William Henry Clark and his wife, Virginia Maxey, moved to Dallas shortly before the turn of the 20th century. When William passed the Texas Bar exam, he became the youngest attorney the state had ever known. A few years later, their son, Thomas Campbell Clark, who would prefer Tom C. Clark later in life, was born.
Tom excelled as a student throughout the Dallas public school system. He became an Eagle Scout and won awards in debate and oratory. As a young man, Clark sought to join the military. He attended the Virginia Military Institute for a year, but financial pressures caused him to return home. With the outbreak of World War I, Clark tried to volunteer for the Army, but he was refused. The enlistment officers said his weight was too low. That did not prove an obstacle for the Texas National Guard, however, which accepted him. He entered service as an infantryman and eventually progressed to sergeant.
After the war, Clark returned to his home state and attended the University of Texas in Austin. He received his A.B. in 1921. Shortly after, he enrolled at the University of Texas School of Law to continue the family business. At U of T Law, he joined the Delta Tau Delta fraternity where, like public school and the military, he excelled. Clark would later serve as the body’s international president from 1966 to 1968.
Clark graduated from law school, promptly passed the Texas Bar exam, and established his own practice in Dallas. He ran it from 1922 to 1927 when he left to serve as a Dallas civil district attorney until 1932. At the end of his term, he returned to his private practice. But civil service had given him a calling he had not yet realized. In 1937, he left private practice for the rest of his life.
Working as a special assistant to the U.S. Attorney General in war risk litigation, Clark, a Texas Democrat, joined the Justice Department just as World War II was beginning. After a brief stint, he was transferred to the antitrust division where he worked under Thurman Arnold, the renowned trustbuster. In 1940, Arnold sent Clark off to California to establish a west coast antitrust office.
Again, he did not remain at the post long. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, Attorney General Francis Biddle named Clark the Civilian Coordinator of the Alien Enemy Control Program. Clark worked with future Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren to begin the restriction, and then later the internment, of Japanese Americans. The effort began by excluding these Americans from military zones, and later escalated to the forced relocation of entire communities to inland internment camps. Clark did not play a direct hand in the internment process, and later would go on to criticize the actions taken by the federal government.
During the war, Clark rose through the ranks of the Justice Department after getting transferred to Washington in 1942. He was promoted to Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust in 1943 and soon after was promoted again to head the Criminal Division of the Justice Department. He was also tasked with leading the newly established War Frauds section to keep an eye over possible corruption among private military contractors. This period brought Clark in close contact with future President Harry Truman, who had established the Truman Committee as yet another body investigating war fraud. During this period, Clark successfully prosecuted two German spies who were part of Operation Magpie, a German intelligence effort.
When Harry Truman took over the presidency from Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945, he immediately appointed Clark to Attorney General. The close friendship between the president and Clark did not raise concerns; the media praised Truman’s decision. A Life Magazine article stated, “He is a good prosecutor and good lawyer, but most of all he is a thorough politician.”
During his initial time as Attorney General, Clark largely continued his previous work, allocating much of the Justice Department’s resources to investigating war fraud. Under Clark, the White House also brought charges against the head of the United Mine Workers Union, John Lewis, who was in the process of organizing a national strike.
Clark built his case on a law prohibiting union strikes in facilities controlled or run by the federal government. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. Clark was successful, and the Court charged Lewis with contempt citations.
Clark also played a hand in President Truman’s efforts toward civil rights reform, prompted in large part by violence committed by the Ku Klux Klan against returning black servicemen. Under his guidance, many of these hate-crimes were prosecuted with increased resources from the Justice Department. Clark began the practice of filing amicus legal briefs in many civil rights cases, enlarging further the role of the federal government in the legal aspects of civil rights. This practice played a significant role in the case Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), which abolished segregation in housing contracts, prohibiting developers from selling property exclusively to whites.
As the Cold War set in, Clark was responsible for implementing several Truman-era anti-Communist policies. He included a key aspect of Executive Order 9835 which demanded the loyalty of federal employees to their government. This, along with other anti-Communist measures, drew ire from many liberals. Clark sought to mitigate the measures with efforts to support democracy and patriotism. For example, he created the Freedom Train, a railcar museum that contained dozens of historical American documents such as the Bill of Rights and the Emancipation Proclamation. The Freedom Train reached over 300 cities across the U.S. and millions of Americans during a single year.
Harry Truman’s 1948 campaign was supposed to be Tom C. Clark’s last effort in Washington. He had grown homesick and intended to return to Dallas to practice law after the campaign. But shortly after Truman narrowly defeated Thomas Dewey, Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy died. Truman nominated Clark to join the 9th Circuit in order to help secure Chief Justice Fred Vinson’s weak democratic control.
Whereas Clark’s previous appointment to Attorney General did not draw criticism, this promotion was branded as nothing more than base cronyism from both the left and the right. Harold Ickes, a member of Roosevelt’s cabinet said, “President Truman has not elevated Tom C. Clark to the Supreme Court; he has degraded the Court.” Wishing to enter the Court with a clean political slate, Clark did not testify at his own nomination process. He worried that to do so would “[jeopardize] his future effectiveness on the Court.” Despite this and the widespread criticism, Clark was confirmed by the Senate.
Many skeptical Republicans were soon proven right. During their four years together on the 9th Circuit, Clark supported Vinson on at least 85% of the decisions. This did not help to unify the Court.
In 1953, Vinson died of a heart attack and was succeeded by Earl Warren. The period surrounding Vinson’s death proved to be an era of civil rights reform. During this time, Clark supported such cases as Sweatt v. Painter (1950) and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents (1950) which upheld the right of black students to attend “white” universities. Brown v. Board of Education followed in 1954. As a southern justice, Clark’s role in these cases was nothing short of critical.
The following years would cement Clark’s legacy as a champion of civil rights. He wrote several important Supreme Court decisions, such as Anderson v. Martin (1964) which struck down a Louisiana measure requiring state politicians to state their race on ballots; Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority (1961) which upheld the state court decision of a 14th Amendment and Equal Protection Clause violation against a private restaurant in Delaware; and Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States (1964) along with Katzenbach v. McClung (1964), both of which supported the public accommodations clause of the Civil Rights Act.
While a champion of civil rights, Clark did not end his hawkish attitude toward Communists. Clark, in fact, was forced to recuse himself from several civil liberties cases because they involved policies that he himself had written a decade earlier. When he did cast his vote, he stuck to his guns. Gamer v. Board of Public Works (1951) upheld the right of a local government to require its employees to swear under oath that they had never been a member of the Communist Party. Clark did, however, reverse his opinion when these requirements were excessive, such as in in Wieman v. Updegraff (1952). Still, he remained staunchly anti-Communist throughout the rest of his life.
When Clark’s son, Ramsay, was appointed Attorney General to Lyndon Johnson, Tom C. Clark decided to retire to avoid conflicts of interest. In his later life, he led a commission of the American Bar Association focusing on the lawyer disciplinary system. The 200-page document published in 1970 became known as the “Clark Commission,” and many of its suggestions were adopted, especially after Watergate.
Clark died in his sleep at his son’s New York City apartment on June 13, 1977. He was laid to rest in Restland Memorial Park in Dallas. An incredibly competent litigator and skilled politician, Clark exercised an at-times idiosyncratic form of justice. While a champion of civil rights for black Americans, he was also a tough McCarthy-ite who remained antagonistic towards American Communists throughout his life. Especially when it came to state policies that demanded individuals reveal their identity, he seemingly espoused a hypocritical view, arguing that for black Americans, they need not identify themselves on the ballot, while he argued that municipal employees must reveal whether or not they had ever been a member of the Communist Party.
In summary, Clarke received numerous accolades throughout his life, such as the Distinguished Jurist Award, not to mention the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award. The University of Texas School of Law maintains a large collection of his papers, and several buildings at universities and public schools throughout the country bear his name. He was a distinguished and upstanding Justice of the 9th Circuit.