By Keisa Sharpe-Jefferson
For The Birmingham Times
United States Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke on Thursday encouraged Miles College students to consider using their talents for public service and reminded them that their legacy work begins now.
Clarke, the first woman and the first Black woman to head the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, was the keynote speaker at the Miles College Honors Convocation which celebrated the dedication and achievements of students from diverse backgrounds who fill the campus with their experiences, talents, and passions.
The assistant attorney general spoke on a number of issues including a current political climate filled with “apostles of division based on race, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity,” she said.
“You are living in a time when we see threats to our democratic values and efforts to turn the clocks back,” she told students. “I urge you to consider them in the context of public service as a platform to marshal your talents and to battle the forces opposing justice and equality.”
She spoke of the rich historical legacy of Miles College and its graduates.
“[Miles] was a haven for the heroes fighting for freedom, equality and justice. It was the engine for strategies to battle racial segregation. It was the source of inspiration, insight and hope,” she said, speaking of the historical legacies of U.W. Clemon (class of 1965), Arthurine Lucy (class of 1952) and Birmingham’s first Black mayor Richard Arrington Jr. (class of 1955).
“These icons are a part of your Miles College legacy, a part of your Alabama heritage. And as you determine your life’s path, I urge you to consider their example because they stood up for the fundamental value of recognizing the worth of each human being. They fought for what they believed was right.”
Clarke was introduced by Miles College President Bobby Knight, the first woman elected president of the Fairfield educational institution in 2019.
Knight thanked Clarke for the work that she’s done that has even touched on the state of Alabama. “She has presented oral arguments to the D.C. District Court in the Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder case … and so she has actually done this on our behalf.”
Clarke, 48, said her parents immigrated to Brooklyn, New York from Jamaica just a few years before she was born. She grew up in the largest public housing complex in Brooklyn and told the honorees her legal career was born during her junior year of high school with her first trip to a courthouse in Hartford, Connecticut.
That very day of her trip, Clarke said they were hearing arguments in a landmark school desegregation case, and in that moment, she “felt the power of that space” and “began to imagine what it might be like to become a civil rights lawyer.”
That trip that led to her historic life’s work. “The great privilege I have in this job is being able to wake up every day doing the right thing, which includes carrying forward the battle for civil rights and opposing discrimination and bigotry wherever it rears its ugly head,” said Clarke, who earned her bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and her Juris Doctorate from Columbia Law School.
And she has an impressive resume to support her lifelong career in civil rights.
“Since January 2021 we have charged more than 95 individuals with committing bias-motivated crimes and in that same period, obtained convictions against more than 80 defendants for committing hate crimes.”
“We’re also working to hold law enforcement officers accountable when they violate people’s civil and constitutional rights. We’re continuing the fight for equal justice by fighting modern-day redlining by banks and other lending institutions; we’re standing up for people with disabilities; we’re fighting voter suppression and much, much more.”
Clarke concluded with a challenge to the students.
“It may be hard to imagine, but someday years from now your child or grandchild or some other young person may ask you what did you do when civil rights was on the line? How did you respond to the upsurge in hate and bigotry?”
To that, Assistant Attorney General Clarke responded, “Are you busy with your everyday life allowing others to carry the load?”
“You should be proud to be a part of the Miles College legacy and proud to be included in this Honors Convocation today. I hope that many years when you look back, you will be just as proud of what you did with the knowledge and wisdom you received.”