University Press of Kansas Announces New Academic Series Focused on Indigenous Studies

The University Press of Kansas (UPK) is excited to launch The Lyda Conley Series on Trailblazing Indigenous Futures. Using Conley’s extraordinary life and work as a framework, this series features Indigenous trailblazers of the past, present, and future and promotes new scholarship in Native American and Indigenous studies that intersects with themes including gender and sexuality, sovereignty, education, and law, as well as literature, culture, activism, public history, and beyond.

Named in honor of Eliza “Lyda” Burton Conley (c. 1868–1946), this new series will strive to elevate women and gender in Indigenous studies and use the lives, work, and futures of Indigenous women as a springboard for analysis and scholarship. Conley spent much of her life carving new pathways to protect her Wyandot community and ancestors in Kansas. She pursued a law degree and became the first Native American woman to argue a case in front of the US Supreme Court, arguing to prevent the sale and desecration of the Huron Cemetery in Kansas City, Kansas. Conley’s life as an inspiring trailblazer for Native peoples and for women serves as an inspiration to the series, which will promote and explore the issues of gender and sexuality in Native American and Indigenous studies.

While the primary audience for this series is professional scholars and undergraduate and graduate students, there will be a special emphasis placed on books that are accessible and appealing to general readers as well. The Lyda Conley Series will also emphasize the interdisciplinary nature of Native American and Indigenous Studies, and its books will be relevant and useful for scholars and others interested in history, Indigenous studies, political science, law, women and gender studies, cultural studies, ethnic studies, critical race, religious studies, education studies, museum studies and public history, literature, sociology, and anthropology.

Farina King, Kiara Vigil, and Tai S. Edwards will serve as series editors and David Congdon will serve as acquiring editor. UPK plans to have books in the series by 2024.

“In addition to showcasing the important works in Indigenous studies that Kansas is already publishing, we were motivated by the need to address a lack of attention to gender and sexuality in older works in this field, which were often written by men and about men as a matter of course,” says Congdon, UPK senior editor. “While we at the Press have worked with Farina and Tai because of their previous books with us, I interacted with the three of them more closely thanks to the Kansas Open Books project. Kiara wrote a foreword to one of the books in that project, and then I organized a public webinar on Native and Indigenous Studies with all three of them. The conversation that began with the webinar was the genesis of the series.”

Dr. Farina King (Diné) is the Horizon Chair in Native American Ecology and Culture and Associate Professor of Native American Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

 

Dr. Kiara M. Vigil (Dakota/Apache) is associate professor of American Studies at Amherst College.

 

Dr. Tai S. Edwards is associate professor of history at Johnson County Community College.­

 

For more information, please contact UPK marketing director Derek Helms (helms@ku.edu).

James Hamilton Contrasts Watergate and January 6

For more than half a century, James Hamilton has been an active participant and an inside observer of some of the most consequential moments in modern US history. He has been involved in investigations concerning Watergate, the Kennedy assassination, “Debategate,” the Keating Five, the Clinton impeachment, Vince Foster’s suicide, the Valerie Plame affair, Benghazi, and the Major League Baseball steroids scandal. He argued against Brett Kavanaugh in front of the Supreme Court and won. James has written about his career in his book Advocate: On History’s Front Lines from Watergate to the Keating Five, Clinton Impeachment, and Benghazi.

Below he uses his experience to compare the Watergate Committee ad the January 6 Committee…

The Senate Watergate Committee. The House January 6 Committee. Both focused on a corrupt president. Both were highly successful in informing the nation of wrongdoing. But how different they were in approach and historical context.

Consider these facts about the Watergate Committee.

  1. The committee essentially proceeded in a bipartisan fashion. It was established by a 77–0 Senate vote. The questions revealing the existence of the Nixon White House tapes were asked by Republican staffers. The committee’s votes to subpoena Nixon for the tapes, and then to sue him when he rebuffed the subpoena, were unanimous. The vote to adopt the committee’s massive report damning the Nixon Administration was unanimous. Such bipartisanship would not be possible in today’s divisive world.
  2. When the Watergate Committee began, its ultimate conclusions were unknown. It was not until Watergate burglar James McCord claimed there was perjury in the trial of the burglars and that higher-ups were involved until John Dean testified that Nixon was involved in the cover-up, and until Alexander Butterfield revealed the existence of the White House tapes that the committee’s primary focus shifted to President Nixon. Eighty million people watched in suspense to see where the hearings would lead.
  3. The committee presented facts in an old-fashioned way—by putting on witnesses and subjecting them to cross-examination. Videos of executive session testimony were not used. The testimony of witnesses, some of whom were hostile, was at times unpredictable. While a coherent story was presented, the hearings were not minutely scripted.

Now consider these facts about The House January 6 Committee.

  1. This committee has been a partisan affair from the beginning. It was created by an essentially party-line vote. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had the right to appoint five members to the committee, but he withdrew his nominations after Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejected two of them, including firebrand Jim Jordan. Pelosi herself appointed two Republicans—Vice Chair Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger—to the committee, but they are known for their opposition to Trump and are pariahs in the Republican Party.
  2. There is no mystery or suspense as to the outcome of the committee’s investigation. During the first hearing, the committee announced that President Trump had an unlawful “sophisticated seven-part plan” to stay in office. The committee’s hearing is filling in the details of that seven-part plan. Some of the information presented has been indeed shocking, but the committee’s final conclusion as to Trump’s conduct has never been in doubt. Perhaps in part due to the lack of suspense, only around twenty million people so far have watched the hearing.
  3. The committee’s hearings have been well-orchestrated presentations. Witnesses have testified, but their testimonies are part of carefully scripted sessions where committee members lay out the basic facts, and excerpts of video depositions and messages are used to bolster the case being made. There has not been any hostile cross-examination.

There are, of course, a lot of ways to skin a cat—or expose a corrupt president. The Senate Watergate Committee did it one way. The House January 6 Committee chose another. Given the time restraints, it faced, with the predicted change of control of the House in November, the choice of the latter is understandable. (The Watergate Committee, with more time, had over 280 hours of public hearings.) While recognizing the different approaches and the disparate partisan context, the work of both committees should be applauded. We will see if the January 6 Committee ultimately changes the course of history as the Senate Watergate Committee did.

James Hamilton is a retired partner from the Morgan Lewis law firm.

 

University Press of Kansas Announces New Academic Series Focused on Indigenous Studies

The University Press of Kansas (UPK) is excited to launch The Lyda Conley Series on Trailblazing Indigenous Futures. Using Conley’s extraordinary life and work as a framework, this series features Indigenous trailblazers of the past, present, and future and promotes new scholarship in Native American and Indigenous studies that intersects with themes including gender and sexuality, sovereignty, education, and law, as well as literature, culture, activism, public history, and beyond.

Named in honor of Eliza “Lyda” Burton Conley (c. 1868–1946), this new series will strive to elevate women and gender in Indigenous studies and use the lives, work, and futures of Indigenous women as a springboard for analysis and scholarship. Conley spent much of her life carving new pathways to protect her Wyandot community and ancestors in Kansas. She pursued a law degree and became the first Native American woman to argue a case in front of the US Supreme Court, arguing to prevent the sale and desecration of the Huron Cemetery in Kansas City, Kansas. Conley’s life as an inspiring trailblazer for Native peoples and for women serves as an inspiration to the series, which will promote and explore the issues of gender and sexuality in Native American and Indigenous studies.

While the primary audience for this series is professional scholars and undergraduate and graduate students, there will be a special emphasis placed on books that are accessible and appealing to general readers as well. The Lyda Conley Series will also emphasize the interdisciplinary nature of Native American and Indigenous Studies, and its books will be relevant and useful for scholars and others interested in history, Indigenous studies, political science, law, women and gender studies, cultural studies, ethnic studies, critical race, religious studies, education studies, museum studies and public history, literature, sociology, and anthropology.

Farina King, Kiara Vigil, and Tai S. Edwards will serve as series editors and David Congdon will serve as acquiring editor. UPK plans to have books in the series by 2024.

“In addition to showcasing the important works in Indigenous studies that Kansas is already publishing, we were motivated by the need to address a lack of attention to gender and sexuality in older works in this field, which were often written by men and about men as a matter of course,” says Congdon, UPK senior editor. “While we at the Press have worked with Farina and Tai because of their previous books with us, I interacted with the three of them more closely thanks to the Kansas Open Books project. Kiara wrote a foreword to one of the books in that project, and then I organized a public webinar on Native and Indigenous Studies with all three of them. The conversation that began with the webinar was the genesis of the series.”

Dr. Farina King (Diné) is the Horizon Chair in Native American Ecology and Culture and Associate Professor of Native American Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

 

Dr. Kiara M. Vigil (Dakota/Apache) is associate professor of American Studies at Amherst College.

 

Dr. Tai S. Edwards is associate professor of history at Johnson County Community College.­

 

For more information, please contact UPK marketing director Derek Helms (helms@ku.edu).

Mike Haddock will serve as interim faculty director for University Press of Kansas

The University Press of Kansas Board of Trustees, composed of the provosts from each of the six Kansas Regents institutions, has appointed Mike Haddock, associate dean for research, education and engagement at K-State Libraries, to serve as the interim faculty director of the University Press of Kansas (UPK). He will step into a leadership role held by Kevin L. Smith since January 2021. Smith served as the dean of KU Libraries since 2016 but recently accepted a position at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

Haddock will continue his role as associate dean at K-State Libraries in addition to serving as interim faculty director of UPK.

“I am truly excited by the opportunity to serve as interim faculty director,” Haddock said. “I look forward to interacting with the high-quality University Press of Kansas staff and with the Board of Trustees of the Press.”

Haddock, a respected authority on Kansas botany, has written or co-written three award-winning books with UPK.

“On behalf of the trustees, I welcome Mike’s leadership of UPK,” said Barbara A. Bichelmeyer, chair of the UPK board of trustees and KU’s provost and executive vice chancellor. “His background as a UPK author coupled with his long-standing roles as a K-State Libraries’ faculty member and administrator will serve UPK well.”

In its 76th year of publishing excellence, UPK will continue to explore opportunities to build upon its collection of open access digital publications under Haddock’s leadership. The press specializes in works on American politics, military history and intelligence studies, American history, environmental policy and history, American studies, film studies, law and legal history, Native American studies, and books about Kansas and the Midwest.

Visit the University Press of Kansas website to learn more.

University Press of Kansas Board of Trustees

·   Jill Arensdorf, provost and vice president for academic affairs, Fort Hays State University

·   Barbara Bichelmeyer, chair of the UPK trustees, provost and executive vice chancellor, University of Kansas

·   Shirley Lefever, executive vice president and provost, Wichita State University

·   Howard Smith, provost and vice president for academic affairs, Pittsburg State University

·   Charles Taber, provost and executive vice president, Kansas State University

·   Gary Wyatt, interim provost and vice president for academic affairs, Emporia State University

About Mike Haddock

Professor Michael “Mike” Haddock serves as associate dean for research, education and engagement at K-State Libraries. He was born and raised in Beloit and spent a year in Austria with AFS Intercultural Programs after graduating from high school. He attended Kansas State University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in modern languages, spent a year studying at Justus Liebig University in Giessen, Germany, then completed 36 credit hours as a special student in agriculture. Following graduation from K-State, he managed his family’s farming operation in north-central Kansas before earning a master’s in library science at Emporia State University. After working as agriculture librarian at Texas A&M University, he joined K-State Libraries in 1989, serving as agriculture librarian and later as chair of the Sciences Department.

Haddock has served as director of the United States Agricultural Information Network, chair of the executive board of the international Agriculture Network Information Center, president of the Kansas Native Plant Society and president of the Friends of Konza Prairie. In 2005, Haddock was recipient of the inaugural Brice G. Hobrock Distinguished Faculty Award presented by the Friends of the K-State Libraries. The Kansas Native Plant Society presented Haddock with the Stephen L. Timme Excellence in Botany Award in 2013.

In 1996, Haddock created the Kansas Wildflowers and Grasses website (www.kswildflower.org). The site has grown to include information and nearly 8,730 identification photos for 1,018 species of forbs, grasses, sedges, trees and other woody plants found growing in Kansas. Haddock’s first book, “Wildflowers and Grasses of Kansas: A Field Guide,” was named a 2006 Kansas Notable Book by the Kansas Center for the Book and was selected by the State Library of Kansas as one of the 150 Best Books on Kansas in celebration of the state’s 2011 sesquicentennial. His second book, “Kansas Wildflowers and Weeds,” co-written with Craig Freeman and Janét Bare, was named a 2016 Kansas Notable Book and received the Jan Garton Prairie Heritage Award. Haddock’s third book, “Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines in Kansas,” co-written with Craig Freeman, received the Author’s Award of Excellence from the Midwestern Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture in 2020. All three books are published by the University Press of Kansas.

The Top 20 Best-Selling Titles… #13

13. Medicial Wild Plants of the Prairie: An Ethnobotanical Guide by Kelly Kindscher

Before modern medicine, humans would use natural remedies, herbs, and plants to treat illnesses. In the Great Plains of North America, Indigenous peoples had a vast understanding of the types of plants that grew and their medicinal purposes. Ethnobotanist Kelly Kindscher details these plants and their uses in his 1992 book, Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie.

Using information gleaned from archival materials, interviews, and fieldwork, Kindscher describes plant-based treatments for ailments ranging from hyperactivity to syphilis, from arthritis to worms. He also explains the use of internal and external medications, smoke treatments, moxa (the burning of a medicinal substance on the skin), and the doctrine of signatures (the belief that the form or characteristics of a plant are signatures or signs that reveal its medicinal uses). He adds information on recent pharmacological findings to further illuminate the medicinal nature of these plants.

“Kelly Kindscher is the plains version of John Muir. Join him in the journey to discover the great pharmaceutical house on the prairie.” —Wes Jackson

“One of the most important, original contributions to American medicinal plant literature in decades. Combining thoughtful insight with thorough research, this book has broad appeal yet is scientifically sound—a rare blend with lasting value.” —Steven Foster

20. The Philippine War, 1899-1902 by Brian McAllister Linn

19. The Sable Arm by Dudley Cornish

18. Haunted Kansas: Ghost Stories and Other Eerie Tales by Lisa Hefner Heitz

17. More True Tales of Old-Time Kansas by David Dary

16. The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado

15. Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie: An Ethnobotanical Guide

14. The Battle of Kursk by David Glantz and Jonathan House

The Top 20 Best-Selling Titles… #14

14. The Battle of Kursk by David Glantz and Jonathan House

David Glantz and Jonathan House deliver a comprehensive understanding of the information and tactics of the Red Army and Hitler’s army on the battlefield in Kursk, Russia. For years, details surrounding this historic event have been discussed. Through an in-depth retelling, the inclusion of maps, and explanations of the battles, The Battle of Kursk aims to uncover why exactly the Soviets won. Glantz and House dive into both Soviet and German sources to uncover the truth behind the Battle of Kursk and how Hitler’s plans were stopped.

Immense in scope, ferocious in nature, and epic in consequence, the Battle of Kursk witnessed (at Prokhorovka) one of the largest tank engagements in world history and led to staggering losses—including nearly 200,000 Soviet and 50,000 German casualties—within the first ten days of fighting. Going well beyond all previous accounts, Glantz and House’s 1999 work offers the definitive account of arguably the greatest battle of World War II.

“The most detailed, authoritative, and thorough analysis of the massive battle that led to the final victory of the Red Army over the Germans. This outstanding book deserves the highest praise.” —Malcolm Mackintosh, author of Juggernaut: A History of the Soviet Armed Forces

 

20. The Philippine War, 1899-1902 by Brian McAllister Linn

19. The Sable Arm by Dudley Cornish

18. Haunted Kansas: Ghost Stories and Other Eerie Tales by Lisa Hefner Heitz

17. More True Tales of Old-Time Kansas by David Dary

16. The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado

15. Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie: An Ethnobotanical Guide

The Top 20 Best-Selling Titles… #15

15. Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie: An Ethnobotanical Guide by Kelly Kindscher

Besides sunflower seeds, what wild plants can you eat? Kelly Kindscher’s 1987 Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie will tell you because it describes the 120 plants that were once used as food by Indigenous peoples and early settlers of the prairie.

Kindscher explains the importance of learning about this early part of history and indigenous culture: “I learned, and am learning more as I work on a new edition, of the depth of use of our native prairie plants by Native peoples. It is even more important to acknowledge the traditional knowledge of Native Americans.”

These plants were not simply used as a snack like many of us today might think; rather, they were substantial parts of everyday meals. As white settlers came to North America, they changed the idea of which plants were acceptable as part of a meal as well as the ecology of the prairie. Kindscher has tried every plant written about in his book, however, the plant he finds most interesting would be “Groundnuts or wild potatoes [to] (Apios americana), for which Topeka is named, and which translates in the Kaw (Kansa) language as ‘a good place to grow potatoes.’ This wild bean plant has tasty tubers like starchy potatoes almost as big as golf balls.”

In his book Kindscher seeks to educate others on the variety of plants that have been lost to our diet and the environment. “My favorite part is finding new clues in the historical literature as to plants that were used. An unusual account, or depth in uses, or recipes related to use—all excite me.”

By writing about the edible flora of the American prairie, Kelly Kindscher provided the first edible plant book devoted to the region that Walt Whitman called “North America’s characteristic landscape” and Willa Cather called “the floor of the sky.” In describing how plants were used for food, Kindscher has drawn upon information concerning tribes that inhabited the prairie bioregion. As a consequence, his book serves as a handy compendium for readers seeking to learn more about the historical uses of plants by Native Americans.

By writing about the edible flora of the American prairie Kelly Kindscher provided the first edible plant book devoted to the region that Walt Whitman called “North America’s characteristic landscape” and the Willa Cather called “the floor of the sky.” In describing how plants were used for food, he has drawn upon information concerning tribes that inhabited the prairie bioregion. As a consequence, his book served as a handy compendium for readers seeking to learn more about the historical uses of plants by Native Americans.

20. The Philippine War, 1899-1902 by Brian McAllister Linn

19. The Sable Arm by Dudley Cornish

18. Haunted Kansas: Ghost Stories and Other Eerie Tales by Lisa Hefner Heitz

17. More True Tales of Old-Time Kansas by David Dary

16. The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado

The Top 20 Best-Selling Titles… #16

16. The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado by Elliott West

“This book will change the way the history of the West is taught and understood forever.” —Publishers Weekly

In his 1998 book, Elliot West tells the history of Native Americans and their battles with the incoming white settlers. West highlights the environmental, social, military, and political ramifications of these events in our history, weaving together the threads of society at that time. West discusses the California Gold Rush as a key event in American history, Native American history, and the reformation of the Great Plains. In the 1800’s, thousands of people rushed to California in search of gold, which drastically changed the course of the tribes of people living there and the environment itself.

Through his storytelling and integration of facts and history, West weaves together an important part of this countries past. His book has received high praise across the board. Glenda Riley from the American Historical Review writes, “In a way, Elliot West tells a familiar tale: that of Indians, goldseekers, and the ensuing conflict. But in this case, West is the first to assess the cataclysmic changes that the Colorado gold rush brought to the Great Plains. In addition, rather than casting the story in the usual terms of heartless aggressors and hapless victims, West supplies a large and insightful interpretation that at once softens and increases our understanding of the Anglo disruption of Plains Indian cultures. To understand where western history is now, and is likely to go in the future, one must read this book.”

Exciting and enormously engaging, The Contested Plains is the first book to examine the Colorado gold rush as the key event in the modern transformation of the central great plains. It also exemplifies a kind of history that respects more fully our rich and ambiguous past—a past in which there are many actors but no simple lessons.

The Contested Plains by Elliot West won the Caroline Bancroft Prize, Caughey Award, PEN Center USA West Literary Award in Research Nonfiction, Francis Parkman Prize, and the Ray Allen Billington Prize Choice Outstanding Title.

20. The Philippine War, 1899-1902 by Brian McAllister Linn

19. The Sable Arm by Dudley Cornish

18. Haunted Kansas: Ghost Stories and Other Eerie Tales by Lisa Hefner Heitz

17. More True Tales of Old-Time Kansas by David Dary

Why the University Press of Kansas Matters

About a year ago, the University Press of Kansas was in turmoil. Our Board of Regents had proposed budget cuts that threatened the future of our press. When word of the potential closure leaked, dozens and dozens of friends came to our defense. In the crowd of our authors and readers, one of the loudest voices came from our friend Danny Caine, owner of The Raven Bookstore here in Lawrence. In February, Danny wrote a moving piece for the Kansas Reflector about why university presses matter and we are proud to share it here…

Here at the Raven Book Store in Lawrence, we felt a sense of deep pride that “Petroglyphs of the Kansas Smoky Hills” was a huge in-house bestseller. We sold hundreds of copies of this lush coffee table book that artfully illuminates forgotten elements of our state’s history, treating indigenous stories with care and reverence.

Too often when people think “publisher,” they imagine one of a shrinking number of New York City mega-corporations. Fortunately, there’s an alternative to corporate publishing and its ills: the university press. Here in Lawrence, we’re lucky to have one of the best, University Press of Kansas, publishing 50-60 books a year and maintaining a strong sense of scholarly rigor. They publish books that push disciplines forward, and books that tell the history of our region in vital ways — like “Petroglyphs of the Kansas Smoky Hills.”

Amid KU’s financial crisis, the University Press of Kansas may end up on the budgetary chopping block. Readers and thinkers of Kansas: We cannot stand for this.

A shelf of books published by the University Press of Kansas at the Raven Book Store. (Submitted)

University presses operate on a model different from corporate publishers, and therein lies their value. They are editorially independent of any corporate oversight; these presses operate as nonprofits, and their books are published only after withstanding rigorous peer review. Even their distribution escapes corporate publishing’s reach; many university presses team up to do their own distribution through consortia.

University Press of Kansas takes that independence one step further and distributes its books itself, from a warehouse on the KU campus, creating publishing jobs in a state hundreds of miles from the corporate book world headquarters in NYC. The independence of the university press from corporate oversight, profits and shareholders means their publishing decisions are driven by scholarship above all.

When universities face difficult budget decisions, university presses end up in the crosshairs. After all, the making and distributing of books is increasingly pricey work. But cutting university press budgets is largely symbolic: University Press of Kansas has just 13 full-time employees, and their allocation of funding from the state hasn’t increased in 10 years. Despite operating on a shoestring, university presses are one of the best examples of actually doing the work of the university.

In just the 10 years since they’ve gotten a raise from the state, UPK has published some of the most important books about Kansas ever written. As a Kansas bookseller, I know — many of these books are perennial bestsellers at my store, beloved by booksellers and customers alike. Take “No Place Like Home,” C.J. Janovy’s history of LGBTQ activism in a state that’s unfairly derided as Trump Country in national media. Take “Kansas Trail Guide,” the single best resource for Kansans looking to engage with our state’s natural beauty. Take the sheer mountain of invaluable scholarship about the pre-Civil War era that shaped this state. Nobody has told this story with more nuance and responsibility than the authors of the University Press of Kansas.

I shudder to think what outsiders would make of our Kansas story if it were up to them alone to tell it. Corporate publishing has long held a coastal bias — just count the number of literary novels set in Brooklyn, or just look where the big five publishers (soon to be four) have their offices. The disappearance of the University Press of Kansas would leave a void where there once was a dedicated group of publishing professionals, right here in our state, creating true, important, and nuanced portraits of our region.

We feel a sense of dismay when we see people like Josh Hawley or any number of Trump enablers getting big book deals. Many nonfiction books from big publishers aren’t even fact-checked, and this parade of dangerous books makes us ever more thankful for university presses. These books won’t make national bestseller lists, but they will tell nuanced stories with a scholarly rigor absent in so much corporate nonfiction. This is vital work, and we’d mourn the day it ceases.

Just to drive home the point of how University Press of Kansas serves readers and the greater Kansas community: In Spring 2020, Meg Heriford shut down her Ladybird Diner in downtown Lawrence and converted it into a food pantry serving 200 free meals a day. She wanted to write a book to help fund the free meals. She needed it done fast; people were still hungry and the diner was running out of funds. It would’ve taken years for her to see a cent from a corporate publisher. Within two months of finishing the manuscript, she had books in hand, because the University Press of Kansas printed the book for her.

You guessed it: It was the Raven’s bestselling book of 2021.

 

Ramsey Clark: A Model of Independence and Commitment to the Law

by Alexander Wohl, author of Father, Son, and Constitution: How Justice Tom Clark and Attorney General Ramsey Clark Shaped American Democracy

As part of the research for my dual biography on Supreme Court justice Tom Clark and his son, US attorney general Ramsey Clark, I had the opportunity to spend many hours interviewing Ramsey in his Greenwich Village apartment.

So it was with special sadness that I learned of Ramsey’s death earlier this year at age ninety-three. Through my discussions with him, I was able to go on a fascinating tour through history, and get to know this gracious and pleasant man whose deep commitment to the rule of law and individual rights had shaped his life and the nation.

Clark was the last surviving member of President Lyndon Johnson’s cabinet, so his death marked the end of an era. But, more important, perhaps, it also serves as a reminder of the role the attorney general of the United States can and should play in upholding our nation’s commitment to the rule of law. That approach stands in sharp contrast to the actions taken by the president during the last four years of Clark’s life, and the men who held the office of attorney general during Donald Trump’s presidency, each of whom used the office primarily to advance the president’s political agenda while undermining the independence of the office and weakening or eliminating protections of the law for those who most depend on them.

As attorney general from 1966–1968, as well as in his prior Department of Justice positions in both the Johnson and Kennedy administrations, Clark generally rejected the partisan aspects of the job, even as he understood the enormous political baggage that accompanied it. It was a conflict amplified by the turmoil of the times in which he served and the personality of the president who appointed him.

Lyndon Johnson, the ultimate political animal, at times found Clark’s impractical idealism frustrating. He was particularly confounded by the differences with Ramsey’s father, the more conservative and pragmatic Supreme Court justice Tom Clark, a longtime Johnson friend.

The younger Clark was well aware of the irritation he caused the president (and others). During a meeting with Johnson about a controversial judicial nomination, for example, the frustrated president leaned over to his attorney general and told him, “I wish you could be more like your daddy.” To which Ramsey quickly responded, “Mr. President, a lot of people say that.” Nevertheless, though Clark could exasperate Johnson, the president also greatly respected his attorney general’s intelligence, integrity, and, most of the time, his advice.

But Clark and his father were more similar than their politics revealed on the surface. As I explored in my book, while their political leanings were different—Tom Clark was a conservative who became somewhat more moderate during his lifetime, while Ramsey was a liberal who became more radical—they shared a strong appreciation for, and commitment to, the rule of 1aw.

During his time in government, some of Clark’s colleagues gave him the nickname “the Preacher” due to his expansive theorizing on legal issues and his continuing search for the “right” answer that might combine legal and moral principles.

In both his role as attorney general and in prior positions at the Department of Justice, Clark found those answers in positions he believed represented basic principles of justice. This included opposition to wiretapping and the death penalty as well as fervent advocacy for racial equality—including key official roles in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, government actions to protect the civil rights marchers from Selma to Montgomery, and the desegregation of the University of Mississippi.

As attorney general he also worked to prioritize the development of well-trained police forces and community involvement in policing, issues that remain important today. And, often to his discomfort, his adherence to the rule of law at times led him to enforce or defend government policies that curtailed individual rights, such as the prosecution of Draft protesters or approving surveillance of certain radical groups.

It was largely in his post-government career that Clark gained his more radical reputation as a principled advocate in defense of human rights and the rule of law. He practiced law on the local, national, and international stages, using his standing as a former attorney general to become an outspoken advocate for causes involving equality and justice.

He spoke out against the Vietnam War and supported civil disobedience. One of the first places he embraced this new freedom after leaving the confines of his government position was in the testimony he sought to give during the 1969 trial of the Chicago Seven, a role captured in the recent movie of the same name. (Ramsey also ran twice for the US Senate from New York, something for which his idealistic, uncompromising approach was totally unsuited.)

He continued to move further to the left, gravitating to the outer reaches on the individual rights–government power spectrum and providing defense to a list that included Lyndon LaRouche and dictators such as Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic, work that often confounded many of his former colleagues and allies. But Clark viewed this activity as entirely consistent with his earlier work, with both focused on what he described as helping to avert the distortion of the justice system by preventing government abuse of its extraordinary powers.

The focus of both Ramsey Clark’s and his father’s work during their nearly century-long tagteam in American law and policy involved constant evaluation and balancing of the government’s role in ensuring our democratic freedoms and individual liberties against the protections it should provide for the most vulnerable citizens. It is a debate that continues to be a central source of conflict in our society.

We may disagree with the path that Ramsey Clark took or, for that matter, the positions of many of his clients. For many the approach taken by his more conservative father is equally unsatisfying.

And yet the battles they engaged in involving some of the toughest legal questions of their day are a reminder that the struggle to uphold the rule of law and to support our democratic system and the constitutional standards that underpin our society require an adherence to principle over politics.

At a time when far too many have embraced the January 6 siege on the US Capitol as a legitimate action and continue to use social media to spread the lies (big and little) and disinformation that support it, this message, and the work and lives of the Clarks, has special resonance.

Alexander Wohl is the author of Father, Son, and Constitution: How Justice Tom Clark and Attorney General Ramsey Clark Shaped American Democracy (University Press of Kansas, 2013).