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Rep. Alyce Clarke, First Black Woman in Mississippi Legislature, Retires at 83

a photo shows a Black woman with gray hair and glasses standing outdoors holding a bullhorn and speaking
Mississippi House Rep. Alyce G. Clarke, D-Jackson, the first Black woman to serve in either chamber of the Mississippi Legislature, announced her retirement on Tuesday, Jan. 31, after 37 years. She will serve out her term and voters will elect her successor in November 2023. She is pictured here speaking against Mississippi’s six-week abortion ban at a rally outside the Capitol in May 2019. Photo by Ashton Pittman

JACKSON, Miss.—Mississippi House Rep. Alyce G. Clarke, D-Jackson, announced her retirement this afternoon on the floor of the chamber. In a 1985 special election, she became the first Black woman elected to either house of the Mississippi Legislature.

“I tried to do what my constituents asked me to do, and hopefully, I’ve made a difference in the community, the county, and even in the state of Mississippi,” said Clarke, 83. 

She plans to serve out her term, which ends in January 2024. Voters will elect her successor to Mississippi House District 69 in the 2023 state legislative elections.

Tamarra Grace Butler-Washington told the Mississippi Free Press on Tuesday evening that she has already filed qualifying papers with the Democratic Party. She ran in 2012 to replace her aunt, late-Mississippi Sen. Alice Varnado Harden, but lost that election. She currently works for the Mississippi Department of Health. Others who have since filed qualifying papers with the Democratic Party to run for that position are Patty Patterson, Iva Steptoe, and William R. “Bo” Brown. There are no Republican candidates running. 

“To say her wisdom, courage, and leadership will be missed is an understatement. Thank you, Rep. Clarke. We are so grateful,” the official Mississippi House Democrats account tweeted in response Clarke’s announcement.

In 1994, Clarke worked with others to establish BornFree of Mississippi, Inc., a nonprofit that provides services to pregnant women and mothers who suffer from drug and alcohol addiction. She considers it a proud part of her legacy.

“That, I guess, is the biggest because if you can get off to a good start, then you’ll probably be doing very, very well,” she told the Mississippi Free Press.

In 2018, the Legislature passed and then-Gov. Phil Bryant signed the Alyce G. Clarke Mississippi Lottery Law, naming the new state lottery program after her because of her longtime dedication to the issue. Proceeds from the lottery help fund roads, bridges and education. During her time in the House, Clarke also introduced a bill that established the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program in public schools in the state.

a close up photo of House Speaker Gunn
Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn said that the retirement of Mississippi Rep. Alyce G. Clarke, D-Jackson, 83, is a “page turned in the chapter of her life and in the life of the Mississippi House of Representatives.” AP File Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Speaking on the floor after Clarke’s announcement, Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn described her as “a historical figure.” Her retirement, he said, is a “page turned in the chapter of her life and in the life of the Mississippi House of Representatives.”

“Lady, let me say, on behalf of the entire membership, you have served your constituents with class and dignity,” the Republican speaker said. “You have made your people very proud. You made the state of Mississippi proud. Some of you new people may not know this. But she has served this place, this body, and her state with class and dignity, and we extend her best wishes as she moves into the next chapter of her life.”

While earning respect from Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike, Clarke has been outspoken throughout her career, particularly on women’s issues. When conservative lawmakers were passing abortion bans as part of their ultimately successful gambit to overturn Roe v. Wade, she rallied with abortion rights activists against those efforts.

“Every time they tried to pass an abortion bill, Alyce Clarke said no,” she said outside the Capitol at a 2019 rally against the State’s six-week abortion ban. “The problem is, I need you all to send me some helpers. I can’t do it by myself.”

a photo of Alyce Clarke standing in the Capitol halls
During her retirement speech in the Mississippi Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023, Mississippi House Rep. Alyce G. Clarke urged younger lawmakers to do what is “in the best interests of your constituents, because that’s all I’ve been doing since I’ve been here.” Photo by Kayode Crown

While giving her retirement speech on Tuesday afternoon, Clarke asked her fellow House members to remember her for more than just the bills she sponsored. 

“Don’t just think of me as the lottery lady. Don’t think of me as the BornFree lady. Think of me as somebody who tried to help somebody along the way,” she said.

She offered advice to younger legislators during her retirement speech on the floor.

“Those of you who are coming up, I know, we are going to look at a lot of bills, and we are going to—I’m hoping that we’ll do what’s right because that’s all I’m going to ask you to just do: what’s in the best interest of your constituents, because that’s all I’ve been doing since I’ve been here,” she said.

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