Black Women Leaders Declare ‘State of Emergency’ for Vote on Clarke Nomination

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By Hazel Trice Edney

Set for vote by Senate Committee this week, she would be the first woman to head the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division

A coalition of organizations led by some of the most powerful Black women in America this week called for the immediate vote on the confirmation of civil rights lawyer Kristen Clarke, President Joseph Biden’s nominee for the position of assistant attorney general for civil rights.

Nominated five months ago, Clarke, a graduate of Harvard and Columbia University Law School, was interviewed during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing April 14. But she has yet to receive a vote on whether to send her nomination before the full Senate. Black leaders across the nation fear the Committee could drag out the confirmation debate into the summer months as crucial civil rights issues lay dormant. The Committee vote is now set for Thursday this week, May 13.

Clarke’s philosophy on civil rights is best expressed through her own words.

“Where you see wrong or inequality or injustice, speak out, because this is your country. This is your democracy. Make it. Protect it. Pass it on,” she said in her written testimony before the Judiciary Committee. “I’ve tried to do just that at every step of my career, from the voting rights project at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, to the Civil Rights Bureau in the New York State Attorney General’s Office, where I was the state’s top civil rights enforcement officer. And since 2015, I’ve led the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of the nation’s leading civil rights legal organizations.”

Given the crucial issues being dealt with by America’s civil rights community, including voting rights, police brutality and police killings of Black people, leaders say that Clarke’s background of fighting for justice on those issues alongside other civil rights leaders makes her a perfect fit to lead the division. But a 50-50 split between Democrats and Republicans on the Committee may be in the way.

“In the time that we’re in, we know that she is more than up to the task. And we want to express the reasons that we believe she is up to the task and an excellent choice and we want to make sure that she is also treated fairly,” said Melanie Campbell, president/CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable. “History has shown us that we have to always speak up; especially when it comes to women of color who are put up for these positions to serve and she has been a servant leader all of her life.”

In that regard, Campbell partnered with Johnnetta Betsch Cole, national chair and president of the National Council of Negro Women, to brief Black reporters by Zoom on the efforts of Black women’s organizations to push Clarke’s nomination through. That May 7 meeting was followed by a Call to Action, livestreamed across multiple media platforms Tuesday night.

“Today in our country, hatred and bigotry are on the rise. White supremacy is emboldened to carry out an insurrection in the Capitol of the United States of America. And there’s a wave of voter suppression bills being passed that look like and smell like – because they are like – old Jim Crow laws,” Cole told the reporters. “For such a time as this …so many more sister presidents are committed to smashing another glass ceiling.”

Karen Boykin-Towns, NAACP board vice chair, stressed the urgency of the issues now faced by the civil rights community.

“This nation needs its top civil rights law enforcement officer, and we need her now. Police violence continues to take the lives of Black Americans; We see a rise in hate crimes against the AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders); domestic terrorism rooted in White supremacy represents our greatest internal threat. And on top of everything, we are still struggling with devastating racial impact of a pandemic that is now going into a second year. The work of a civil rights division has never been more critical and who leads it matters greatly,” Boykin-Towns said. “Since the murder of George Floyd, there has been over a hundred police killings of Black people. We’re in a state of emergency. And so, her confirmation now and not to linger into the summer is so imperative.”

Boykin-Towns said NAACP local leaders are working individually as well as collectively and putting a “full court press” on the confirmation.

The coalition was also joined by Jotaka Eaddy, chief organizer of the Win with Black Women Collective; Virginia W. Harris, president, National Coalition of 100 Black Women, Inc., and Beverly Smith, national president/CEO for Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.

Clarke is no stranger to the nation. She is often seen among national civil rights leaders during press conferences and is often called upon by national media to speak on issues.

“Her dedication to the pursuit of justice and her track record are invaluable,” said Harris.

“We are standing bold and unapologetic,” said Eaddy, stressing the need for leadership on pattern and practice studies of racism as well as systemic changes. “That’s why it is urgent. And that is why we cannot wait any longer.”

Smith, of Delta Sigma Theta, said the key to this movement for the Clarke nomination is the power of Black women.  

“Every now and then we in this country; especially Black women, reach a Fannie Lou Hamer moment, the ‘sick and tired of being sick and tired’ moment. And that’s where we are,” she said, “We are in one of those Fannie Lou Hamer moments. We will wisely use our moment to do what we can.”

Cole recalled the influence of Black women on the appointment of Kamala Harris as the first Black woman vice president. “We are certainly not arrogant enough to say we are responsible for her successful. But I do know that we played a role.”

Cole concluded, “When we describe ourselves as leaders of national Black women’s organizations, sometimes I think we need to add the obvious sentence: That we are spread out across the United States of America. The National Council of Negro Women, for example, has 2 million members…So when you add up this Black women’s power, you see why we are not only calling for Kristen Clarke’s confirmation, we are demanding that confirmation in the interest of justice.”

Kristen Clarke

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