By Joseph Collins, Staff Writer
“Literacy means liberation.” – Septima Clark
Often referred to as the“Grandmother” of the American civil rights movement, Septima Clark was a unstoppable force for change. As an activist and teacher, she worked tirelessly to liberate African-Americans through the power of education. In communities throughout the United States, she established grassroots workshops that helped teach disenfranchised blacks about the full extent of their citizenship rights. Her goal was to provide them with the information they needed to confidently push for voting rights and racial equality. And her work had a huge impact.
A dedicated and passionate reformer, Septima Clark understood that providing people with information would – in some ways – be more empowering than simply winning them legal rights. Under her guidance, the workshops flourished, enabling her to reach thousands of young activists and ordinary citizens. Although she often operated behind the scenes, her contribution to the civil rights movement is undeniable. And today Septima is still remembered and admired for her quiet strength and her abilities as an outstanding and inspirational educator.
“I train the people to do their own talking.” – Septima Clark
THE STRUGGLE TO GET AHEAD
Septima Poinsette (later Clark) was born on May 3rd 1898 in Charleston, South Carolina, during a time when the state was strictly segregated by race and class. Her father, Peter, was a freed slave who worked on a ship in Charleston harbor; her mother, Victoria, was a launderer from Haiti. Although their income was limited, they had a large family with 8 children, of which Septima Clark was the second in line.
In many ways, Septima was a rebel from the very start, and it started in her own household. Her mother was a strict disciplinarian, who was especially tough on her daughters, hoping to shape them into “proper ladies.” But Septima was not exactly cooperative. She rebelled against her mother’s tough approach and struggled to find her own path forward. This caused a fair amount of tension in their relationship in the early years – a tension that would remain for years to come.
At the same time, Septima struggled with learning as a child. Initially, she had no interest in going to school, despite strong encouragement from her parents. For the most part, local black schools were underfunded and under-resourced, so the quality of the education was limited at best. On average, South Carolina spent just $1.86 on each black student, while it spent nearly $15 for each white student. Seeing the stark differences between the all-white and all-black schools in the area, Septima’s parents became frustrated and angry. As a result, they pulled Septima out of school at the age of 6 and looked for a private tutor in the community. In the end, they sent Septima to a private educator who taught local children. However, because her family was poor, Septima paid for her lessons by watching the teacher’s children in the mornings and afternoons. Although it was an unusual arrangement, it worked will for Septima, and she soon developed a love for learning.
When the first high school for African-Americans opened in Charleston, Septima Clark returned to formal schooling and continued to do well. After graduating, she decided to become a teacher herself, realizing how powerful education can be in helping people to improve their lives. She went on to attend Avery Normal Institute, a private school set up by Christian missionaries to train black teachers. Upon graduating from Avery, she took a teaching job from 1916 to 1919 at Promised Land School on John’s Island, a nearby but isolated island of South Carolina. She did well at Promised Land and became increasingly committed to teaching as a career. She taught children during the day and taught basic literacy skills to adults at night, pioneering innovative techniques that enabled adults to learn reading and writing very quickly. For a brief period of time, she even went on to teach at Avery, helping to train other future educators.
However, for black teachers at the time, the path forward was difficult – especially in the Charleston area. Local laws prevented African-Americans from teaching in any public school, so the opportunities for black teachers were extremely limited. As a result, Septima took positions at rural schools outside the city, however, they were not as well funded and paid significantly less. Consequently, Septima was constantly struggling to get by. Over time, she became increasingly frustrated with racially discriminatory laws that limited her access to better opportunities and higher pay. This, as well as her personal experiences with racism, inspired Septima Clark to get involved in working for civil rights.
Septima Clark first learned about the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) while teaching on John’s Island. When a group of preachers visited to talk about the organization’s work, Septima was inspired and immediately signed up to become a member. In 1919, she began attending NAACP meetings regularly and soon became actively involved in several key campaigns.
Her first experience with social activism was going door-to-door to collect signatures on a petition that would reduce discrimination in public schools. Specifically, the petition would open the door for African-Americans to serve as teachers and principals in local public schools. It would also require that educators receive equal pay regardless of race. Motivated by the opportunity to create real change, Septima secured thousands of signatures in a single day. With her help, and the help of countless others, the campaign was a quick success. In less than a year, all of their demands were met and passed into law by 1920. Septima had her first taste of a civil rights victory.
VICTORIES AND TRAGEDIES
It was during this same time period that Septima met her future husband, Nerie David Clark, a military veteran from North Carolina who had served on a submarine in World War I. After three years of dating they were married in 1923. However, the marriage further strained Septima’s relationship with her mother, who objected to the idea of marrying a man from a different state (North Carolina). Septima’s mother saw this as the equivalent of “marrying a stranger,” as he was unknown to her local community. This caused a falling out between mother and daughter, and Septima – in love and loyal to her husband – moved with him to his hometown of Hickory, North Carolina.
Unfortunately, their marriage was mired in tragedy. Their first child died shortly after birth. And although they had a healthy second child, tragedy soon struck the family again, when Septima’s husband was afflicted with kidney disease. Eventually, he died of kidney failure – only five years after the couple had been married. Reeling from these losses, Septima took off from teaching for short while in 1929 to spend some time in the mountains of western North Carolina. After a short time, Septima took her son and moved to Columbia, South Carolina, where she resumed her teaching and joined the local chapter of the NAACP to continue her involvement with the civil rights movement. From that moment on, she decided to become more actively involved and devoted to the crusade for equal rights.
Septima’s new position as a teacher was at the Booker T. Washington High School, where she remained for 17 years. Over the years, she earned strong praise for being an outstanding educator. During that time period, she took some time to advance her own education as well. From 1942 to 1945 she attended Columbia’s Benedict College, where she finally earned her Bachelor’s Degree at the age of 47, despite the demands of working full time and raising a child. She then went on to New York City’s Columbia University and Atlanta’s Clark College to complete her graduate studies.
But in spite of her busy schedule, Septima continued to work with the NAACP, and in doing so had a chance to work alongside lawyer Thurgood Marshall, who went on to become the first African-American Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. She worked with him on the 1945 case that fought for equal pay for black teachers nationwide. Although she was fighting for the general principles of the case, she also stood to gain personally from the legal battle. Her salary as a teacher increased threefold when the case was won. For Septima, the victory was both a societal and a personal triumph.
In 1947, Septima’s mother suffered a stroke and become gravely ill, and Septima returned home to look after her, in spite of the rift between them. But as busy as she was with her job and her duties to her mother, she still found the time to remain active. In addition to volunteering for the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), she continued to remain involved with the NAACP. In fact, after her years of loyal service, by 1956, Septima became vice president of the Charleston chapter of the organization. Unfortunately, that very same year, South Carolina made it illegal for public employees to belong to civil rights groups, hoping to slow down the burgeoning civil rights movement. But Septima refused to give up her position at the NAACP and, as a result, was let go from her teaching position. After forty years of employment, she had lost her job and her pension.
RISING UP, FIGHTING BACK
During her time teaching at Booker T. Washing High School, Septima had spent some of her summers off by leading workshops at the Tennessee Highlander Folk School, an institution that supported integration and the Civil Rights Movement. Now unemployed, Septima Clark sought out a full-time position at Tennessee Highlander and was offered one. In fact, she was considered such an exemplary teacher, that she was soon put in charge of Highlander’s Citizenship School program. As its director, she was responsible for helping African-American citizens improve their math and literary skills. The goal of the program was to increase voter turnout by the black community, with the hope of electing officials who were more supportive of civil rights and racial equality. Many states, at the time, were using literacy tests to attempt to discourage and disqualify African-Americans from voting; but the high success rate of Septima’s educational workshops helped to tip the scales.
“What we are working for is an educational program that has become a resource and rallying point for scores of brave southerners who are leading the fight for justice and better race relations in these crucial days,” said Septima.
But her activities to educate her fellow African-Americans came with a price. Unhappy with the prospect of an educated black community, the state of Tennessee revoked the school’s charter, shut down its many buildings, and arrested the teachers, including Septima, on trumped up charges. Although the charges were later dropped, the school remained closed and Septima and the other teachers were now out of work.
Fortunately, Septima’s efforts did not go unnoticed by some of the nation’s top civil rights leaders, who stepped in to help out. Shortly after the Tennessee school was shut down, Martin Luther King Jr., an admirer of Septima’s work, invited her to Georgia to continue her literacy efforts and start up new workshops.
With the help of her cousin, Bernice Robinson, also a civil rights activist, Septima Clark expanded the program to include new skills that were highly useful for citizens to learn, including: how to fill out the paper work for a driver’s license, how to fill out voter registration forms, and how to sign checks. All of these skills were extremely practical and increased African-American access to the basic benefits of equal citizenship. The classes were not only educational, but also inspirational, in that they encouraged attendees to become leaders in their communities.
One of Septima’s students was Rosa Parks, a name that would become widely known for her own civil rights work. Only a few months participating in the workshop, Parks helped to start the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which protested racial segregation in the local public transportation system. In fact, many of the women involved in the successful boycott had attended Septima’s workshops. Her success as an educator was so impressive, that Ella Baker, another African-American civil rights activist and member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), visited one of Septima’s classes to see if it could be integrated into the SCLC’s voter registration drive campaign, the “Crusade for Citizenship.”
Ultimately, Septima Clark became best known for her work in the citizenship programs, teaching reading and mathematics to adults in the Deep South. Her skills as a teacher and orator were used as a model for schools throughout the region, raising the education level for African-Americans throughout the south and opening up new employment opportunities, thus empowering black communities. Her very personal, hands-on approach made sure her students felt invested in what they were learning, connecting the social politics of the civil rights movement with the basic, everyday needs of people. She was not only teaching them reading skills, but also about their rights as U.S. citizens. In doing so, she created new teachers who helped expand the citizenship programs, as well as civil rights leaders who would help keep the movement going. Under Septima’s leadership, over 800 citizenship schools were created through the southern United States.
THE GIFT OF CHAOS
By 1961, Tennessee Highlander’s citizenship program merged with the SCLC. Now with an increased budget, some 10,000 additional people were taught and trained to lead citizenship courses throughout the south. By the late 1960s, thanks to Septima’s skills as a teacher and her devotion to the program, approximately 700,000 African-Americans were registered to vote.
With such a high success rate, it wasn’t long before Septima Clark became the SCLC’s director of education and teaching, making her the first woman to hold a position on the organization’s board. Still, in spite of her many triumphs and contributions to, she was still subject to the sexism of the time – which were present, even among the generally progressive leaders of the civil rights movement. Some of the leading male civil rights leaders of the day questioned whether it was wise to have a woman on the board at all. Some challenged her right to sit on the board, but they were overruled.
“Women being treated unequally,” said Septima, “was one of the greatest weaknesses of the civil rights movement.” But Septima Clark did not let it bother her or minimize her ambitions in any way. She knew her work was important, and that her contributions to voter registration and the civil rights movement were significant. And if it made some of the movement’s leaders uncomfortable, she saw that as something positive.
“I just tried to create a little chaos,” said Septima. “Chaos is a good thing. Change is what comes of it. I have a great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking. I consider chaos a gift.”
SEPTIMA’S PASSING AND LEGACY
During her lifetime, Septima Clark won numerous awards for her work. In 1979, she was given the Living Legacy Award by President Jimmy Carter, who cited her lifetime of contribution to ending segregation and improving the lives of thousands of African-Americans through education. In 1982, the government of South Carolina awarder her the Order of the Palmetto, the state’s highest civilian honor. And for her courageous and pioneering efforts in the area of citizenship education and interracial cooperation, Septima was given the “Drum Major for Justice Award,” the SCLC’s highest honor.
Eventually, after years of service to the comunity, Septima Clark passed away at the age of 89 on December 15, 1987. She was buried at the old Bethel Methodist Church cemetery in Charleston, South Carolina. To Septima, the key to success for African-Americans lay in the power of education. At the heart of her approach was the simple notion that knowledge is power. And because of her commitment to the cause, and her long and influential teaching career, she helped thousands of African-Americans take control of their lives and become more fully aware of their rights as citizens of the United States. She inspired thousands more ordinary citizens to get involved and vote, to peacefully demand equality and justice, and to take the lead in the future of their own lives and communities. And in doing so, she helped to transform a nation.
“The greatest evil in our country today is not racism, but ignorance,” Septima Clark once wrote. And her dedication to ending ignorance through widespread education is her greatest legacy to the civil rights movement and to a better, more just, and more equal America.