Jackson, miss. — The first black woman elected to the Mississippi state legislature said Tuesday that she will not seek re-election after 38 years in her first term.
Rep. Alyce Clarke, 83, a Jackson Democrat, announced her decision a day before the deadline for candidacy for Mississippi’s statewide, district, legislative and county offices.
“You can’t make a difference unless you’re at the table. I’m glad we’re finally at the table,” Clark told the Associated Press after the announcement to House colleagues.
The first black person to win a seat in Mississippi’s state legislature in the 20th century was Robert Clark, a no-related Democrat from Ebenezer who was elected in 1967.
Alyce Clarke won the March 1985 special election. Her time as the only black woman in the legislature was relatively short, as Alice Harden, a Democrat from Jackson, won a state Senate seat in 1987.
Several other black women have since been elected to Mississippi’s 122-member House of Representatives and 52 members of the Senate, but women remain a minority overall in both chambers.
When Clark arrived, only three white women were members of the House of Representatives. Gents have a restroom near the House chamber on the third floor of the Capitol, but women have to go to a restroom on another floor—an inconvenience that prevents them from sneaking out during lengthy debates.
Early in her legislative career, Clark said she watched a House staffer hand over the keys to a white female colleague of hers to use a private women’s restroom on the second floor. Clark walked all the way to the public restroom on the first floor.
“Stupid me,” Clark recalled Tuesday. “I said, ‘I never locked it when I was in it.’ Then I saw two other women looking at each other kind of weirdly. I said, ‘There’s something wrong.'”
She said she told her husband when she got home: “‘White ladies have bathrooms.'”
Her husband urged her to call reporters. She did, and the snub of the only black female lawmaker made headlines.
Clark said that when she arrived at the Capitol the next day, a security guard gave her a key to a private restroom and told her she was being summoned to see the House Speaker at the time, CB “Buddy” Newman, a Democrat.
Clark said Newman — who apparently didn’t read the paper — told her he would get a committee to work on building a new women’s restroom near the House if she promised not to tell the media about the restroom.
“I said, ‘I promise you I’m not going to tell them, because I told them last night,'” Clark said.
In a relatively short period of time, female legislators had the same easy access to the restroom as their male colleagues, and the women’s restroom was installed in a space formerly used for a male shoe-shine station.
Beyond potty equality, Clark said Tuesday that women played a role in the legislative process.
“If you happen to be on a committee, there are often things that you think of that they don’t,” she said. “It seems like we really care more about educating our kids and making sure they don’t end up in jail.”
Democratic Rep. Ed Blackmon — who shared a two-man desk with Clark in the House for years — said Tuesday that Clark achieved his goals through perseverance.
“She’s bothering you—I’ll say so,” Blackmon said with a laugh. “But the way she bothered you was really nice.”
Clarke pushed to establish Born Free, a drug and alcohol treatment center for pregnant women, early in her legislative career. She said she saw the need for the program while working on the nutrition program at the Public Health Center.
In the 1990s, she led the establishment of Mississippi’s first drug court, which provided supervision, drug testing and treatment services to help some people stay out of prison.
She was also instrumental in convincing her colleagues to establish a state lottery. Clark filed the lottery bill 19 years before lawmakers voted in 2018 to create a lottery to help pay highway tolls. Recognizing her persistence, the House and Senate voted to name the legislation the Alyce G. Clarke Mississippi Lottery Law. When the 2019 lottery went on sale, Clark bought the first ticket for the ceremony at a convenience store in Jackson.
Current House Speaker Philip Gunn, a Republican, said Tuesday that Clark’s service was methodical and dignified.
“You’ve made Mississippi proud,” he told Clark, as her colleagues applauded.
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