It seems appropriate that a legal case unusual enough to bring together the remains of an Apache chief, the secret society Skull and Bones and President Barack Obama would be prosecuted by a man who is a character in his own right: Ramsey Clark, the former attorney general to President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Clark has long been a controversial figure in the legal world. His fingerprints can be found on prominent civil rights cases in the American South and on the defense of several of the world’s most notorious war criminals. To some, Clark is a saint for championing the causes of the downtrodden. To others, he is a dangerous radical, seizing every opportunity to make headlines and criticize the United States in a court of law.
Now, Clark is advocating for 20 descendants of the Apache chieftain Geronimo who are suing to recover Geronimo’s remains, which are widely rumored to be held in Skull and Bones’ High Street tomb. While Clark himself said he believes the remains lie under the military base where Geronimo was initially buried, the lawsuit names the president, the secretaries of Defense and of the Army, the University and Skull and Bones — a strategy that is designed to ensure the remains are recovered, Clark said.
“To me it’s a mighty story with lots of significance,” he said in a telephone interview this week.
Clark spent his time in the Johnson administration pushing for civil liberties, advocating for penal reform and enforcing the domestic side of the administration’s Vietnam policies. He was instrumental in the admission of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi; Meredith incited riots when he became the school’s first black student in 1963. For his work, Clark was awarded the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights in 2008.
The Skull and Bones case pits Clark against a familiar opponent: the federal government. He has defended Native American activist Leonard Peltier and advocated for the Branch Davidians, a religious sect whose Waco, Texas, compound was raided by the federal government in 1993.
And he has been harshly criticized for his decisions to defend controversial international figures. In a span of just over 20 years, Clark has defended Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic and Karl Linnas — a Nazi officer who ran a concentration camp during World War II.
Jeff Rosen LAW ’91, a professor of law at George Washington University and legal affairs editor for The New Republic, said Clark retains little credibility in legal circles.
“Ramsey Clark today has a reputation as a legal radical,” Rosen wrote in an e-mail message. “In light of his view that the war on terror is really a war against Islam, and in light of his representation of clients from Nazi war criminals to Slobodan Milosevic, many mainstream liberals now view him as a fringe character.”
The suit is not Clark’s first turn at a Yale institution. In 1968, Clark charged University Chaplain William Sloane Coffin Jr. ’49 DIV ’56 and four others with “conspiracy to aid and abet draft resistance.” In 2003, attorneys Melvin Wulf and David McReynolds, who worked with Clark, told the magazine Legal Affairs that they felt Clark was “haunted” by his role in prosecuting Coffin and other defendants in the case.
Clark turned to antiwar work and activism as a kind of penance, they said.
In the interview, Clark said he took the Apache’s case because of his long-standing interest in Native American rights.
“They’ve been treated violently and unfairly, and we need to make it up to them,” he said.
The themes of the case — defending oppressed and underrepresented parties — are consistent with convictions Clark said he has tried to maintain throughout his career. He said he hopes this case will be a step in the right direction. In it, Clark said he sees potential to educate Americans about past transgressions against Native Americans and “a chance for us to finally do the right thing.”
Sara Flounders, co-director of the International Action Center, which Clark founded, echoed Clark’s sentiment. “People have a right to teach their children to treat with dignity and respect the famous leaders of their people,” she said.
Flounders said the case appeals to Clark’s demonstrated compassion for the plight of indigenous populations across the world.
Lawrence Schilling, Clark’s legal partner for the last 25 years, said he thinks Clark chooses his cases based on instinct. Schilling discounted the notion that Clark chooses defendants based on publicity value. And Curtis Doebbler, an international human rights lawyer who worked with Clark on Saddam’s defense, said Clark takes on cases no one else will because of his extraordinary sense of and commitment to justice.
“He believes that the rule of law must be upheld,” Doebbler said. “If it isn’t then the powerful will always prevail. The rule of law is supposed to protect people. This is every lawyer’s commitment — to uphold the law, whether it’s being applied to people we like or don’t.”