JACKSON, Miss. (AP)-The first black woman elected to the Mississippi legislature said Tuesday she will not seek another term, 38 years after first taking office.
Democratic Representative Alyce Clarke of Jackson, 83, announced her decision a day before the qualification deadline for candidates for state, regional, legislative and county offices in Mississippi.
“You can’t make a difference if you’re not at the table. And I’m glad we’ve finally made it to the table,” Clarke told the Associated Press after making 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, an Ebenezer Democrat elected in 1967.
Alyce Clarke won a March 1985 special election. Her time as the only black woman in the legislature was relatively short, as in 1987 Democrat Alice Harden of Jackson won a state Senate seat.
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 houses.
Only three white women were members of the House when Clarke arrived. Men had a bathroom next to the House chamber on the third floor of the Capitol, but women had to go to bathrooms on another floor, an inconvenience that prevented them from sneaking out during lengthy debates.
Clarke said early in her legislative career, she saw a House staffer hand a key to one of her white female colleagues to a private women’s restroom on the second floor. Clarke had gone all the way to a public restroom on the first floor.
“Stupid me,” Clarke recalled on Tuesday. “I said, ‘It was never locked when I was there.’ And then I saw the other two women looking at each other strangely. I said, “There’s something wrong with that.”
She said she went home and told her husband, “‘White women have a bath.'”
Her husband urged her to call reporters. She did, and the snub of the only black legislator made headlines.
Clarke said when she arrived at the Capitol the next day, a security officer gave her a key to the private bathroom and told her she had been summoned to see then Speaker of the House CB “Buddie” Newman, a Democrat.
Clarke said Newman — who apparently hadn’t read the papers — told her that if she promised not to tell the media about the bathroom situation, he would get a committee working to put a new women’s bathroom next to the House chamber.
“I said, ‘I promise you I won’t tell him because I told him last night,'” Clarke said.
In a relatively short time, female MPs had equal ease of access to a toilet as their male colleagues, with the women’s room installed in a space previously used for the men’s shoe-shine kiosk.
Corny parity aside, Clarke said on Tuesday that women have made a difference in lawmaking.
“If you happen to be on the committee, very often there are things you think about that they don’t think about,” she said. “And it seems like we’re really more concerned with educating our kids and making sure they don’t end up in jail.”
Democratic Rep. Ed Blackmon — who for many years shared a two-person desk with Clarke in the House chamber — said Tuesday Clarke met the goals by being persistent.
“She bothers you – I’ll put it this way,” Blackmon said with a chuckle. “But she’s really nice in the way she annoys you.”
Clarke pushed early in her legislative career to found Born Free, a drug and alcohol treatment center for pregnant women. She said she saw the need for the program while working on a nutrition program at a public health center.
In the 1990s, he led an effort to establish Mississippi’s first drug courts, which provide probation, drug testing, and treatment services to help keep some people out of jail.
She was also instrumental in getting her colleagues to set up a state lottery. Clarke filed lottery bills for 19 years before lawmakers voted in 2018 to create a lottery to help pay for highways. Recognizing her persistence, the House and Senate voted to nominate legislation 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.
Current Speaker of the House, Republican Philip Gunn, said Tuesday that Clarke served with class and dignity.
“You have done the state of Mississippi proud,” he told Clarke, and his colleagues applauded.