Robert George Clark Jr. became the first African American elected to the Mississippi state legislature in the twentieth century. He was born on 3 October 1928 in Holmes County on land acquired by his grandparents after emancipation. His grandfather had chaired the Hinds County Republican Party during Reconstruction. Clark worked as a schoolteacher in Holmes County but was fired after voicing support for desegregated schools. He eventually became an administrator at Saints Junior College in Lexington, Mississippi, where he coached football and oversaw a federal antipoverty program.
In 1967, two years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Clark made a bid for public office after the all-white Holmes County School Board refused to approve an adult education program. When changes to state election laws prevented him from running for county school superintendent, he decided to challenge Rep. J. P. Love, chair of the Mississippi House’s Education Committee. Clark ran with eleven other black independent candidates, all members of or backed by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), though Clark never officially joined. The black slate followed the MFDP’s independent course and boycotted the county Democratic primary. Clark ran an intensive campaign, and his popularity as a teacher and coach, along with his opponent’s refusal to campaign for black votes, led to his narrow victory. Clark was the only one of the year’s eight black legislative candidates to win, and he did so because the multimember legislative district in which he ran consisted of majority-black Yazoo and Holmes Counties, creating a voting district that was 65 percent black. Although Love challenged the election, Clark went to Jackson in 1968.
Clark remained the only black in the Mississippi legislature until 1975, and his early years were difficult. Few white House members would sit next to him at social gatherings, and on some occasions, he argued against bills he supported so that white legislators would vote for them. He supported Republican Gil Carmichael in the 1975 gubernatorial election but switched from an independent to a Democrat after Gov. Cliff Finch reconciled the Loyalist and Regular wings of the state Democratic Party in 1976. In 1975 three new black state legislators were elected from Hinds County after the courts ordered the county to adopt single-member districts. Clark did not share the legislature with a significant number of black representatives until 1979, when a statewide single-member-district plan led to the election of seventeen new black members. Clark’s seniority made him the leader of the legislature’s black caucus, but he sometimes drew criticism from younger and newer black legislators for his close working relationship with House Speaker C. B. Newman, an archconservative known for blocking all liberal or progressive reforms. Clark became chair of the House Education Committee in 1977 and played a key role in the passage of the Education Reform Act of 1982, arguably the high point of his legislative career. With the support of Gov. William Winter, Clark ushered through a bill that restored compulsory school attendance and provided for publicly funded kindergartens.
In 1982 Clark made a bid for the US House of Representatives in Mississippi’s 2nd Congressional District, which encompassed the black-majority Mississippi Delta. He won the Democratic nomination and ran a vigorous campaign against Webb Franklin, a white Republican from Greenwood. Many white Democrats, among them Sen. John Stennis, who was running for reelection, refused to campaign for Clark, and Clark lost, taking only a small percentage of the white vote. He ran against Franklin again in 1984 but lost in the face of high Republican turnout for Ronald Reagan’s reelection. Clark continued to serve in the Mississippi House and was elected Speaker Pro Tem in 1992. He retired from political life in 2003. In 2004 a government building in Jackson was renamed the Robert G. Clark Jr. Building, a first for an African American in the state. Jackson State University honors Clark with an annual Robert Clark Symposium that studies issues of contemporary public life.
- Will D. Campbell, Robert G. Clark’s Journey to the House: A Black Politician’s Story (2003)
- James C. Cobb, The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity (1992)
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- Melany Nielson, Even Mississippi (1989)
- Frank Parker, Black Votes Count: Political Power in Mississippi after 1965 (1990)