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Mississippi’s 1st Black woman legislator won’t seek new term

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The first Black woman elected to the Mississippi Legislature said Tuesday that she will not seek another term, 38 years after she first took office.

Democratic Rep. Alyce Clarke of Jackson, 83, announced her decision one day before candidates’ qualifying deadline for statewide, regional, legislative and county offices in Mississippi.

“You can’t make a difference unless you’re at the table. And I’m glad we finally got to the table,” Clarke told The Associated Press after she made her announcement to her House colleagues.

The first Black man to win a seat in the Mississippi Legislature in the 20th century was Robert Clark, no relation, a Democrat from Ebenezer who was elected in 1967.

Alyce Clarke won a March 1985 special election. Her time as the only Black woman in the Legislature was relatively short, since in 1987, Democrat Alice Harden of Jackson won a seat in the state Senate.

Several other Black women have since been elected to Mississippi’s 122-member House and 52-member Senate, but women generally remain a small minority in both chambers.

Only three white women were House members when Clarke arrived. The men had a restroom near the House chamber on the Capitol’s third floor, but the women had to go to restrooms on another floor — an inconvenience that prevented them from sneaking out during long debates.

Clarke said that early in her legislative career, she saw a House staff member slip a key to one of her white female colleagues for a private women’s restroom on the second floor. Clarke had been going all the way down to a public restroom on the first floor.

“Stupid me,” Clarke recalled Tuesday. “I said, ‘It’s never been locked when I was in there.’ And then I saw the other two ladies look at each other kind of strange. I said, ‘Something’s not quite right about this.’”

She said she went home and told her husband: “‘The white ladies have a bathroom.’”

Her husband urged her to call reporters. She did, and the snub of the only Black female legislator made headlines.

Clarke said when she arrived at the Capitol the next day, a security officer gave her a key to the private restroom and told her she was being summoned to see then-House Speaker C.B. “Buddie” Newman, a Democrat.

Clarke said Newman — who apparently hadn’t read the newspapers — told her that if she promised not to tell the media about the restroom situation, he would get a committee to work on putting a new women’s restroom near the House chamber.

“I said, ‘I promise you I won’t tell them because I told them last night,’” Clarke said.

Within a relatively short time, female lawmakers had the same ease of access to a restroom as their male colleagues, with the women’s room installed in a space formerly used for the men’s shoeshine stand.

Potty parity aside, Clarke said Tuesday that women have made a difference in the legislative process.

“If you happen to be in the committee, quite often there are things you think of that they don’t think of,” she said. “And it appears that we are really more concerned about educating our children and making sure they don’t end up in prison.”

Democratic Rep. Ed Blackmon — who for many years shared a two-person desk with Clarke in the House chamber — said Tuesday that Clarke accomplished goals by being persistent.

“She bothers you — I’ll put it that way,” Blackmon said with a chuckle. “But she’s real nice in the way she bothers you.”

Clarke pushed early in her legislative career to establish Born Free, a drug and alcohol treatment center for pregnant women. She said she had seen a need for the program while working in a nutrition program at a public health center.

In the 1990s, she led an effort to establish Mississippi’s first drug courts, which provide supervision, drug testing and treatment services to help keep some people out of prison.

She was also instrumental in persuading her colleagues to establish a state lottery. Clarke filed lottery bills for 19 years before legislators voted in 2018 to create a lottery to help pay for highways. Recognizing her persistence, the House and Senate voted to name the legislation the Alyce G. Clarke Mississippi Lottery Law. When lottery tickets went on sale in 2019, Clarke bought the ceremonial first ticket at a Jackson convenience store.

The current House speaker, Republican Philip Gunn, said Tuesday that Clarke has served with class and dignity.

“You have made the state of Mississippi proud,” he told Clarke, and her colleagues applauded.