irony of history that Richard Nixon and the Republican Party continued to press the Southern Strategy in 1968, which deliberately sent dog whistling claims to Southerners that the GOP would not demand change in existing socially and legally discriminatory practices against African Americans if elected and that Nixon chose to attack Clark’s impassioned defense of those liberties.  It is an even more unhappy incongruity that Johnson abandoned his protégé after Hubert Humphrey lost the election to Nixon. But Clark never appeared to let these distressing twists trouble him as he pursued his abiding belief in human rights in a clear eyed and determined way. It often goes unremarked that democracy cannot survive, nor can human and civil rights and the rule of law endure, amidst the very human disposition to hate on the basis of difference, without individuals of moral clarity and imagination persistently calling human beings and their societies to account. Ramsey Clark devoted his life to just such moral leadership and service. May he rest in an honored and well-deserved peace.


[1] Martin, Douglas. “Ramsey Clark, Attorney General and Rebel With a Cause, Dies at 93,” The New York Times, April 10, 2021,, Accessed April 10, 2021. 

[2] Public Law 107-56, “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA Patriot Act) Act of 2001,”, Accessed April 15, 2021. 

[3] Barber, Benjamin. “Political Scientist Angie Maxwell on Countering the ‘Long Southern Strategy,’” Facing South, (January 22, 2021),, Accessed April 14, 2021. 

[4] Martin, “Rebel With a Cause.”

[5] Library of Congress, “Drawing Justice: The Harrisburg Seven,”, Accessed April 15, 2021. 

[6] Martin, “Rebel with a Cause.”

[7] Promoting Enduring Peace, Gandhi Peace Award Laureates, [List of Winners],, Accessed April 15, 2021. 

United Nations Human Rights Prize, [List of Winners], Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights,, Accessed April 15, 2021.

[8] Johnson, Mark. Moral Imagination: Implications of Cognitive Science for Ethics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014, pp. IX-X.

[9] Babbit, Susan. Impossible Dreams: Rationality, Integrity and Moral Imagination. Boulder: Westview Press, 1996, p. 197.