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Alexander G. Clark, Sr.: Iowa’s Martin Luther King, Jr. February 19, 2010

Posted by Wapello Warbler in History.
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Alexander G. Clark

Alexander G. Clark, Sr.

The man you see on the left is Alexander G. Clark, Sr., who recruited and led a regiment of black soldiers during the Civil War and who successfully challenged Iowa’s denial of the vote to black citizens and the Muscatine school board’s policy of separate schools for black children.

Born in Pennsylvania in 1826, Clark trained as a barber before moving to Muscatine in 1842. Although slavery was forbidden, Iowa had some of the most restrictive “black laws” of any free state. Clark worked unsuccessfully for the repeal of those laws.

During the state’s constitutional convention in 1857, the issue of whether men of color would be allowed to vote was a key point of contention. Although Clark worked hard against it, the constitution limited the vote to whites.

Things began to change with the Civil War. Initially, Clark’s desire to recruit a black regiment was discouraged; but, after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, he was permitted to proceed and recruited and formed the 1st Iowa Volunteers of African Descent (later designated the 60th Regiment Infantry, United States Colored Troops) and was chosen as the regiment’s sergeant-major.

After the war, Clark resumed his efforts to eliminate racial qualifications for the vote. Arguing that “He who is worthy to be trusted with the musket can and ought to be trusted with the ballot.” Clark urged the people of Iowa simply to delete the word “white” from the list of voter qualifications. Iowa’s voters did so in an 1868 referendum.

About the same time, Clark was also engaged in a suit against the Muscatine school system because his daughter could not attend the white school in her neighborhood.

When the judge ruled in Clark’s favor, the school board appealed, but the ruling was upheld by the State Supreme Court, which stated that the constitution of 1857 created a state board of education that was required to “provide for the education of all the youths of the State, through a system of common schools.” Requiring black students to attend a separate school violated the law which “expressly gives the same rights to all the youths.”

Clark went on to publish a newspaper that gave voice to black Americans. He also attended the University of Iowa’s Law School and became the second black graduate. His son was the first.

In 1890 Clark was appointed ambassador to Liberia. He died there in 1891.

You can read more about Alexander Clark in this prize winning essay by Stephen J. Frese.

My thanks to “Tim,” a reader who dropped me an email about two programs that will be part of Muscatine’s Alexander G. Clark week and in the process interested me in Clark’s story. You can read about the programs here and here.

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