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He Stood for Something Large

By Colbert I. King

Saturday, March 29, 1997; Page A17

My first column as a member of the editorial page staff was about David Clarke. It was written during the summer of 1990, when he was running for mayor. The op-ed piece was sparked by a particular incident.

In early August 1990, the parent council for the Washington area Teamsters Union Joint Council 55 announced its mayoral endorsement. The union, in a surprise to most observers, split its support between council member Charlene Drew Jarvis and Walter E. Fauntroy, then the D.C. delegate to Congress.

Shortly after the results were disclosed, a story appeared in The Post about senior Teamsters officials who had said privately that Dave Clarke had the best pro-labor record. But no one on the parent council voted for Clarke, because he was white, and a white couldn't win a mayor's race in the District, they said. It struck me that ranking Clarke's skin color as more important than his record of support for working men and women in the Teamsters was a racist and cowardly act, a shameful moment in labor's history, and I wrote as much at the time.

The newspapers and airwaves are going to be filled with a great many tributes and much flowery praise for Clarke over the next several days. All of it will be well deserved. Much will be said about his impact on the city, his passion for the least among us, the tenacity with which he fought for causes in which he believed.

But for me, Dave Clarke's main legacy goes well beyond the way in which he shaped public policy in the District, the intensity that he brought to his life's work or the issues he championed. Sometimes I agreed with him on these things, sometimes not.

But disagreements aside, Dave Clarke ranked head and shoulders above most people in this city, not because of his ideology or his considerable height but because he stood for something large.

Dave Clarke had integrity. He listened with his heart as well as his mind, and -- above all -- he was a fair and steadfast man. On moral issues, there was no fainthearted shifting in him. He taught us all -- black and white -- that it was possible to live beyond our largely self-imposed strictures of race.

That Dave was rejected nearly a decade ago on racial grounds was a disgrace. He had home-town and civil rights credentials that would put most of this city's oversupply of headline grabbing, second-rate prima donnas to shame. Clarke practically was a native son -- coming here at age 2 -- a product of D.C. public schools, a graduate of George Washington University and Howard University Law School. Clarke didn't just talk the talk, he lived it, too.

Before the voters sent him to the city council in 1975, Clarke was the Washington bureau director of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He clerked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and worked in the Poor People's Campaign. Those folks who rejected him in 1990 didn't think the District was ready for Clarke. They didn't know him, and they didn't know the voters either. In his last race for council chairman, Clarke romped to victory across the city, especially in the most heavily black wards. Read the obituaries or listen to the upcoming eulogies, and you'll learn why.

Or better yet, catch what will be said about him among the people who won't be able to attend the memorial services or get a chance to put their views on the air. The one expression about Clarke heard repeatedly among his many African American supporters, especially working class residents -- whether he was riding up to some community event on his bike, or standing awkwardly in the back of the room at a reception, or found sitting on the council dais with the gavel close at hand -- was the simple phrase, "Dave's all right." Those few words held a lifetime of meaning.

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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