Insights and Inspiration: A Fireside Chat with Kristen Clarke Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Justice.
Highlighting the role of Black History Month in advancing civil rights in America
As part of its continued celebration of Black History Month, American University Washington College of Law hosted a Fireside Chat with Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Justice. Moderated by Dean Roger A. Fairfax, nearly 100 students, faculty, staff and guests turned out for the occasion.
During the conversation, Assistant Attorney General Clarke discussed a range of topics related to civil rights, particularly in the historical context of racism in its many forms. She talked about the ongoing struggle for racial justice, the impact of systemic racism on various American groups, and the role of the Civil Rights Division in combating discrimination.
“The Justice Department was founded in 1870 in the midst of reconstruction and one of its principal purposes was enforcing the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments – breathing life into the reconstruction amendments,” Clarke explained. “At that time, you had groups like the KKK that were using violence to stop Black people from having the ability to exercise their right to vote and more. At that time, there was no civil rights division. And here we are today in the world in which we’ve made a lot of progress, but we sure are still wrestling with a lot of the same problems – cousins to the same problems of yesterday.”
Clarke is the first Black woman to serve as assistant attorney general for civil rights. The Brooklyn, New York native shared her back story as the daughter of Jamaican immigrants and the responsibility she felt as someone afforded educational opportunities that were in stark contrast to the people with whom she grew up.
“I believe I was given these breaks for a reason. I’ve always felt that my purpose was to use my talents and skills to the benefit of the most vulnerable,” she said. “I had the fortune of going through law school feeling like I’m here for a purpose, and that purpose is to give back.”
Clarke began her career as a trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division through the Department of Justice’s Honors Program. In 2006, she joined the NAACP Legal Defense Fund where she helped lead the organization’s work in the areas of voting rights and election law across the country. In 2011, she was named the head of the Civil Rights Bureau for the New York State Attorney General’s Office, where she led broad civil rights enforcement actions. Under her leadership, the Bureau secured landmark agreements with banks to address unlawful redlining, employers to address barriers to reentry for people with criminal backgrounds, police departments on reforms to policies and practices, major retailers on racial profiling of consumers, landlords on discriminatory housing policies, school districts concerning issues relating to the school-to-prison pipeline and more.
In 2015, Clarke was named the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of the nation’s leading civil rights organizations founded at the request of John F. Kennedy. There, she led the organization’s legal work in courts across the country addressing some of the nation’s most complex racial justice and civil rights challenges.
The Fireside Chat was well-received by all attendees, particularly students who asked insightful questions and later lined up to speak to and take photos with Clarke.
“We were so fortunate to be able to bring in United States Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who has had a wealth of experience in a number of practice settings,” Fairfax said. “She is such a model for our students. That is why it was critically important for us to bring her here.”
Clarke also encouraged students to consider legal careers in public interest and government.
“The justice department relies on extraordinary law students,” Clarke said. “I appreciated the chance to come and speak to the law school community today. We need more lawyers committed to working in public interest and working in the government sector.”
The American University Washington College of Law has a strong commitment to promoting diversity and inclusion, and this Fireside Chat with Kristen Clarke was just one of several events organized by the law school to celebrate Black History Month and highlight the contributions of Black Americans to the legal profession and the broader society.
“We were thankful that Attorney General Clarke gave us her time,” Fairfax said. “As the struggle for equality and justice continues, events like this serve as a reminder of the importance of education, dialogue, and engagement in creating a more just and equitable world.”
~ Story, photos and video by Keith Pierce.