U.S. NewsRace in America


Mississippi's first Black woman in legislature is retiring

Alyce Clarke has been a champion for women and children in Mississippi for 40 years.
Posted at 1:50 PM, Mar 07, 2023

Lawmakers and others applauded the work of Rep. Alyce Clarke, the first Black woman elected to the Mississippi state legislature, as she announced plans to retire after almost four decades. 

"I looked at it and I said, 'Well, you've been there for a few years. It's time you give somebody else a chance to represent the people of District 69,'" she said.

The 83-year-old has been a champion for women and children's rights in a state known for being on the bottom of most national rankings, from education to infant mortality.  

Being the first at anything is tough. Clarke says she had to fight for some of the most basic things when she arrived at the capitol in 1985.

"Ladies, I want y'all to know, before I got here, there was no ladies' room for us. In addition to the other things, I got us a bathroom," she said.

The quick-witted Mississippi Delta native says she tried to retire earlier, but a young man at church convinced her to stay on the job.

"He told me, 'Ms. Clarke, you are representing us well. We appreciate the things that you do, and we will let you know when we are ready for you to,'" Clarke recounted. "So, since nobody ever decided to let me know that they were ready, I decided I better tell myself: 'Girl, it's time that you go home and rest.'"

She's leaving as Mississippi's longest-serving female legislator in state history. And Clarke says this time she's gone for good.  

"You're always welcome back here, lady, remember that," Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn said. "Thank you for being our friend."

Dorothy Height, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mae Jemison

10 trailblazing women of Black history you should know

From Gwendolyn Brooks to Bessie Coleman, here's a look at 10 Black women who made major strides throughout U.S. history.


There are two pieces of legislation Clarke is most satisfied with: the "Born Free" program and an accelerated learning program for schools. 

The "Born Free" program was birthed out of a growing need to address newborns born with addiction issues. 

"When I first got there, I was working at Jackson-Hinds Comprehensive Health Center with the WIC program," Clarke shared. "And while working with the WIC program, I learned that there were so many mothers who were hooked on drugs. So, it was my idea that somebody needed to do something to try to help mothers get off of the drugs."

It was one of her first pieces of legislation.

The program provides substance abuse treatment and housing. And it's still helping those who are addicted to opioids and other drugs today.  

"Yes, it is still going strong today, but we can't tell you where it is," Clarke said. "We don't want anybody to know where it is [except for] that mother and the children who are living there, because we wouldn't want the people who were feeding them drugs to be able to bring some drugs to the mothers out there."

Decades later, Clarke is still surprised by the reactions she gets from people who benefited from the program. 

"I could be walking down the street or someplace and somebody will say, 'You helped me get off of drugs. You helped save my child. Had it not been for you, I would not have been off of those,'" Clarke shared.

Kentanji Brown Jackson

Black History Month special: Women, kids and businesses making moves

From a Black woman making history reaching the nation’s highest court, to an innovative Black-owned business, here’s how some are making moves.


Another point of pride for her is helping bring an accelerated learning program to Mississippi schools. 

"The International Baccalaureate Program is a program for children who do well in school," Clarke said. "And when you successfully complete that program, you go to college as a sophomore. That saves the parents $13,000, $15,000 and to me, that's a great thing."

That legislation came in handy for students at Jim Hill High School in Jackson. Clarke says some of those recipients have gone on to become medical doctors.  

"It wasn't easy to get passed. The boys didn't want to pass it," Clarke said of the bill. "But then, after getting passed and they found out all of the beneficiaries of that program, they wanted it in their district. I said, 'No way. No, no, no, no, no, no way.'"

Clarke was born in Yazoo City, known as the gateway to the Delta.

She came from humble beginnings. Her parents were sharecroppers. She walked 2 miles to school every morning because the family didn't own a car. She also helped to buy her own school clothes, making $10 a day picking cotton.  

"I wanted to pick cotton because if you were not working in the farm, you would be the only one in town," Clarke said.

Most recently, the Alcorn State University graduate was credited with bringing the lottery to Mississippi, helping fund one of the poorest states in the nation. 

For Clarke, her legacy as a lawmaker is simple. She wants it forever tied to the people who achieved success through the legislation she authored, not the laws themselves.

"Don't just think about me as 'The Lottery Lady.' Don't just think of me as 'The Born Free Lady.' Think of me as somebody who tried to help somebody along the way," Clarke said.