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Alyce Clarke, Mississippi’s Longest-Serving Female Legislator, Set to Retire

By Kelley Griffin  |  February 22, 2023

When Alyce Clarke took office in the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1985, she never would have guessed she’d still have the job today.

She didn’t even want it back then. 

“My neighbors and friends got together and decided that they were going to get them somebody to run,” she says. They thought her work as director of nutrition at a health clinic prepared her to understand and help the community’s needs, she says.

Clarke tried to brush them off, but it didn’t work. So, she told them she had to seek advice from a wise counselor—her mom, Fannie Alice Merriweather Griffin, who was 85 at the time.

“You are there to help somebody.” —Rep. Alyce Clarke

“I told her what they were trying to get me to do, and I said, ‘Mama, do you think I can do that?’” Clarke recalls. “And she said, ‘I always told you, you don’t know what you can do unless you’re trying, baby. You haven’t tried that.’”

So Clarke ran, in a field of eight, and won in a runoff—becoming the first Black woman elected to the Mississippi House. 

Now, at 83 and as the state’s longest-serving female legislator, Clarke has announced she is retiring when her term ends in 2024.

Reflecting on her career, she says what kept her going was her connections with her constituents. It humbled her to learn “how appreciative my people were, just seeing somebody that they knew and somebody that they felt comfortable going to and asking to help them,” she says. “I had no idea that my people would be so happy to see a woman. And I guess it really hadn’t really hit me there had never been a Black woman in the Legislature.” 

When she started the job, it didn’t take long for Clarke to bring her background as a schoolteacher and her work with women and children to bear on her service in the Statehouse. But first things first. When Clarke arrived, there was no restroom near the House chamber for her and the three white female members. She’d have to make a dash for the public restroom on a separate floor. 

Then she learned the white members were given a key to a private restroom; she was not. She told reporters, and their coverage drew attention to the affront; eventually, the speaker had a women’s restroom built near the chamber, carved out of an area where there had been a shoeshine stand.

Tackling Big Problems

For her first bill, Clarke wanted to address a problem she saw all too often. 

“I ran into a lot of women who were on drugs, and I said, ‘Now we need to get something going where these babies will not be born on drugs,’” she says. 

She often would say that children deserved to be born free of drugs to get the best start in life they could. And that phrase became the name of a program to provide housing and treatment to women who were addicted to drugs or alcohol and were pregnant or had children.

Born Free Inc., which Clarke worked for 10 years to get through the Legislature, was set up as a state partnership with Catholic Charities. It is still running today.

Clarke found she was able to win over even critics of social welfare programs because she was armed with data about the devastating effect on children born to addicted mothers and the subsequent cost to the state. 

“I had colleagues who knew people who were pregnant and on drugs and who wanted to get off. So that made it a little easier. But it wasn’t a really easy task at all,” Clarke says.

That taught her about patience and about working across the aisle. She would draw on both skills regularly. 

Persistence, Bipartisanship

Clarke worked for 17 years to bring the lottery to Mississippi, something she hoped would be a steady source of education funding. When the bill finally passed, the House and Senate honored her effort by naming it the Alyce G. Clarke Mississippi Lottery Law. She bought the first ceremonial ticket at a Jackson convenience store. 

Clarke cites two other efforts she’s particularly proud of: establishing state drug courts in the 1990s and gaining approval for sex education in schools. It’s not mandatory, as she had hoped; to pass it, she accepted an amendment requiring students to opt in.

But she got it done. A fellow Democrat, Rep. Ed Blackmon, says Clarke reached her goals through persistence. 

“She bothers you—I’ll put it that way. But she’s real nice in the way she bothers you,” he told The Associated Press on the day she announced her retirement.

Clarke says a key lesson for her has been to stay connected to her constituents. She holds regular community meetings to get their feedback. 

“And in those community meetings, we sit down and talk about what do we need to do and how do we need to go about it? I like to listen to them because I think it’s important that they have input,” she says. 

Even when they’ve insisted over the years that she not retire, as a young man did when Clarke tried to announce her retirement in 2016. “Who told you you could do that?” she recalls him asking. “‘Ms. Clarke, you are doing a good job, and we are not ready for you to retire. We’ll let you know if we get ready for you to retire.’”

But Clarke is certain this time, and she has some advice for those who come next.

“I hope and pray that the younger people will remember to work for their constituents and not themselves,” she says. “There are legislators who, in my opinion, are more concerned about themselves. But I think what we need to be is concerned about improving health (and) living conditions for constituents.

“You are there to help somebody.”

Kelley Griffin is a senior editor and the host of NCSL’s Across the Aisle podcast.


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