Kristen Clarke, a longtime voting rights advocate, is officially the first woman and the first Black woman to lead the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division since it was created in 1957. Clarke was confirmed by the Senate on Tuesday in a 51-48 vote, with Sen. Susan Collins as the sole Republican voting in support of her confirmation. Despite Republicans doing everything in their limited power to block Clarke’s confirmation, Vice President Kamala Harris was able to swear her in—a simply inspired sight.
”Kristen Clarke has spent her career fighting for equal justice and protecting Americans’ civil and voting rights,” Harris tweeted. “As the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, she will continue that fight as we see a rise in voter suppression and hate crimes across the country.”
President Joe Biden also offered his congratulations to Clarke: “there’s no one better to lead the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division,” he tweeted. “I know she’ll work tirelessly to advance civil rights and push our nation closer to our founding ideals of liberty, justice, and equality for all.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee tweeted: ”Not only is she eminently qualified and the ideal person to advance our civil rights and restore credibility at the Division, she's the first Black woman to hold this role.”
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund wrote a letter in support of Clarke’s confirmation in April to Sens. Dick Durbin and Chuck Grassley. “Ms. Clarke was an esteemed member of the LDF staff fromMarch 2006 to August 2011. During that time, she worked tirelessly to advance LDF’s mission, especially in the areas of voting rights and political participation,” the Legal Defense Fund said in the letter. It echoed that sentiment after her confirmation.
“During her tenure at LDF, Kristen Clarke litigated some of our most important, high-profile voting rights cases, including MUD v. Holder, which upheld the constitutionality of Section 5 of the (Voting Rights Act),” the defense fund wrote.
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Acts was established in 1965 to create a formula used to decide which states require preclearance from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia to change any element related to voting in a protected jurisdiction. Republicans are currently stalling reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act after they earlier pushed an effort the Supreme Court supported to gut core elements of the act in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder. Clarke wrote in 2013 that the decision “has proven to be one of the most devastating rulings of the last decade … The effect of the opinion was to essentially render Section 5 — which had been perhaps the most effective civil rights provision of the modern era — inoperable.”
The Legal Defense Fund applauded her intervention in the case. “The breadth and depth of Kristen Clarke’s work is unparalleled,” it tweeted. “Her litigation and advocacy experience in crucial civil rights issues is exactly the sort of leadership and expertise needed right now at the Department of Justice.”
For Senate Republicans, however, stopping Clarke’s confirmation has apparently been of greater importance than affecting actual change. Sen. Ted Cruz and other Republicans circulated a quote from writer Amiri Baraka and attributed it to Clarke simply because she forwarded an email from Baraka in 1999. In the email, Baraka called police the Ku Klux Klan. And in another failed effort to tarnish Clarke’s impeccable record, Sen. John Cornyn asked during her confirmation hearing if while a student at Harvard University, she had “argued that African Americans were genetically superior to ah [sic] Caucasians."
Clarke responded: “No senator, I believe you’re referring to an op-ed that I wrote at the age of 19 about the Bell Curve Theory, a racist book that equated DNA with genetics and race. As a Black student at Harvard at that time we took grave offense to this book. It was co-authored by a Harvard professor ... And this op-ed opened with a satirical reference to the statement that you just noted.
”What I was seeking to do is hold up a mirror,” Clarke added, “and put one racist theory alongside another to challenge people as to why we were unwilling to wholly reject the racist theory that defined the Bell Curve book.”
She said during her confirmation hearing that she’s known she wanted to be a civil rights attorney since high school. “My journey to this hearing room today may not be an obvious one,” she said. “It started my junior year of high school, when a teacher loaded my classmates and me into a van and drove us to a courthouse in Hartford, Connecticut, to hear arguments in what turned out to be the landmark school desegregation case, Sheff v. O’Neill.”
Clarker added: “As the daughter of Jamaican immigrants growing up humbly in Starrett City, the nation’s largest public housing complex in Brooklyn, New York, I had never been inside a courtroom before. That moment was a powerful display of the role civil rights lawyers play in our society. I was mesmerized and deeply moved as I watched attorneys argue for more just and equitable educational opportunities. From that moment on, I knew I wanted to be a civil rights attorney.”
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