Kristen Clarke to become first Black woman to head DOJ Civil Rights Division

Clarke was confirmed by the U.S. Senate along party lines with only one Republican vote

Longtime civil rights attorney Kristen Clarke was confirmed on Tuesday as the next assistant attorney general of the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and making history in the process.

Kristen Clarke
Kristen Clarke delivers remarks after being nominated to be civil rights division assistant attorney general by President-elect Joe Biden. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Clarke, whose confirmation was mostly along party lines with only one Republican vote, is the first Black woman to head the division in its nearly 65-year history. The historic Senate vote also comes on the one-year anniversary of George Floyd‘s murder, which ignited a new movement for the civil rights of Black Americans and minority communities.

The U.S. Senate voted 51-48, with Sen. Susan Collins of Maine serving as the sole Republican vote. Still, the confirmation is a major moment for the division which was established in 1957 after the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 to provide federal voting protections for African Americans following the Supreme Court’s historic ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.

“Our nation is a healthier place when we respect the rights of all communities. In every role I’ve held, I have worked for and with people of all backgrounds — regardless of race, national origin, religion and disability status,” Clarke previously said in a statement, reported by CNN.

Read More: Meet Kristen Clarke, Biden’s historic appointee to champion civil rights at the DOJ

“I’ve listened deeply to all sides of debates, regardless of political affiliation. There is no substitute to listening and learning in this work, and I pledge to you that I will bring that to the role if confirmed.”

Kristen Clarke
Kristen Clarke has been nominated to be Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice (Credit: Clark)

Clarke, on behalf of the United States Government, will be responsible for enforcing federal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, sex, disability, religion and national origin. Fittingly, the 45-year-old attorney’s career began at the department in 2000 serving as a trial attorney prosecuting cases on voting rights, hate crimes and human trafficking. 

Later, Clarke co-led the political arm of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which was founded by former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall; led the Civil Rights Bureau at the New York State Attorney General’s office; and served as president and executive director at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Despite her robust and relevant background as a civil rights attorney, however, Republican lawmakers and conservative organizations were loud about their opposition to Clarke’s nomination. 

During her Judiciary Committee hearing, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the committee’s ranking member, called Clarke “controversial,” as GOP senators incessantly grilled Clarke not on her qualifications or knowledge, but on social media posts and past writings — one of which was penned when she was a 19-year-old college student at Harvard University.

Clarke, however, did not seem to break a sweat as Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), John Cornyn (R-TX) and others pressed her on statements she made concerning defunding the police and expanding the Supreme Court. For nearly two hours, Clarke assured incensed Republicans that she is not anti-law enforcement (she is endorsed by numerous law enforcement groups), does not support defunding the police (she applauds President Joe Biden’s plan to invest $300 million in policing) and is not an advocate for expanding the Supreme Court beyond supporting President Biden’s commission to study aspects of reforming the Supreme Court.

The historic Senate vote was met with praise from civil rights leaders and advocates who championed Clarke and organized to ensure her successful confirmation.

“Meet the new Asst Attorney for Civil Rights, ⁦@KristenClarkeJD⁩ – an amazing, courageous civil rights lawyer. She is the first woman – the first Black woman – to be confirmed to this position. Kristen is the 5th former ⁦@NAACP_LDF⁩ atty to lead the Civ Rts Division,” tweeted President of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Sherrilyn Ifill.

Voting Rights advocate and politician Stacey Abrams tweeted, “Congratulations to my friend, @KristenClarkeJD. Her commitment to equal justice will serve and protect the voices of all Americans.”

“Today marks a historic day for our nation with the Senate confirming the first Black woman to lead the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division,” tweeted Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock. “I was proud to vote in favor of Kristen Clarke’s nomination & am eager to work alongside her to help the close the door on hate & discrimination.”

New York Attorney General Letitia James called Clarke a “trailblazer” who with her history-making achievement “made Brooklyn proud once again.”

“As head of @TheJusticeDept’s Civil Rights Division, I know she will continue her work of bettering the lives of others and fighting for marginalized communities,” she wrote.

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