An Oral History


Representative Robert G. Clark

Interviewer: Harriet Tanzman

Tougaloo College Archives

This interview was transcribed as part of the Civil Rights Documentation Project.

Funding for this project was provided in part by the Mississippi

Humanities Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and

the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.



Representative Robert G. Clark was born October 3, 1928, in the Mississippi Community of Ebenezer, in Holmes County, on a farm that has been in his family since his great-grandfather, newly freed from slavery, purchased it. Representative Clark was graduated from Holmes County Training School in Durant, Mississippi. At Jackson State University, he studied education. In his sophomore year, he was the first person at Jackson State to get a track scholarship. Teaching second grade at the Durant school from which he had been graduated was Representative Clark's first job out of college. In the summer of 1961, Representative Clark returned home and started teaching school in Lexington.

Later, Representative Clark became the first African-American since Reconstruction to be elected to a Mississippi House of Representatives seat. In the Mississippi legislature, Representative Clark worked against a phalanx of segregationists during his first years there. In 1976, he was appointed chair of the Mississippi Education Committee. For many years he worked for passage of compulsory school attendance and early childhood education bills. Finally, in 1982, Governor Bill Winter signed the 1982 Education Reform Act for which Representative Clark had been working to improve the lives of all Mississippians by increasing an educated populace.

Table of Contents

Childhood 1

High school 3

Jackson State College 4

Teaching second grade in Durant, Mississippi 7

Teaching in Conway, Mississippi 8

Teaching in Lexington, Mississippi, 1961 to 1966 9

Project Second Start 10

Election to the Mississippi House of Representatives 12

Early childhood education and compulsory education issues 13

Racism and bigotry in the Mississippi House 13

Alexander v. Holmes and school integration in Mississippi 14

Education Reform Act 15

Special session for Education Reform Act of 1982 19




This is an interview for the Civil Rights Documentation Project. The interview is with Representative Robert G. Clark and is taking place on February 11, 2000. The interviewer is Harriet Tanzman.

Tanzman: OK. I'm speaking with Representative Robert Clark, and my name is Harriet Tanzman. [We are] very happy to have you take the time to be with us today, Representative Clark. I wonder if we could start with your telling us some of your early life? Where you were born. When you were born. Your parents. Your grandparents. Tell us a little bit about that.

Clark: Thank you, Harriet. It's a pleasure to be with you today, although it's a pretty tough time for me to get my mind together to go back into past history because we are in the legislative session and not only that, this is black history month, and I am the kind that's not going to rust out. I'm going to wear out. But when you begin to talk about your history, your history is very important. And you could wake me up at twelve o'clock at night or one o'clock in the morning or whatever time, and I could always tell you about my history. And I have a history that was not all smooth. I had a history by some perspective today, they would think it was tough, and I couldn't survive it. But I'm proud of the history, my history. I was born in Holmes County, Mississippi, in the community that you would call Ebenezer. My foreparents were slaves right on that same plantation, and after slavery, my great-grandfather, Henry Jones, who was a mulatto, and his boss was his father, and he bought that land right after slavery for a dollar per acre. And that land is very valuable to me today. Although he paid a dollar per acre for it, money, no matter how much money, could not buy one foot of that land from me today. Even if you offered me a million dollars for one square foot, I would not accept it because the land is more valuable to me than money because that's the place where my people struggled as slaves, and I would not leave there for anything. And I told you my great-grandfather purchased that land directly after slavery, and I'm going to get into some of the things that helped to formulate my life and made that land so dear to me. They tell me that my great-grandfather--. I used to hear my grandmother tell me that when he was born, his mother was named Rachel, and they'd tell him that the old mistress came the first day he was born and told my great-great-grandmother Rachel, "Let me look at the baby. Pull the cover back."

And the mistress pulled the cover back and she saw the baby was a little white baby, and she said, "Rachel, I'm going to send you some dinner down here. And don't you eat anything. I'm going to send this to you." And it's needless to say, they sent Rachel the lunch, and Rachel ate the lunch, and she died, because the baby was the baby of her husband who was the master. And, my family stayed there on that land until I was born, and I was born there. My birthday was October 3, 1928, and the story about that, they tell me that we are a family of great hunters. I love to hunt. I've got dogs. I've got fifty head of dogs at home, right now, but they tell me that when my mother went into labor that my father had rode his [mule] down to my mother's father's house, and they was in the woods hunting opossums. And my youngest uncle had to get in the T-model Ford and go down there and get my daddy out of the woods.

And my first wife used to say all the time that, "Your daddy going a-huntin' and knowin' your mother was pregnant. If I had been her, I would have gone on and had that baby while he was in the woods." (Laughter.) But they did get me, and I grew up there in the community. I joined church at a very early age. I joined church when I was four years old. Pleasant Green Missionary Baptist Church. I didn't have to have no revival or tractor meeting for me to join church, and some people doubted my religion because I didn't come through slapping, and shouting, and singing, and crying. But, you know, a lot of folk doubted my religion. But I didn't doubt my religion, then, and I don't doubt it today. And I still have some people that I go to their churches and worship with them, and some people still doubt my religion, but I don't doubt theirs. But I know I've got a true religion, the same religion I got then. That religion has brought me thus far; it's carried me through thick and thin. It's carried me through death threats, and I'm going to stick with it to carry me in.

Then, I started to school at a very early age, maybe about four years old, walking to school. Had to walk to school every day. One way, if we walked, it was three miles. If we went to another school, the distance was three and a half miles, but no matter how cold, or how much it rained, or how much it snowed, we still went to school every day. When I say, "we," I mean me and my sister and brothers and cousin that was living near me. No matter how it rained, we went to school. Sometime the length of the school term may have been three months; it may have been four months. But whatever length of time it was, that is the time that we went to school, at that time every day. And you mentioned about--.

Tanzman: Was it three or four months because of the cotton-picking season? People were out picking?

Clark: That is exactly the truth. If it was a three-month term, and the weather faired off where you could go to the field and start to cutting sprouts, then that's what you did. But if it was colder, you went to school a little longer. And what determined what time school started was when the cotton was taken out of the field. But however, that was not the case with us. There was an exception because we lived on our own place, and no matter how much cotton was in the field, if school had opened, we were going to be there every day. No matter how many sprouts needed cutting, we were going to be there every day. But that was not the case with the majority of the students who were going to school there. They lived on plantations and the school was only open when there was not anything to do on the plantations. And after finishing grammar school there, there was a school up at Richland that they call the Little Red Schoolhouse, now. A high school, but that high school was twelve miles from where I lived. The high school at Lexington was eighteen miles. The high school in Durant was twenty-five miles. And those was my nearest schools, so I couldn't walk to school that far. So, therefore, when I graduated from eighth grade, I had to board in high school.

Tanzman: Where were you?

Clark: My first six weeks, I stayed in Lexington, but I was [boarding] with a lady, and she didn't like to cook her biscuits all the way done. Her biscuits would be raw, and I couldn't get used to her type of food, so I changed and started to school out north of Lexington at Mount Olive. I had an uncle who was a principal out there, and I stayed with him and his wife who was also a teacher, and one of my aunts who was also a teacher. But they stayed in the teacher's home, and the teacher's home was very small, and my uncle had a large family. So in order to give them more room, my mother was still living then, and we made a choice that I would go to school over at Durant. And I had a friend from north of [Ebenezer] who was going to school at Durant and rooming with his aunt, so I finished my last three years in high school over at the Holmes County Training School in Durant.

And during that time, I began to have eye problems, and I had to go to Memphis to have an operation at the Memphis Eye, Ear, Nose, and Throat Hospital. And during that time, I didn't know if I would have sight at all, but the sight never returned in my left eye. Until today, it hasn't. And I did regain somewhat of a sight in my right eye, but I was not to study any at all. But if I was going to get behind my class, I had made my mind up that I was going to run away from home and go to Chicago because I couldn't stand the peer pressure that would have been telling me, "You're behind." When you got behind in a grade, they would call you, "a papa," and "granddaddy," and all kinds of names like that. But I want to say thanks to Mr. Sullivan who was the principal there--John L. Sullivan, at the time. And when I got back and told him the situation after the operation, he told me, "Well, if you just come on to class every day, and just audit the class, and I am going to give you an oral test at the end of each marking period, as well as at the end of the semester, and at the end of the year." But he informed me that I had to make the grades. And I did that. And I didn't get behind in my class, and therefore I went on and finished high school. That was before I entered into Jackson State University.

Tanzman: Against great odds, then. But you did continue and you studied education? You studied to be a teacher at Jackson State?

Clark: Yes. I studied to be a teacher at Jackson State, and one of the things, you know, that I want to say: it was during the time that I was at Durant, when my mother passed. When I was in school there. I had just left home that night, and when I was going to school at Durant, I lived nine miles from Pickens, and I would walk to Pickens every weekend to catch the bus or to catch the train. Sometimes the train ran at two o'clock. I'd leave home in time enough to catch the two o'clock train in. If I left in the morning before day, I would try to get to Pickens before people would come out to see me, but I had a girlfriend. You know. I had a girlfriend that lived on the road, and she knew I would come by, and no matter how soon I would get up, she would be out to watch me. I'd be embarrassed for her to see me walking by. Her name was Applice Jenkins[?].

And during this time before I entered into Jackson State, we were shopping in a store there in Ebenezer, and my mother was buying some groceries, just little odds and ends. And I didn't know what she was buying, and I mistakenly picked up one of the white ladies' packages. I thought it was my mother's. And they came down, and they threatened what they was going to do for me. My father was away from home, teaching school, and I spent several nights in the woods, thinking that they were going, what they were going to come and do to me. But as I was saying a few minutes ago, after I finished Jackson State, finished Durant, my uncle had graduated from Alcorn, and he wanted me to go to Alcorn. I could have had a scholarship to go to Alcorn. But I did not want to be a farmer. You know, if I had gone to Alcorn, that's what I was going to be, a farmer. Incidentally, I'm still doing some farming, now, but I didn't want that to be my livelihood.

[I] tried to enroll at Tougaloo College, but Tougaloo told me that if I enrolled there, it was going to take me eight years to finish, because I wanted to enroll as a work-aid student. That I could only get one semester a year, if I worked. However, I found out that was not the case because when I enrolled at Jackson State, I saw students working at Tougaloo and was coming out in four years. But I was accepted also at both Rust and Jackson State, and I really wanted to be a lawyer, and that's the reason I wanted to go to Tougaloo. I thought I had to go to Tougaloo and major in pre-law. I didn't know that. But when I left home walking to Pickens, I had gone down to my grand-uncle's house, who was an old Alcornite and former teacher. He gave me fifty cents, and I went over to my aunt's house, and she gave me a dollar, and my daddy had given me a couple of dollars. So, I left home headed down to the bus station in Pickens, walking. And I didn't know if I was going to Jackson State or Rust, but whichever bus came along first, that's the one that I caught. So, the bus came along first going to Jackson, Mississippi, so I caught the bus from Pickens into Jackson. And I knew. My father had told me to catch the Sixth Lynch Mill Street bus, going west. That would carry me to Jackson State. Well, Jackson College, then. So, I caught the bus, and I went on out to Jackson. And I went up to enroll, and I told them that I didn't have any money. That I wanted to go to school, but I didn't have any money. I wanted to work my way through school. So, they told me, "Well, if you don't have any money, we cannot accept you." And said, "Why did you come down here?"

I said, "Because I want an education."

They said, "Well, you're going to have to call your people, your parents, and tell them to come get you." By this time, my mother had passed.

"Well," I said, "My folks do not have a phone. I can't call back home."

"Well, call some of your neighbors, and tell the neighbors to tell your folks to come get you."

I said, "Well, not any of my neighbors have a phone."

They said, "Well, we're going to put you up tonight, and if your folk [has not] come got you or you ain't got some money, you're going home tomorrow morning." So, sure enough, the next morning, I didn't have a meal ticket. I couldn't go to the dining hall. So, I got up soon the next morning, and I went on to the registrar's door, and there was a paper there, and I took the rubber from around the paper. I remember it as well as if it was yesterday, and this was in September, 1948. So, I was sitting there reading the paper. So, when they came and opened the office up, that's when I got up and moved around for them to go into the office. So, they called me in, and they said, "We told the president about you, so, you're going to have to go down and see President Reddix."

And I said, "Where's his office?" They directed me to his office. So, I walked in.

He says, "Young man, I understand you're here wanting to go to Jackson College, and you don't have no money."

I say, "Yes, sir. That's right, President Reddix."

"Well, don't you know you have to have some money to go here?" Well, I explained my plight to him. He said, "Well, I'll tell you what we're going to do for you. You say you want an education, and I'm going to give you a chance to get one." He said, "You can lead a horse to the water, but you can't make him drink." Said, "Now, I'm going to give you a chance to get an education. You may not want one, but I can bump your head against the wall." So, he told me that. So, I went back, and they enrolled me. And I had to have two jobs on campus. There was one job that they'd give work-aid students, but one-half of your tuition [was] as much as you could make there. So, then they gave me an extra job on the campus. They had an old barn that was left there. They had quit milking in that barn, but on Saturdays--all day [on] Saturdays--[I spent] hauling that cow manure out of that barn, spreading it on the campus, and setting out the trees on the campus. Many of those trees there now, that is on the main campus, I set many of those trees out. But luckily at the end of that year, that spring, I ran track. I went out for the basketball team. I played basketball as a non-scholarship student. And they was not giving scholarships in track, so, I went out to run track. So, when I went out, they asked me, said, "What do you run?"

I said, "I run track." Never ran track before. I'd been hunting, you know, out in the field at night, running and following my fox dogs. And these was trainers, and they didn't have a like for me because I didn't join any of the fraternities because I wasn't going to let them paddle me. And they kind of had it in for me, so, they said, "Nigger, I said, 'What do you run?'"

I said, "Nigger, [I run track."] See, I didn't know nothing about the hundred-yard dash, or two-twenty, or broad jump, or nothing.

And they said, "Well, you say you run track. We're going to see what you run." So, they put me in every event that came up. And every event that came up, I outran everybody they had out there in everything except one boy beat me in the hundred-yard dash. And as a result, after that, we went on and had a lot of conference meets that year, and I was very outstanding in track. And we won a lot of trophies and a lot of medals because of that. And I was the first person at Jackson State which was my sophomore year to get a track scholarship.

Tanzman: It sounds like there was a really good background for you to become the coach and teacher in Lexington in the high school. You taught yourself the sport, and you kept going. OK. And you started teaching in Lexington in the fifties? Early fifties?

Clark: When I left Jackson College, which is Jackson State, now. Well, it was Jackson College for the preparation of rural Negro teachers. But when I left Jackson State in 1951, that was before I graduated. And the reason I left in the spring of 1951, the school had set up a program where you could get a major in health and physical education. And there was four of us in that program, and lo and behold, we were supposed to do our student teaching the spring semester, then we were supposed to come back in the summer to Jackson State, in the summer of 1952 and graduate. Now the reason he had this special program set up for us because this was a program we just started during our junior year. They just started offering that major. And they had a special program set up so that we could get our major with two summers and two years. But lo and behold when we got ready to go out for student teaching, this group was three males and one female, and I remember very well, one of the females coming over and telling me, "Hey, you know, we're going to have to be here five years. We ain't going out spring semester to do our student teaching."

And I said, "No, not me. I won't be here five years." And I went down to the dean's office, and I said, "Dean Sampson[?], Ms. X said that the ones of us majoring in health and physical education are going to have to be in school for five years." I said, "What about that?"

He said, "Yes, that's right."

I said, "Why, Dean? You set our program up for us, and I've done done everything." Well, as it turned out, we had to pass the senior comprehensive, and we had to have the grade point average. And of that four, I was the only one who had passed the senior comprehensive and had the grade point average to go on the field to do student teaching.

And he told me, he said, "Yes, Clark. It's true. I did set the program up, but the program was for four, and I can't have a program set up for just one student, and you are the only one. And nothing for you to do but come back for the fifth year."

I said, "No, way, Dean. I won't do that." So, I dropped out of school at the Christmas break. That was the end of the fall semester. Then, up at Durant, the high school where I finished, there was a second-grade teacher who left and wasn't coming back. So, I was hired there as a second-grade teacher for the rest of my senior year. Then, I came back to school all of that summer, and worked on grades. And the fall of fifty-two, I got a job of being the coach at Humphreys County Training School in Louise, Mississippi. And then, I came back and marched with the class of fifty-three. So, I stayed at Louise for seven years, from fifty-two to fifty-nine. And after the 1954 decision was made and shortly after that, the talk was about integration. So, I would go to the little town of Louise, and sit and talk with the Chinamen, and with the white folks, and we all was friends, and the discussion of integration would come up from time to time. And I said that it--. My statement was that "It would be all right for black and white children to go to school together in Humphreys County." I said, "But my suggestion would be that it would start at the first grade and the parents of the black children"--didn't call them black then,--"Negro children and the white children were to instruct the children that it's all right for them to go to school together."

So, later on that year--. That was in the spring of 1959. S.N. Brown, the superintendent of Humphreys County schools, summoned me to his office one day, and he says, "Clark, I heard that you said it was all right for black children and white children to go to school together."

I said, "Yes, sir, Mr. Brown. I did say that."

And he just said, "Uh-huh. Mm-hm. That's all I wanted to know." So, during that year, we had gotten our first set of library books, and I was also, had moved up and was serving as building principal of the high school. So, up at Belzoni, the other black high school, McNair High School, they got the same set of books we did. So, my building superintendent came and told me that Mr. S.N. Brown says there's a picture [in] a book in the library with a black rabbit and a white rabbit on it, and that they've already pulled the book up at Belzoni, but he wants you to pull that book and bring it to his office. He said if black children see that book, they may get the idea of black children supposed to play with white children.

And I told my building superintendent, I said, "Well, you tell S.N. Brown that I say if he want that damn book pulled, he'll have to come down here and pull it himself!" So, now I don't know if he told S.N. that, or not. I don't know if the book ever existed in the library. I don't know if S.N. ever got the book, because I didn't go [to the library] and look for it. So, it's needless to say, at the end of that year, I got a message from S.N. Brown through my building superintendent that I was no longer needed in the school system. That was fine. I left a good school system there. I left a championship basketball team there. And the parents wanted to protest for me. That was long before Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks had talked about protesting, but I said, "No." I said, "If the white man doesn't want me, I don't want to be here."

But they tried to tell me, "You ain't teaching the white man's children. You're teaching our children." And many of the children wanted to follow me where I went to, but I left there, and I went to Conway. That's in Leake County, Mississippi. And the principal there was a good friend of my father. They were in school together out at Jackson State, and he hired me as his principal, which amounted to a vice-principal and coach. And I stayed there for two years. And everything was smooth, and, you know, it is the best group of students that I ever taught in my life. [Portion deleted by interviewee.] But if a child [was] supposed to be fourth grade, that child performed on the fourth-grade level. If that child twelfth grade, that child performed on the twelfth-grade level. I mean over 90 percent of the children. But my father was still living, and I had promised my father and my Aunt Annie, who was a retired school teacher, when I got ready to graduate from high school, my father told me, "Me and Sister want to see you." That's my Aunt Annie, his sister.

So, the first thing came to my mind, said, "Some girl [has] lied on me. I know I [haven't] been fooling around with no girl." But some girl had told my folk I [had] got her pregnant. So, I couldn't sleep that night. So, finally I got up one morning. I said, "Daddy, [let's go home] and see what Sister wants." Sister Aunt Annie. So, we got up and went over there, and she says--.

And Daddy said, "Well, I brought the boy over, and he says, you know, he's ready to see what we want with him."

And she said, "Boy, when you go off to college and finish, we want you to come back home to help take care of the family property."

I said, "Oh, no, Sister. Not me! Not me. You know I don't like the country. I don't like the country." They just sat there and didn't say nothing. "You know when it rain, I can't go out there and see all that filth. I start to itching and break out." Didn't either one of them, didn't say a word. And I tried to plead my case; didn't a single one say nothing. So, finally, I said, "Well, I don't want to, but if y'all want me to, I will." I gave them my promise that, "I will." Because I never had intended to stay in Mississippi. And then--.

Tanzman: I'm sorry. You came back to Holmes County, then, at that point, after you were in Leake County, you came back?

Clark: That's what I was fixing to say. That is the reason that I came back home. I told my principal, Greer, that I promised my folk I would come back home, and my dad--. Nobody left there but my dad and my aunt, and both of them was old. And I hated to leave him, but I left him. And I came back home. And also, when I left, I had a job just before then when I was at Michigan State to integrate the Mackinac Islands. There was no African-American teachers up there. And they recruited me, and they talked to me at Mississippi State, and asked me to come. And they told me why they wanted me to come. They had checked my grades out and everything, but I was from Mississippi, and the Mackinac Islands had never been integrated. They wanted me to integrate the Mackinac Islands. And the salary there at that time was five times as much as I was making in Mississippi. But I refused to go. So, I came back home in the summer of 1961. That's when I came back, and started to teaching school at Lexington.

Tanzman: OK, Mr. Clark. In 1967 you were teaching in the high school, and a coach. And I know the Holmes County Freedom Democratic Party was the strongest in the state then, and decided to run people for all offices. And they asked you to run for state representative. Why did you decide to do that?

Clark: I'm going to give you a history of that. I taught school there at Lexington High School and coached from 1961 through 1966. And normally, you know, you've got to check out all your books and your inventory. Then, that's when you get your contracts. A lot of teachers [are] rushing to leave; they have things to do. I would always tell my principal, Mr. McLain[?] that I would just let other teachers get on out, get through, get checked out, and I come back maybe a week later and check out my inventory and etc. Then, that's when you pick up your paychecks. So, we met in the library that day and he issued contracts to all of the teachers but me. So, I went in and asked him for my contract. He told me, "Your contract is up at Mr. [Thompson's] office." Thompson was the superintendent of Holmes County.

So, I got out, and I went up to Mr. Thompson's office, and I told Mr. Thompson, "I came to pick my contract up."

He says, "The principal got your contract."

And, I say, "Well, he told me to come see you."

"Well, he told you to come see me. You go back out there and tell Principal X, Principal Jake, Jake McLain, tell Jake that I sent you back out there. Told you to come see him." So, on my way out--. His [secretary's father] and my father grew up together down at Ebenezer, and she was a white lady. And the secretary's father and my father had been friends, you know, until they passed.

And she stopped me. She said, "Robert, I want you to carry this back out there to Jacob." Made like she was looking for something on her desk. She looked through it and looked through it. She got a drop on the superintendent. She said, "Robert." (Whispering.) She said, "Your contract is not here." Said, "Jacob got your contract."

So, I said, "Yes, ma'am. I'll give this to Mr. McLain." (Laughter.) And I went back out there, and I walked in Mr. McLain's office, and I said, "Mr. McLain, Mr. Thompson sent me back out here to see you."

He jumped up, grabbed his hat, walked out of the office, and left the office. Didn't say a word to me. So, I had already started doing some part-time work with a federal program, Project Second Start, at Saint's. So, I went on, and I told Dr. Mallory[?] that day. I said, "Doc, you've been trying to get me to work over here at Saint's." I said, "But I'm ready to go full-time with you." And I told her what occurred.

She said, "Well, when he come back for you, you're not going to leave me, are you?"

I said, "Well, Dr. Mallory, I can't fault you for thinking like that, but you don't know me." I said, "If I give you my word, I'm going to be with you." So, several of the white folk uptown found it out. Hopefully, I won't get sued if I use their names. Jewel Knight[?] who was with Mississippi Power and Light, Ethan Cohens[?] who was running Cohens Department Store, and Norman Weathersby[?]. Norman and I had hunted together quite a bit. He's a fox hunter, and I had kept Norman Weathersby's dogs. And he had given me dogs. So. And the other one was Hardin Irving[?]. He ran the concrete place there. So, they found out about it, and they summoned a meeting with me. And I told them what happened. And they said, "Well, we're going to get your job back for you."

I said, "You know, I don't want you to get my job back for me." I said, "They have misused me, and they won't get a chance to misuse me again." So, they kept on prevailing. I said, "I got too much pride to go back into something where somebody don't want me." And one of the white fellows--.

I don't remember which one it was. I believe it must have been Hardin Irving, said, "You better eat that damn pride and go on back to your job." (Laughter.) So, sure enough, in about two weeks, Mr. McLain sent for me. He was sitting down in the gym with both doors open, and that good old wind blowing through that gymnasium. And he had that contract out on the table.

He said, "Mr. Clark. We got your contract and just come on, sign it, and we are ready--."

And I cut him off. "Mr. McLain, you withheld my contract without a cause; therefore, you did that, and I can no longer work for you." And turned and walked out on him. Then that's when I went back to the Saint's. And I first wanted to run for sheriff, and they had somebody already. That was FDP. When I came out to run for sheriff, frankly speaking, the FDP people, you know, didn't trust me too much at the time. And I can't blame them, because, you know, you had to be very careful about who you talked to. And the next thing was the superintendency of education. So, I had been a coach going into all of the homes, most, lots of the homes, and I knew that was one of the things we needed to do. If the parent was literate, they could help the students better. So, I asked for an adult education program in Holmes County. The superintendent tells me that I cannot--. He doesn't think it's in the best interests of Holmes County. And I asked him if I could meet with the board.

He says, "Yes, you can meet with the board, but don't bring no big crowd up here, now." So, me and several others went up there, and I explained to the board what I wanted to do.

And the board said, "When the superintendent asks for an adult education program, we will have one." But, I want to pause right here and say, now, this right here, this occurred before contract signing time. When this occurred, I was still under contract. This was still during the school year before my contract was withheld. So, but this is leading up to how I, you know, ran for representative. So, the board say, "When the superintendent asks for a program in Holmes County, an adult education program, we will have one.

I said, "You mean that if the superintendent asks for a program that you will have one in the county?"

They said, "Yes, that's right."

And I says, "Well, next year you will have an adult education program in Holmes County, because I am hereby announcing my candidacy for superintendent, right now." And that's where I announced my candidacy for superintendent. All right. The legislature was in session, and we had two representatives from Holmes County. And they introduced local and private legislation to make the superintendent of schools appointed. And we had five white board members, and I knew they was not going to appoint me. We figured we could win it in court, but we knew it was going to be two or three years down the road. So, due to the fact, since they introduced legislation so I could not run for the superintendent, then, I announced my candidacy to run for the state House of Representatives. And that's absolutely how I got here. And before that, I had no intention of coming here. And didn't even hardly know this place existed.

Tanzman: Well, your victory was a very big victory for the state because you were the first [African-American] since Reconstruction to come into the state representative seat. And out of that whole slate of Holmes County folk, I know Griffin McLaurin ran and won for constable, but you were the other major person that won out of a slate of many candidates for office, and it was significant then. I wonder [about] your initial experience in the legislature, and then I'd like to get to some of the education issues, too. OK? When you came in--.

Clark: Some of those same four white men that had tried to get me to go back to take my job at Lexington, my teaching job, they prepared me. They told me that, "You're going to go down there. Your eyes are going to perhaps see some things you don't want to see, and your ears are going to perhaps hear some things they don't want to hear." So, I knew Mississippi. I'm a native Mississippian, and I was kind of expecting to expect what I did get when I got here. First of all, my opponent that I defeated tried to get my colleagues not to seat me. He said [that] I was a Communist. I didn't believe in Jesus Christ, and etc. So, Marion Wright who is Marion Wright Edelman, now, was one of my attorneys, and she is the one that escorted me into the legislature. And I didn't know until a half hour before we convened at twelve that I would be seated. But it's my understanding, they told me that they told my opponent whom I had defeated that the people of Holmes County had spoken, and I had won, and they were going to seat me. So, then, when I found out I would be seated, I came into the chamber, and the media was there. And the media told me to go to the back and come back to the front.

"We want to take your picture." So, I don't know where the back and front is. You know. I don't know. So, finally, they directed me. So, when I walked to the back of the chamber, started back up the floor, there was an elderly white gentleman, weighed about 240, and he stood about six, four or five. And he came down the aisle, running towards me at a half-trot, and I didn't know what to expect. And just before I [attempted to drop] my shoulder on him, being a football coach, and him being that big, and I didn't weigh but 160 then.

Just before I dropped that shoulder on him, he stuck his hand out and said, "I am Marvin Henley, and I'm from Philadelphia, Mississippi."

And when he said that, you know, right after the three civil rights [workers] incident in Philadelphia, I said to myself, "God in heaven knows, I'm glad I didn't know that you was from Philadelphia, because if I had, the way you was coming towards me, I would have attacked you first!" (Laughter.)

But, he stuck his hand out, and said, "I'm Marvin Henley. I'm from Philadelphia, Mississippi." And he says, "I want to welcome you to this house, and I look forward to working with you." And me and him developed a good friendship.

(End of tape one, side one. The interview continues on tape one, side two.)

Tanzman: --a moment. I have to change tapes.

Clark: He had actually served in the House during the time when Bilbo was governor, and he became a good friend of mine. But actually when I came here, I was set off in a seat to the corner, the seat where I still sit, now. But I did not have a seat mate. They had a pattern of selecting seats for you where the [longest serving] person in your delegation--we had multi-county districts, then--the oldest person in your delegation would select a seat for you. But he selected a seat where he and my other colleague from our district sat side by side. And I was sitting to the side of him, but I'm off opposite from him. And my main planks of my platform, when I came here, was health care, justice under the law, and education. And I pursued the education issues of early childhood education and compulsory school attendance, introducing bills but knowing I wasn't going to get it out of the floor or out of the committee to the floor of the House, but the main thing I'd do was see what legislation was coming up, and I would offer amendments on the floor of the house. But I found it very difficult to get recognized on the floor of the House. When I would stand, the speaker at the time would look over me to a certain extent. Then, somebody would get up and make a motion, move the previous question.

Then, when I could get the floor, they would go to walking and talking and laughing, you know, and just ignoring me, just like I don't exist. And one of the things that I began to do--. I knew how much time I had, and I would start to winding down, like I'm [getting ready] to stop, and they would come running back out of the cloak rooms and etc, but no sooner would they come back to the floor, I would start off again, just to harass them. But finding it very difficult to get to the floor of the House, one afternoon, my first year here, it was a gloomy afternoon in January. And I just got fed up with it. And I got up, and I couldn't get recognized to get the floor of the House. And I got everything in my desk drawer, and I cleaned it out, and started out. Bill Minor[?] that writes--the columnist now--was working for the New Orleans Times Picayune, and Butch Lambert[?] from Lee County. Butch and I had developed somewhat of a friendship because I was an official before I came here, and Butch Lambert was an official. And we refer to each other as "Coach." So, Butch and Bill came out, and attempted to stop me, and I kept on walking, heading back towards my car.

Then they got around me and surrounded me, and Bill Minor told me, "Well, they are up there laughing, now. You've done exactly what they want you to do." And when Bill said that (laughter) I turned around, and when they knew anything, I was walking back in. I was walking back in.

Tanzman: You weren't going to let them have that satisfaction. Yeah.

Clark: No, I wasn't going to let them have that satisfaction.

Tanzman: Yeah. Now when the Alexander v. Holmes decision came down, you know, setting up the unitary system of schools, that there'd be one system instead of the freedom of choice before then. The early seventies, I know you were working very hard on education. What was the development with the blacks who were school superintendents, principals, and leadership? And did segregation practices really continue within these newly integrated, but actually mostly black schools?

Clark: It was at this time when the academies sprung up throughout the state of Mississippi, particularly where you had a black majority. I heard many of my colleagues and other than my colleagues would say, in just conversations, talking, that they didn't mind their children going to school with black children, but they definitely did not want their children going to school with lots of black children. But what I got from that, it was the policy of freedom of choice which, when you had freedom of choice, the black children that went to school there, many of them got treated so poorly until many black children would not go to the schools under the freedom of choice. I had students who went to school with me, high school with me at Lexington, and they later went to school with me, college over at Saints. And I had many of those students come to me and tell me about how they was mistreated and how they were abused. And many of the parents who wanted integration and sent their children there, I think if they had to do that over today, they would not do it, if they knew like I knew. I really think those parents would rather put their necks on the line, and go up there and stand around that school and march than to put their children through all of that. For example, there is one young lady that went to school with me at Lexington, and later went to school with me at Saints. But that young lady told me about what she had to go through with and that she would never be the same, again. And that was a beautiful young lady, and a real smart young lady. But I can assure you that young lady is still living today, but she got messed up so, until she never did regain herself and become the person she was, from having to go through all of that.

Tanzman: In the seventies, you were working--. OK. When they massively [quote] "integrated" [unquote] the schools, when the change came and a lot of black children went, not freedom of choice, but after the freedom of choice, were the conditions still quite rough for--? I know the academies had begun. Were they getting public funds? These academies that the white kids were going to.

Clark: The academies presently do not get any funding from the state of Mississippi, but when they were first passed, an ironic thing about it. I was headmaster at Saints Academy at the time I was in the legislature. And the academies did get tuition grants. Was made to the parent, and the parent could give the grants to wherever [school] they wanted to, but the ironic thing about it, I was headmaster at Saints over there with Dr. Mallory, the president, and many of our students at the same time got those grants. But our school was not segregated. It was segregated to a certain extent, but white students were not turned away from Saints, and we did have quite a few white students who wished to attend there. But they did get grants, but the schools, you know, the system, the academy system was segregated. So, that law was eventually knocked down.

Tanzman: OK. And you worked towards a lot of educational reform issues. I know the compulsory education is trying to get more funding for the schools and equipment. In 1975, when there were more black state legislators, did that make a major difference in being able to work toward some of these goals? And can you tell me some about the Education Reform Act that you worked for?

Clark: It is true in 1975 that we got three more black legislators that was elected from Hinds County as results of the reapportionment. You had some single legislative districts and other rural legislative districts were not single legislative districts. For example, when my district was as it was, I was given a district in which I could not win, and I was told that three is greater than one. They were looking for the numbers, but it was the attorney general, A.F. Summer at the time--and I was criticized by some of my black colleagues who came in five years later, that I voted for the attorney general's district, but I had been given a district from which I could not win--and it was the opinion of A.F. Summer that the people from Holmes County had elected me twice, and they should be given an opportunity to re-elect me, again, if they so desired. It is true that when those other three came in, and in my opinion, in my opinion, we got more progress, and we were more effective in this legislature at that time, when we had four, than we are now with thirty-five. Because with that four, we had a sense of direction. And all of us had a role to play, and we played those roles. And we did make progress, but the problem that I see with the large group of legislators that we have is the same problem that we have with African-Americans in Mississippi. We do not have a unique agenda. We are not setting our agendas from the perspective and the representation of the people that we come here to represent. We are setting political agendas, and many of these agendas are not being set by us.

But to mention education reform: when the first education bill that I introduced was killed, the committee chairman and the committee waited until I went to the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968, to kill the bill. When I got back, the bill was killed. Well, I didn't stop introducing bills. So, the following several years, I got some support in the committee from quite a few individuals that, enough, so that we could make serious noise in the committee. Well, it was near the deadline, and I had learned a little bit more about how to play the game. This may have been in my third or fourth year. And they would sit and, look, I'm talking about various members of the Education Committee, and they would get up and leave so we wouldn't have a quorum. They [would have counted] members to leave, and when a certain number of members leave, then they'd get up to leave. We wouldn't have a quorum. So, I saw what they were doing, so I worked out a plan. Members who would vote for it, I had a plan for them to go into the cloak room, and for them to go into the bathrooms. And they did that. And when these other members got up, and when they left, thinking that they was gone, I went to the bathroom, and the cloak room--.

Tanzman: Hold on just a moment. There's a call.

(There is a brief interruption in the interview.)

Clark: So, I went to the cloak room, the bathrooms, everywhere I had members hid out, but this was still during a time when there were thirty-one on the Education Committee, and there was only one black. And that's when there was only one black in the legislature, but I went there and got friends of education out and came back. Made a motion that we would call such and such a bill up for immediate consideration. Then he looked, and one of the other fellows said, "Well, I guess you've got to put the motion. You recognized him." So, they put the motion, and they recognized me. And the bill was kicked out of the committee, came out. And the next morning, the headlines in the paper was, "Compulsory School Attendance Bill Is on the House Calendar." And there was one young friend of mine; he is still living. He's a lawyer, and he was on the Education Committee at this time. And I think he's a judge or district attorney, now. And when he got back to the committee the next morning, he absolutely got up on the table and walked that table, stomping and hollering, because that bill had passed out of the Education Committee. So, the bill was on the calendar, but naturally there's a rule where the Rules Committee can meet, and they can kick the bill to the heel of the calendar. If the bill would work its way up to about number fifteen or twenty on the calendar, the Rules Committee would meet, and kick it back to the heel of the calendar. And that is the first efforts of me getting a compulsory school attendance bill out of the committee.

Tanzman: Yeah. OK. The compulsory education was thrown out by the state because of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Is that correct? In 1954, they threw out that you had to go to school till any age.

Clark: You're correct. Mississippi was the last state, is my understanding, in 1924, to adopt a compulsory school attendance law which they never enforced, and also, it is my understanding, they was the first state to take it off the books. But we did not stop there. We kept on pushing; we kept on pushing. So, finally I was appointed vice-chairman of the Education Committee at the House in 1976, and shortly after that, the chairman of that committee was called to be a part of President Carter's cabinet. So, then I was appointed chairman of the Education Committee, and before I was appointed chairman, I went over to [an] NAACP convention, in Vicksburg, and I spoke at the state convention. And I was telling the NAACP convention members that handouts are over. Gifts are over. You've got to do it yourself. You've got to use what you have to do it for yourself. Lo and behold, the headlines in the Vicksburg paper the next morning was, "Potential Education Committee Chairman Gives Black Power Speech to the NAACP Convention." Then, about sixty of those letters was clipped out and sent to the speaker's office. And these are folks who voted for the speaker. These was folks in the speaker's district, but the speaker had been telling me all the time, he never would tell me, but he called me to his office. And he says, "You see all these clippings?" And I thought he was just fixing to say, "No way I can appoint you." But he say, "You see all these clippings?"

I say, "Yes."

He says, "There's not a vacancy, yet. But if there is a vacancy, I will appoint you." So, he appointed me chairman of education, in spite of all that, and I worked and worked and worked and worked and tried to get the compulsory school attendance bill out of the committee, and early childhood education bills out. Only to get them out sometime, and see them messed up, around, again on the floor of the House. And it was in the spring of 1982 when I got a compulsory school attendance bill out on the floor of the House and the Rules Committee was steadily moving to the back. So, I summoned my vice-chairperson, and another colleague of mine, with two other whites. And we went to the speaker's office.

And I said, "Mr. Speaker, I want to let you know that I am going to make a motion today to move that bill from the heel of the calendar to the top of the calendar."

He said, "I wish you wouldn't make that motion."

I said, "Well, Mr. Speaker, the time [has] arrived. I've got to make that motion."

He said, "Well, some of these boys can't stand the heat."

I said, "Mr. Speaker, first of all, there ain't supposed to be no boys on the floor of that House." I said, "But, if it is, they ought to be able to stand the heat or get out of the kitchen."

He said, "Well, I'm not going to recognize you."

I reached my right hand out, shook his hand. I said, "Well, Mr. Speaker, I'm sure going to make the motion, and I hope we'll still be friends." We shook it off.

So, my vice-chairperson said, "If you don't recognize him, I'm going to stand."

He said, "Well, I'm not going to recognize you, either." So, we had a handshake. We walked out. So, at the proper time, I stood. And he said, "What does the gentleman from Holmes wish to seek to be recognized for?"

I said, "For a motion."

"What is your motion?"

I said, "To move such and such a bill from the heel of the calendar to the top of the calendar for immediate consideration."

Bam! "You're not recognized." So, Tom Walman rose to make the motion. He went through the same process, and he rapped Tom out of order. Said, "You're not recognized." So, then the House just became unruly, and then one of his people made a motion that we adjourn. And the ayes [were,] "Aye." [(Very weak.)]

And the no's was, "No!" [(Very strong.)]

He rapped the gavel and said, "House adjourned." And walked off the floor of the House. And he was my friend, and I was his friend, but friendship does not come in the way of reality. But in my opinion, that was the downfall of his leadership for the Mississippi House of Representatives. So, I had people on the Education Committee. They was getting letters. Their families back home was getting letters.

"Such and such a one voted for that education bill, and tell him if he vote for that bill, this is what's going to happen." And I read those letters. I saw those letters in my own eyes.

So, I went to then Governor Winter at the end of the session, and he said, "What is it we didn't do right?"

I said, "Governor, you did everything right." I said, "But we just don't have the support out there." And I told him about the letters that the members of the Education Committee and House was getting. I said, "If you can't get some help in the Senate, I don't know if I'm going to put the members of this House through that battle anymore."

He said, "Well, what do I need to do?"

I said, "You need to go out and get some of the old line, segregated organizations behind you. Like the Southern Baptists, like the Farm Bureau, and etc." And that was all I told him. So, then Dick Molpus, [Ray] Mabus, [Steve] Patterson, and [Andy] Mullins, they took it to the public. They took [to] the roads. And I declared my candidacy for Congress, and I went to one of [the] meetings that [the governor] had in Greenville, and there wasn't parking space. Everybody couldn't get [in] there. So, the time was right in eighty-two. So, after the election, and I had a narrow defeat, he summoned six House members, and six Senate members, down to the mansion. And he says, "I'm not calling y'all here to ask if I should have a special session or not, but I am informing y'all that I am going to have a press conference, and I will announce at that time if I am going to have a [special session.]" So, that was it. So, that Tuesday, [Governor] Bill Winter called a press conference, and he announced that he would have a special session. So, the Speaker of the House summoned those same six down to [the lieutenant governor's] office, and [the] lieutenant governor summoned those same six down to the lieutenant governor's office. So, we met, and they had a consensus among them that the governor can call us to a special session constitutionally. We've got to come, but we don't have to stay. So, that was the consensus.

So, finally, Mr. Speaker says, "Mr. Chairman, what do you say?"

I said, "Mr. Speaker, when and if the governor calls a special session, and I serve as chair of this committee at your will and pleasure, and if you have not removed me, I'm going to do my [best] to get a bill out of that committee, and I'm going to do my [best] to get a bill to the Senate." And I turned and looked at the lieutenant governor and said, "Mr. Lieutenant Governor, when I send a bill over to the Senate, it's going to look darn bad to the people of the state of Mississippi, if they ain't nothing over there but a lot of empty chairs." (Laughter.) And the special session was called, and Bill Winter had been telling us that the bill could be funded with oil and gas severance taxes, but then I began--.

Tanzman: This is for compulsory education and for early childhood? For the kindergartens? Tell me what--. OK.

Clark: The bill that we passed out--. Governor Winter did call the special session, and the bill that I passed out was known as the Education Reform Act of 1982, and that bill contained among many other things, early childhood education, compulsory school attendance and teacher's assistants. And Governor Winter's folk had told us the bill could be funded through oil and gas severance taxes, but when I looked at it, I told him, "Governor Winter, your oil and gas severance taxes are not going to fly. We've got to have another method." So, I [don't] recall right off what other method that we put in the bill, but we put that method in the bill, and the bill passed [out of the committee.] And also, we had a part of the bill was school consolidation, but school consolidation was later taken out of the bill. But the bill went to the House. It passed the House in one version. Then, it went to the Senate, and it passed the Senate in another version. So, then that called for a conference committee, [three] members from the House and [three] members from the Senate, and when we came and met for the first organizational meeting, we met in the Education Committee room [of the House of Representatives] where (inaudible.)

And Senator Ellis Bodron who was a blind senator, but one of the smartest people you ever met in your life, and when he first got there, he says, "Mr. Chairman, Chairman of the House Education Committee."

"Yes, sir, Senator Bodron."

"I move that you be chairman of this Conference Committee."

And I asked the chairman of the [Senate] Committee, "Will you please carry the motion?" So, they carried the motion.

And he says, "Mr. Chairman."

"Senator Bodron."

"I suggest that we start going around this table and letting us see what we're for and what we're not for so we know from where we've got to work from." All right, I still, yet don't know where he's coming from, but you've got to understand me. Of the three Conference Committees, three members of the House, didn't but one on there vote for the bill; that was me. And from the Senate Conference Committees, there wasn't but one on there that was for the bill.

So, I started out, and I said, "I will not have no sales taxes. Period. We will have this bill. I worked for this bill. I want this bill, but I will not vote for any sale taxes."

So, then he said, "Mr. Chairman, you will not vote for any sales taxes?"

"That's right, Senator Bodron."

"Well, Mr. Chairman, what about one cent?"

"I will not vote for any taxes, Senator Bodron."

"Well, Mr. Chairman, what about a half cent?"

I said, "Senator Bodron, you understand me. And you understand very well that a half cent is taxes, and I am not going to respond any further."

"Well, thank you, Mr. Chairman."

But what I didn't know, what he was trying to set up, he was trying to set up a way to kill the bill. That's what he was doing. Any sales tax. He was trying to set a way to kill the bill. So, we argued the point. We argued the point. We stayed tied up for about seven days. So, Mr. Speaker, himself, who was not for the bill, he says, "I can tell you from my legislative experience. If you want your old, bad bill, you'd better go ahead and try to reach a compromise." He said, "[If you do not,] everything will fall apart." Then Governor Winter suggested that I go ahead and try to reach a compromise. And then, I used my wisdom to understand that these little, poor children that I'd been fighting for for years, and I had fought for many of their parents to get the same opportunity, but did not, and that if I did not vote for some sales taxes, who would be hurt the most? Would it be the people I wanted to help or the people they wanted to help? And I realized the situation that I was in. So, finally, late one night, I decided to go ahead and put some sales tax in the bill. We limited the sales taxes, and when I walked out of the room and attempted to get to the hall, a white senator from the Gulf Coast came up in my face, and called me a white-loving, [nigger] S.O.B." Because I went for some sale taxes. And when he said that, I jumped at him, but I'm glad that the crowd was there and kept me from catching him because as fast as he was moving, I don't know if I would have caught him or not. But I am proud that I did that, and I did the right thing because it was the poor people, the black people that was hurting, and the white people that was in business. They wasn't hurting right then, but they were going to hurt, if they don't get an educated populace. So, that is the picture, actual picture, right there. [Then] Governor Bill Winter signed the 1982 Education Reform Act. That is it.

Tanzman: Well, thank you so much, Representative Clark. And I know you have some things to do, but thank you. And that was quite a victory for the state. Quite a victory. OK. Thank you for your time.

(End of the interview.)


This page created by Instructional Media Unit Webteam, and maintained by Charles Bolton.
The University of Southern Mississippi | Last updated
25 October 2003 3:37 PM AA/EOE/ADAI