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OPINION

Texas History Minute - Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark

Bill Hancock
Runnels County Register

Thomas Campbell Clark played an important role in shaping many of the civil liberties Americans enjoy today during his career.  As part of a long and distinguished legal career, Clark became the first – and to date, only – Texan to serve on the United States Supreme Court.

Clark was born in Dallas in 1899.  As a young man, he received a degree from the University of Texas in 1921 and completed law school the next year.  He quickly returned to Dallas, eager to begin his law career. 

He worked for the next few years in private practice in Dallas.  In 1924, he married Mary Ramsey, the daughter of a former state supreme court justice, and eventually had three children with her.  With a growing family to support, Clark joined the district attorney’s office in 1927.  He left after a few years to return to private practice, but in 1937, he received a great opportunity when he became a special assistant to U. S. Attorney General Homer S. Cummings. 

At the attorney general’s office, his career advanced quickly.  In 1938, he was assigned to the antitrust division, combating monopolies.  After World War II began, Clark investigated cases of espionage and subversion against the United States.  By 1943, he was serving as assistant attorney general in the War Fraud division.  Through this work, he several defense contractors indicted who sold shoddy equipment to the military or outright stole money from the government during the war.  

Shortly after Harry S. Truman became president upon the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945, he appointed Clark as the new attorney general, having been impressed by Clark’s work against contractor fraud. 

When Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy died in 1949, President Truman appointed Clark to fill the position.  As a member of the Supreme Court, Clark helped usher in drastic changes in civil rights laws across the nation.  In 1950, in Sweatt v. Painter, he ruled with the court’s majority that the University of Texas must admit African-American applicants.  With Terry v. Adams in 1953, he helped strike down the “white primary,” which allowed state political parties to exclude minorities from their primary elections.  In 1954, he was part of the High Court’s unanimous ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education case that ruled racial segregation in all schools to be unconstitutional.    

Clark was also part of the majority decision in Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963, which declared that states had to provide attorneys for anyone accused of a crime.  This decision led to hundreds of wrongfully convicted inmates being freed.  He was also part of the unanimous New York Times v. Sullivan decision in 1964 to protect newspapers and free speech by redefining libel as a statement that is both knowingly false and meant to defame another person’s reputation. 

Tom Clark retired from the Supreme Court in 1967 and was replaced by Thurgood Marshall.  Shortly after his retirement, his son, Ramsey Clark, was appointed attorney general by President Lyndon Johnson. 

He remained very active in his retirement.  He became director of the Federal Judicial  Center, a program designed to help courts with research and training for judges, shortly after its founding.  He stepped down from the center in 1970 and continued to serve as a visiting judge for the US Court of Appeals, acting as a temporary judge for special cases.  He died quietly in New York City in 1977.  Years later, Clark High School in San Antonio, was named for him as well as the Tom C. Clark State Office Building in Austin.

Ken Bridges