By Christopher Young,
The Mississippi Link is proud to honor our very own Mississippi State Representative – The Honorable Alyce Griffin Clarke, who has represented House District 69, Hinds County, since 1985 and has recently announced that she will retire later this year. I visited with her in her home on what is known popularly as President’s Day, of course in Mississippi, it’s referred to as Washington’s Birthday, making sure to keep President Lincoln out of the picture.
Clarke was born in Yazoo City, because there was no hospital open to black women in Belzoni. From picking cotton in Belzoni to her face on a mural right next to Fannie Lou Hamer, her path has been truly significant.
She earned a bachelor’s degree from Alcorn State University and a master’s degree from Tuskegee Institute. Additionally, she has attended Thee I Love Jackson State University as well as Mississippi College.
Clarke has the distinction of being the first black woman elected to the Mississippi Legislature. Today, of the thirteen women in the House of Representatives where she serves, seven are black.
Clarke has held many committee memberships during her tenure in the legislature. Currently she serves on Appropriations, Banking and Financial Services, Drug Policy, Education, Gaming, Universities and Colleges, and Youth and Family Affairs. She was a member of the Black Legislative Caucus and Hinds County Democratic Legislative Caucus when they were formed. She is affiliated with Alpha Kappa Alpha, Alcorn Alumni, Jack & Jill of America, Inc., MS Public Health Association, Regional Association of Drug Free Schools and Communities and State PTA.
She has introduced over 1500 bills, and even now, in her final legislative session, she is sponsoring 25 bills.Clarke introduced the Born Free Act in 1986 which came out of her work with women, infants and children; mandating drug testing for newborns and providing services for mothers, now being operated as Born Free/New Beginnings by Catholic Charities.
She authored the bill creating Mississippi’s International Baccalaureate Diploma Program – today there seven IB programs in Mississippi; the first of which was at Jim Hill High School in Jackson – still thriving today. In 2003, after years of effort and advocacy, providing for a more comprehensive rehabilitative approach for criminal defendants who committed crimes while under the influence of alcohol/drugs, as opposed to the purely punitive approach -The Alyce Griffin Clarke Drug Court Act. After nineteen years of trying, The Alyce G. Clarke Mississippi Lottery Law was signed into law in 2018 – the first $80 million in annual lottery proceeds goes to infrastructure and anything beyond that goes to education in our state.
A tireless servant leader – Clarke’s reputation and reach extends far beyond Hinds County. One example is the Anything Is Possible organization’s partnering with The Las Vegas Stars providing scholarships in her name to HBCU students in the five southern states of Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Arkansas. The concept centers on Motown-themed tribute shows travelling to various cities raising funds for the scholarships. It started in 2018 and has become the #1 Motown-themed Show in Vegas and hopefully will be visiting Jackson very soon.
In 1981 she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis; a potentially disabling disease of the central nervous system – stop her it would not. Just three short years later she was elected by the people of Hinds County, becoming a trailblazer for women in politics and having received more accolades than could ever be detailed in this article. Her profound example, and her impact on the lives of women, children and families is difficult to grasp in its totality, and will be felt for generations to come. Yet surely, it didn’t come without overcoming adversity, without paying dues.
On the racial side – she was a member of the House of Representatives for three years before she discovered there was a female restroom on the second floor of the Capitol. Her white female colleagues never mentioned it to her, nor did the Speaker of The House. Of her time in the state legislature, she says “it’s been interesting – I had no idea what I was getting into in the beginning. I had no idea that things were as bad as they were. There would be meetings before the meetings, and by the time I got there they would have already had the meeting and decided what they were going to do, and so I soon learned that those kinds of things were going on. You learn that if it’s a black person’s bill coming up it’s probably going to die in committee. But overall, everyone was very nice and cordial and kind, but they were still doing things underneath, and you just have to be there to know that is what’s going on – it wasn’t easy.” She said she learned over time that using the approach of ‘I need your help with this’ was very productive, “quite often I found people that, if they felt they were helping you with something, they would go out of their way to help, rather than always being against everything you were trying to do.”
On the personal side, her husband of 32 years, Lee William Clarke, who was her number one cheerleader – and a wonderful cook too – was part of the Bloody Sunday March from Selma to Montgomery, passed away in 2004. They had one child together, DeMarquis Clarke; a psychologist currently practicing in Pittsburgh, who she refers to as “a jewel.”
For 34 years she served as an usher at Cade Chapel Missionary Baptist Church on Ridgeway Street in Jackson. The Lady from Hinds, as she is referred to at The Capitol, surely has a nickname – “Relatives and close friends call me Myrt, it’s short for my middle name,” she adds with a warm smile.
When Clarke’s eyes fix upon you – you become captive to her lifetime of knowledge and experiences. She may not control what actions you take, but make no mistake, she knows who you really are and what you are up to.
This tribute could have been much shorter, after all, it’s her strikingly beautiful face beside Fannie Lou Hamer, Bob Moses, Rose Elizabeth Howard Robinson, Louise Marshall and Albert Powell on Sabrina Howard’s stunning mural on the side of the COFU Civil Rights Education Center building.
In closing our visit she shared, “My prayer of course always is Lord, if I can just help somebody along the way then my labor will not have been in vain.” A modest reminder to us all, from a woman of the highest distinction.
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