Civil Rights Tour: Civic Activism - David A. Clarke, Legislating for Social Justice

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"…the injustice the civil rights movement was fighting against was the same injustice that was denying my city and me home rule."(David Clarke, Washington Post, Aug. 31, 1990)

In an interview with the Washington Post in 1990, longtime Ward 1 Councilmember David A. Clarke (1943-1997) described the lasting impact of his childhood discovery that as a DC resident he could not become a Congressional page since there was no member of Congress from DC to sponsor him. "It was that day," in the mid-1950s, "that I dedicated myself to home rule for the District," said Clarke. He would go on to work for Rev. Walter Fauntroy (later DC's nonvoting delegate to Congress) and to enroll at Howard University Law School, where he was mentored by civil rights activist Franklin D. Reeves.

Over the next few years, Clarke also worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, organized lawyers for the 1968 Poor People's Campaign, and, beginning in 1971, headed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's DC bureau.

When the District finally achieved the right to self-government in 1974, Clarke became one of just two white candidates to win seats on the Council. He represented Ward 1 (Mount Pleasant, Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, and the Howard University area) for the next seven years, becoming Council chair in 1983. Clarke's home in Mount Pleasant doubled as headquarters for most of Clarke's campaigns.

During his tenure on the DC Council, Clarke focused largely on issues of racial justice. One of the most urgent issues that the newly elected Council faced when it first convened in January 1975 was the accelerating pace of evictions by landlords looking to cash in on DC's hot housing market. With black residents most at-risk of losing their homes, the preservation of affordable housing was a central civil rights issue in DC. Clarke joined Ward 6 representative Nadine Winter in prioritizing anti-displacement legislation, including rent control, restrictions on conversions of rental units to condominiums, and an "anti-speculation tax" designed to limit the profits investors could reap by purchasing and reselling houses. In 1980, Clarke helped put in place DC's Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), which gives tenants the right of first refusal to purchase their buildings at the time of sale.

Clarke also focused his attention on an alarming trend in policing during his early years on the Council, specifically a 900 percent rise in arrests for marijuana possession over the course of seven years. Clarke framed decriminalization as a racial justice issue, based on the disproportionate targeting of black citizens for minor infractions. Despite these efforts, Clarke was not able to overcome opposition by religious leaders who saw marijuana as a dangerous "gateway" drug to which black Washingtonians were especially vulnerable.

In 1986, Clarke led the University of the District of Columbia's takeover of the social justice-oriented Antioch School of Law, which was at risk of closing. Renamed for Clarke in 1998, UDC's law school remains committed to advancing justice for those most in need and to providing legal education that is affordable and hands-on.