* published on Pavement Pieces
Late one afternoon in May of 1963, 22-year-old Colia Clark was heading back to her motel in Birmingham, Alabama, after a long day of protest and riots. Clark was starting across the street when she first saw the fire trucks. Within moments, the high-pressure hose unleashed a torrent. She tried to run, but her high-heels prevented her. “That’s that nigger from Selma,” she remembers hearing the head of the Highway Patrol say. Almost instantly the unrelenting flood was upon her, pushing her around and ultimately pinning her to a wall. One report described pressure “so high that the water skinned bark off trees.” Eventually, she recalls, a young boy with a torn shirt and a huge wound on his chest, rescued her. She would later learn that she was pregnant with her first child.
Now, decades after the civil rights movement, Ms. Clark, at age 72, is still striving for change. As the Green Party’s candidate for U.S. Senate from New York, she is seeking to unseat the Democratic incumbent, Kirsten Gillibrand. She is running on what she calls “a freedom agenda for the 21st century” founded on “educating, organizing, rabble-rousing.”
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Clark sipped coffee and discussed her motivations. She is a short, stout grandmotherly woman with a pleasant air. A smile curled across her face as she thought back on growing up in Mississippi. Like the time her mentor, Medgar Evers, appeared on her doorstep weeping, afraid that the NAACP’s decision to abstain from the Freedom Rides might cost them youth support. This anecdote, like most, ends punctuated by a bright-eyed laugh. When it comes to her issues, however, that smile fades, her face hardens and her voice narrows to a sincere rasp.
Her platform is extensive, and while some of its main points are rooted in her history of activism – free education, universal healthcare and absolute voting rights – it all boils down to security. “No nation can be secure with an illiterate population, hungry population, unhealthy population,” she said. “The greatest national security is making sure they’re educated, housed, have great healthcare and a living wage.”
One very conspicuous mark of progress, the election of the first black president, has been bittersweet for Clark. She recalls the jubilation outside her Harlem apartment building in 2008 when news of the Obama victory erupted into celebrations in the street. Four years later, however, her support for Obama has waned into disappointment that he did not fulfill all of his campaign promises. “Your word is all you have to live by, but by your actions you will be known,” her voice growing stern. “If you tell a lie, you’re a liar. If you bomb and kill, you’re a killer. And that is what he has become, unfortunately.”
So Clark has found a home in the Green Party, and knows well that as a third-party candidate she is at a distinct disadvantage. While there are Greens holding several local positions across the country, their runs for major office seem to be largely symbolic. Money factors heavily into that. “We do not take corporate donations, so we are not beholden to anyone, except to our own values,” said Daniella Liebling, a representative of the New York State Green Party. “We don’t think anyone should receive it; we think it corrupts politicians.”
Clark receives very little financial or structural support from the party, generally using Starbucks as a makeshift office. The budget for her first attempt at a U.S. Senate seat, against Charles Schumer, in 2010 was $1400. Clark came in third, with about one percent of the vote.
Education is a life-long cause for Clark. She grew up in the Jim Crow South, in substandard schools, with torn books discarded by the white schools and labs empty of equipment. Now, she calls vehemently for free education and the immediate obliteration of all student debt. Universal education and healthcare, she points out, were part of the infrastructure development in Western Europe, where they have some of the best literacy rates. “We refuse to do it for our own, in fact, we scream it’s socialism,” she said. “I’ll be damned if I’ll take that kind of a violent insult.”
Clark’s issue of voting rights is especially germane this year, with several states attempting to impose voter identification laws that could leave millions of registered voters disenfranchised. She wants a constitutional amendment guaranteeing voters equal access. It also hits especially close to home for Clark. She and her husband, Bernard LaFayette Jr. started the Black Belt Alabama Voter Registration Project in Selma, Alabama. “I fought for the right to vote,” she said ardently.
She maintains that to pay for universal healthcare and education measures would be easy – drastically reduce defense spending (without cutting veteran’s support programs) by bringing home all oversees troops and slashing military research and development. She would work to close bases in countries we’ve long since warred with, like Germany and Korea. “If after 59 years [South] Korea can’t take care of itself, let the North have it,” she said.
A month after her assault in Birmingham, Clark got the call that Medgar Evers, her friend and mentor, had been assassinated. She has lived a lifetime since then, from fighting for the right to vote to running for a national senate seat. In the last half century, she has fought for women’s rights, rallied against wars and worked to bring aid to Haiti. She grew up in a time when people fought for change, and she continues to do so. “All of my struggle, I put my life into this,” she says. “This is my legacy.”