Clark speaks about civil rights fight at STCC
Date: 12/7/2010Dec. 6, 2010
By G. Michael Dobbs
SPRINGFIELD -- Springfield Technical Community College brought a person to speak at its sixth annual Rosa Parks Day on Wednesday who played significant roles in the civil rights movement of the 1960s: former United States Attorney General Ramsey Clark.
Clark spoke to a standing room only audience at the college and recalled his involvement with seminal civil rights figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King -- whom Clark called "the greatest of all Americans" -- and James Meredith, the first African-American student enrolled at the University of Mississippi.
He also spoke about Parks, who he described as "shy and a private person who knew the difference between right and wrong."
He recalled that as a young lawyer living in his native Texas he heard about the incident that propelled Parks to national prominence: refusing to give up her seat in the front of a municipal bus to a white man in 1955.
Changing segregation took "a lot of time; a lot of courage and a lot of work," he said.
"Rosa Parks in her quiet way never stopped [the work]," he added.
In 1962, working under Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Clark was part of the group sent by the administration of President John Kennedy to ensure student James Meredith's entrance into the University of Mississippi. The federal government had to send thousands of Army troops, federal marshals and border patrol officers to the town of Oxford, Miss.. to attempt to guarantee Meredith's safety.
Clark recalled with a gentle laugh that one evening, Meredith wanted to go to Jackson, Miss., to go bowling. The federal contingent knew it couldn't get Meredith in and out of Jackson safely and instead drove him to Memphis, Tenn., to bowl without incident.
"The hatred on the campus of 'Old Miss' was palpable," Clark noted. He added that in riots surrounding Meredith's attendance of the school, two people were killed.
Meredith's success in attending the college helped the cause of desegregation in the South, Clark noted.
Clark was also involved in protecting the people who marched for Selma to Montgomery, Ala., and headed the presidential task force on the riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles, Calif.
Still, the movement on the federal level for civil rights legislation was helped, ironically, by the death of one of its supporters, President Kennedy.
"I don't know if we would ever have had a Civil Rights Act without the emotional response to the assassination" Clark said.
Kennedy's successor, Lyndon John was a "passionate" supporter of civil rights and Clark said the Voting Rights Act passed in 1964 resulted in an increase of less than 7 percent of eligible African-Americans voting before the legislation to 72.5 percent participating in the election of 1968.
"It [the Voting Rights Act] changed politics," Clark asserted. "You couldn't spout racial hated to get elected anymore."
He said with the election of Richard Nixon as president in 1968, the civil rights movement on the federal level essentially ended.
Since then, Clark has practiced and taught law and has become an often controversial figure with positions against the Vietnam War as well as the first war with Iraq and the current conflict. He also called for the impeachment of President George W. Bush.
Stating the United States is now in a cold war with China, he said, "I believe in change. It's healthy to hope for embitterment. We can't be afraid of it. The times ahead are going to be really rough."