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Satchmo appreciation linked to civil rights law

Passing recently was 93-year-old Ramsey Clark, former attorney general in the Johnson administration and tireless champion of civil rights for over a half-century.

Clark was no Northeastern liberal, but a son of the South, a multigenerational Texan born into relative wealth and privilege. What was it that propelled Clark to speak out, to advocate for his less fortunate Black brothers and sisters throughout his public life? The answer lies with his father.

In the Ken Burns jazz documentary, we learned that Ramsey’s father, Tom C. Clark, had attended a barnstorming concert as a young man in Austin at a time when Jim Crow laws, rampant racism and lynchings were commonplace in Texas.

Tom wrote decades later that he knew nothing of Louis Armstrong’s music before that night. Imagine the awakening of an impressionable white Texan in the segregated South when arguably the most influential musician of the 20th century, then a young man himself and just a few years from achieving national fame, stepped onstage. For the first time in his life, Tom felt like he was “in the midst of greatness.”

Tom went on to become an attorney and eventually an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. His vote with the majority in the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case would become a crowning achievement in the cause of civil rights.

All thanks to a genius with a cornet, an infectious smile and the power of music.

Greg Lauderdale

Makawao

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