Historic Justice Department Appointment: Kristen Clarke Confirmed As First Black Woman To Head Civil Rights Division



Kristen Clarke, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, United States Department of Justice

By Charlene Crowell

(Trice Edney Wire) – In recent years, many people of different races and ethnicities have fought backlashes to hard-earned racial progress. From health disparities exposed in the COVID-19 pandemic, to voting rights, criminal justice, fair housing and more, much of black America has suffered in a way that is reminiscent of Jim Crow and its separate, but never equal, status.

But since a new administration began in January, there have been a series of encouraging signs that regressive and nefarious practices will be challenged in the name of justice. On May 25, the US Senate confirmed Kristen Clarke as the Department of Justice’s Deputy Attorney General for Civil Rights. Never before has a black woman led this division that guides the federal government‘s commitment to civil rights for all.

Appointed by President Joe Biden on Jan. 7, his remarks underscored both its importance and its timeliness.

“The Civil Rights Division is the moral center of the Department of Justice. And the core of that fundamental American ideal that we are all created equal and deserve to be treated equally, ”President Biden said. “I am honored that you have accepted the call to return to fulfill the promise made to all Americans.”

Shortly thereafter, a tsunami of support for Clarke’s confirmation revealed nationwide and diverse support for her service. The list of supporters included unions, environmental activists, law enforcement officials, as well as legal colleagues and civil rights leaders.

Perhaps one of the oldest and most poignant expressions is that of the son of the first associate black judge of the United States Supreme Court, John W. Marshall. Written on behalf of his family, the February 9 letter to the leadership of the US Senate established a key historical connection.

“Ms. Clarke is a revolutionary lawyer, like my father, who built her career advancing civil rights and equal justice before the law, and breaking down barriers through her leadership for people of color while improving our nation for everyone, ”wrote Mr. Marshall.

Her letter also shared a revealing example of Ms. Clarke’s groundbreaking work in the area of ​​civil rights. Ms. Clarke successfully used the law as a means to promote equality, as my father did. For example, she successfully represented Taylor Dumpson, who was the target of a hate crime after her election as the first female president of the American University Black Student Body. ”

Likewise, the country’s oldest and largest civil rights organization, the NAACP, informed Senate leadership ahead of the scheduled confirmation hearing of its support for Ms Clarke as well.

On April 12, Derrick Johnson, its President and CEO wrote: “The NAACP believes that Ms. Clarke is uniquely placed to oversee the Civil Rights Division at a time when people of color have suffered devastating damage to their hands. law enforcement. She is the leader we need to ensure that local police services obey civil rights laws and advance public safety by maintaining positive relationships with the communities they serve. Ms. Clarke has pursued cases of police misconduct and has worked to make the criminal justice system fairer for people of color.

“As chair of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, Ms. Clarke has been an important partner in working to reduce predatory lending and to fight for fair housing, including campaigns to end Payday loan debt trap and efforts to protect important fair housing and lending rules, noted Nikitra Bailey, an executive vice president of the Center for Responsible Lending. “Ms. Clarke’s experience as a lawyer in the Department of Justice and as the executive director of a major civil rights organization not only qualifies her, but makes her the best candidate for this position. urgently needed.

The vote took place mid-afternoon Tuesday, 51-48 depending on party lines. Senator Susan Collins of Maine was the only Republican to vote for her confirmation. Black women-led and civil rights organizations, including People for the American Way, had fought vehemently for her confirmation alongside the April 21 confirmation of Vanita Gupta as associate attorney general. Gupta is Indo-American.

“These women are ready to make a difference – the change we voted for,” People for the American Way president Ben Jealous wrote in one column. “They represent the type of inclusive multiracial, multi-ethnic society that we are building together – and the commitment of the Biden-Harris administration to building one of the most diverse leadership teams in our country’s history. “The Senate vote comes amid an escalation in hate crimes, visible killings of blacks by police, and attacks on the franchise by state legislatures across the country.

“Kristen is very experienced in dealing with these issues and how to overcome them,” said Dr. Mary Frances Berry, professor of American social thought, history and African studies at the University of Pennsylvania. “With legislation passed in states to implement more voter suppression, she will be at the forefront of finding ways to try to prevent this from happening.”

Clarke’s legal career takes on even more significance when you consider that this Jamaican immigrant daughter grew up in public housing in Brooklyn New York. Although financial resources are limited; the teachings of discipline and hard work from the family were not. Public schools, her college education took her to the prestigious Ivy League.

In 1997, she received her bachelor’s degree from Harvard University. Three years later, in 2000, Clarke received her Juris Doctorate from Columbia University.

Her first job as a new lawyer was as a federal prosecutor in the Department of Justice, working on voting rights, hate crimes and human trafficking. In 2006, she joined the NAACP Legal Defense Fund until New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman appointed her director of the state’s Office of Civil Rights. In this state role, Clarke has led enforcement actions spanning criminal justice, voting rights, and fair lending. housing discrimination, disability rights, reproductive access and LGBTQ rights.

As recognition for her legal acumen grew, the number of honors she received increased: the 2010 Paul Robeson Distinguished Alumni Award from Columbia Law School; The 40 best under 40s of the National Bar Association in 2011; the 2012 award for best brief for the 2012 Supreme Court term from the National Association of Attorneys General; and the 2015 Rising Stars of the New York Law Journal.

Months later, the August 2016 edition of the American Bar Association (ABA) Journal featured a question-and-answer interview with Clarke. In part, she reflected on her childhood and how it influenced her career aspirations.

“I experienced what it is to be disadvantaged, and I have also known very privileged contexts. I feel a deep sense of responsibility to use the opportunities given to me to help those most in need. We live in a nation divided on the basis of race and class. I have a personal idea of ​​what life is like on both sides of this divide, and I want to understand how we are closing some of these gaps and leveling the playing field. ”

During the April 14 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on her appointment, Clarke recalled her legal career path and the principles that have guided her work.

“I started my legal career traveling across the country in communities like Tensas Parish, Louisiana and Clarksdale, Mississippi,” Clarke said. “I’ve learned to be a lawyer for a lawyer – to focus on the rule of law and let the facts lead where they can.”

“When I left the DOJ,” she continued, “I carried the words of the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall as my guide: ‘Where you see evil or inequality or injustice, speak up, because this is your country. This is your democracy. Do it. Protect it. Pass it on ”. “I have tried to do just that at every stage of my career.”

Clarke will now return to the Department of Justice as the agency is once again focused on fair service to the entire nation. Since the start of this year, a series of actions reflect the agency’s renewed commitment to civil rights. Here are some examples:

• In February and following an FBI investigation, a Michigan man was charged with hate crimes after confronting black teens with racist slurs and guns for using a public beach.

• In March, two former Louisiana correctional officers were convicted for their role in a cover-up of the death of a prisoner in 2014 in the parish of the state of St. Bernard, following the lack of medical care during their stay. incarceration.

• In April, the DOJ and the city of West Monroe, Louisiana reached a consent agreement following a lawsuit alleging a violation of voting rights law. Although nearly a third of the city is black, the general election of the city aldermen resulted in all local officials being white. With the consent decree, the method of selecting aldermen will shift to a combination of single district representatives and other elected officials at large.

• On May 7, the DOJ issued a three-count indictment against four Minneapolis police officers for federal civil rights charges in the death of George Floyd. Additionally, former convicted officer Derek Chauvin faces another two-count indictment for his actions in 2017 against a 14-year-old. The indictment accuses Chauvin of keeping his knee on the teenager’s neck and upper back, as well as using a flashlight as a weapon.

In addition, the DOJ is currently investigating police practices in Louisville and Minneapolis. Readers may recall that Breonna Taylor was killed in her Louisville home during a late night police entry with an arrest warrant.

“Our nation is a healthier place when we respect the rights of all communities,” Ms. Clarke said in her confirmation hearing remarks. “In every role I have held, I have worked with and for people from all walks of life… I listened attentively to all facets of the debates, regardless of their political affiliation. There is no substitute for listening and learning in this job, and I promise you that I will bring that to this role.


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