UPDATED: 3:40 p.m. ET, May 25
As the saying goes, all good things come to those who wait.
And while it was a little bit more complicated than that, Kristen Clarke on Tuesday became the first Black woman and first woman overall to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division since its creation in 1957. Clarke was confirmed following a drawn-out process that stalled for months.
Clarke’s nomination advanced on May 13 following a Senate Judiciary Committee vote to get her to this point. Committee members split the vote 11-11 to advance the process to the Senate floor for a confirmation vote. Supporters of Clarke expect another uphill battle during the final stage of the process.
Much of Clarke’s confirmation process has been mired in stonewalling orchestrated mainly by Senate Republicans who believe Clarke is too radical to lead the division which oversees law enforcement policies and procedures. Their numerous attempts to invalidate and disqualify her experiences stems form Clarke’s history as a transformative social justice lawyer and leader.
After the committee vote earlier this month, civil rights leaders hailed Clarke’s experience and urged the Senate to move in the right direction.
“We applaud the advancement of Kristen Clarke’s nomination to lead the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice. Kristen is a person of outstanding intellect and ethics who is absolutely committed to civil rights and equal justice under the law,” Ben Jealous, president of People For the American Way said in a statement sent to NewsOne.
He added: “Her experience as a civil rights attorney and leader is a perfect fit for this position. It has been disheartening but not surprising to see the attempts by the Right to smear her and her record, including at today’s Senate Judiciary Committee markup. As a highly accomplished Black woman, Kristen has had to rise above these attacks throughout her career. We’re confident that the majority of senators will see through them this time and will move swiftly to confirm Kristen to the Justice Department, where she will be a leader in the fight to ensure equal rights and freedoms for all of us.”
Clarke previously answered questions from senators on both sides of the aisle during a Senate Judiciary Committee last month. During the hearing, several Republican senators questioned Clarke’s competence and credibility, often combative in nature.
Grasping at various tweets and out-of-context statements, the senators tried to paint Clarke as an extremist out of touch with the law and the constitution, like when she was asked to explain a June 2020 op-ed she wrote about strategic investments in social support and less in policing.
At times, the nitpicking over her record and distortion of out-of-context tweets distracted from Clarke’s work in prosecuting hate crimes, sex trafficking and official misconduct.
A common thread for several elected officials who supported attempts to undermine the 2020 election and subvert the constitution, consisted of questioning a veteran civil rights lawyer about her commitment to the constitution.
The final committee member to speak, Sen. Cory Booker, entered a correction into the record, directly challenging characterizations by his Republican colleagues of Clarke’s record and comments.
Speaking directly to Clarke, Booker said she benefited from the country’s grace and goodness that led to opportunities that nurtured her genius. “And God, given an opportunity, what did you do with it? You have dedicated your life to our most sacred principles,” Booker said.
With more than 20 years of civil rights law experience, Clarke has a command of the full breadth of knowledge of matters before the division. Clarke’s experience covers voting rights, support for marginalized communities — including religious freedom, education equity, housing discrimination — and disability rights.
“If you were building somebody from scratch, as you know, an ideal person to run the Civil Rights Division, you’d end up with somebody a lot like Kristen,” Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola, told NewsOne.
Levitt has known Clarke for more than 15 years, previously working with her on voting rights and other related civil rights issues. Besides Clarke’s expertise in the civil rights field, her experience as a manager would be an asset to the division, Levitt said.
“Lawyers don’t generally get trained to be good managers,” said Levitt. “You can be a leader in the legal field without ever figuring out how to manage people, but she’s been a manager.”
As the head of the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Clarke has led one of the nation’s foremost election protection and voting rights efforts. She has also overseen advocacy around several issues, including hate crimes and hate speech, LGBTQ rights, and criminal justice reform.
Taylor Dumpson, the first Black woman to lead student government at American University, was the target of a racially motivated hate crime. With the Lawyer’s Committee’s help, Dumpson sued the publisher of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer after he directed his followers to target and harass her on social media.
“It was the first time that a court had found that online harassment can interfere with someone’s use of a place of public accommodations,” said Dumpson.
Dumpson said that as a hate crime survivor, Clarke showed compassion and helped her feel empowered. Clarke inspired Dumpson to pursue civil rights law.
“[We need] a leader of the Civil Rights Division who is dedicated to anti-racism and anti-hate, and willing to reach out to folks in all different kinds of communities,” Dumpson said. “Kristen is the right person at the right time for this right job.”
Levitt also said Clarke’s consideration for the role is also fitting, considering she started her legal career in the DOJ Attorney General’s Honors Program. Federal agencies use honors attorney programs for entry-level hiring.
Levitt said Clarke was one of the few, if not the first, nominee to have started their career in the Civil Rights Division. “As a career lawyer in the DOJ, you are trained relentlessly to focus on the impact of laws on would-be voters, particularly voters [and] communities of color, without caring about which party they happen to favor,” he said.
Clarke remained with the division for six years before transitioning to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and later the Civil Rights Bureau in the Office of the New York Attorney General. In 2015, Clarke became president and executive director of the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
“She’s now coming back to the division with even more civil rights experience, even more, leadership capacity, even more of a track record of fighting for underrepresented groups and fighting against discrimination,” Levitt told NewsOne.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder called the Civil Rights Division the “crown jewel” of the DOJ. Tasked with enforcing the nation’s civil rights laws, the Civil Rights Division was established as a part of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Civil Rights opponents in the Senate delayed the confirmation of W. Wilson White, the first nominee for Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, for eight months.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reportedly sent a telegram to each member of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1958, requesting they move the nomination forward. King called the new division “an important arm of our democracy.”
On Wednesday, Clarke seemed poised to uphold that ideal.
“I do this work with my son in mind often,” Clarke said during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. “My hope is that the work I do every day helps to tear down a wall here or a wall there that might make the path a little easier for him and for all kids like him.”