Kristen Clarke Makes History as First Woman *and* First Black Woman to Lead DOJ Civil Rights Division

Updated May 25 at 1:15 p.m. PT.

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In a long-awaited move—and on the one year anniversary of the death of George Floyd—the Senate confirmed Kristen Clarke to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division. Clarke will be the first Black woman to serve in the role since the department was established in 1957. The final vote was 51–48, with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) as the lone Republican joining Democrats as the tie-breaking vote.

“We fought a long and challenging battle to make this confirmation happen,” said Damon Hewitt, acting president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, in a statement after the vote. “Kristen faced racist and sexist attacks as a nominee, despite being among the most qualified people to ever be nominated for the position. …. The road was tougher than it should have been. But we never backed down in the fight for progress.”

Kristen Clarke’s January Nomination

The day after the Capitol insurrection, on Thursday, Jan. 7, then-President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris took the stage to name four new Justice Department nominees for their upcoming administration. Among them was Kristen Clarke, nominee for assistant attorney general of the Civil Rights Division, who delivered the following remarks:

“As a mom myself now, I see the future of America through the eyes of my son, and honestly, at times I am worried. Will he have full and equal access to the extraordinary opportunities of American life? Will he be able to embrace those opportunities in safety and dignity? Will all of America’s children?” Clarke said. “The clarion call of equal justice under law is what binds us together as a nation.”

This would be Clarke’s second time serving in the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, where she began her career prosecuting hate crimes, human trafficking and police misconduct, in addition to protecting Americans’ voting rights.

Clarke also worked at the state level, in the New York State attorney general’s Civil Rights Bureau, to fight housing discrimination and high levels of incarceration. She worked for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund prior to assuming her current position as president and executive editor of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

In accepting her nomination, Clarke vowed to “turn the page on hate and close the door on discrimination by enforcing our federal civil rights laws,” citing leaders like Thurgood Marshall and Constance Baker Motley as key influences. 

Biden praised Clarke as “one of the most distinguished civil rights attorneys in America,” noting her background as the daughter of Jamaican immigrants and a Brooklyn native.

“Now, she’ll return full circle to pursue the vital work where her career began. The Civil Rights division represents the moral center of the Department of Justice. And the heart of that fundamental American ideal that we’re all created equal and all deserve to be treated equally,” Biden said.

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Sophie Dorf-Kamienny is a freshman at Tufts University. She was a Ms. editorial fellow and assistant editor of social media. You can find her on Twitter at @sophie_dk_.