Little has been written about Septima Clark's life, and many Americans have never heard of her; yet those who knew and worked with Clark remember her as one of the most influential women in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s A schoolteacher for most of her life, she came to activism through teaching and remained committed to the idea that education was the key to political empowerment Her "citizenship schools," which combined the teaching of literacy with voting rights organization, spread throughout the southeastern United States and were, in large part, responsible for the registration of thousands of African American southerners to vote Clark's passion for racial equality stemmed from her experiences as a teacher and a mother in the segregated South; she wrote in her 1962 autobiography Echo in My Soul: "There is nothing worse" than having to teach a black child "that none of the pleasant things in life are for him explaining why the native soil is such a hard place for the native to grow in" Septima Poinsette Clark was born on May 3, 1898, in Charleston, South Carolina Her father, Peter Poinsette, was born a slave; after being freed, he worked low-paying jobs as a cook, caterer, and custodian Her mother, Victoria Warren Anderson Poinsette, had grown up free and financially comfortable in Haiti.
All her married life, Victoria hated being poor and deeply resented having to take in washing to support the family In a 1981 interview for Eliot Wigginton's Refuse to Stand Silently By, Clark told Peter Wood that her mother used to get angry with her father "because he refused to condemn the whites who mistreated him" Clark always believed that she had learned equally from her two very different parents: from her father, she learned nonviolence and patience; from her mother, she "got courage" As she told Wood, her mother "wasn't afraid of anyone, and so when I had to face the [Ku Klux] Klan [when working for the civil rights movement], I never felt afraid" Clark dedicated her life to the one thing her parents valued in common: education "The only thing I remember that my father would whip you for was if you didn't want to go school," she told Wood A study routine was strictly enforced; between homework and chores, the only time the Poinsette children were allowed to play was on Friday afternoon In 1916, after Clark graduated from the Avery Institute, a private secondary school, she looked for a teaching job At that time, people of color could not teach in the Charleston public schools The Promise Land School on Johns Island, South Carolina, needed a teacher, so she moved there.
Johns Island provided Clark's first exposure to rural desperation She told Wood: "The people there were virtual slaves They had no choice but to work in the fields for the white people That's one of the reasons we had so many babies die A mother was only allowed to stay two or three days in the house after giving birth, and then she had to be back in the fields" In 1919 Clark went back to Charleston and taught at the Avery Institute After two years, she moved to the town of McClellanville to teach in the public schools There she met Nerie Clark, a Navy cook, and after a short courtship, he asked her to marry him Years later, Clark admitted that she had consented because she hadn't had much experience with men She liked Nerie and was afraid that if she turned him down, she might never have another chance to marry and have children.
Her mother bitterly opposed the match, mostly because Nerie was from North Carolina--"anyone from out of South Carolina was suspect," Clark laughingly told Wood years later in Refuse to Stand Silently By The marriage was not a harmonious one As Clark explained to Brian Lanker, photojournalist and author of the photo essay collection I Dream a World, Nerie "did not think that women had the right to do anything worthwhile He always felt that a woman should stay in her place, the house so we could not agree".
Their first baby, Victoria Clark, lived only a few weeks Clark blamed herself; she told Wood, "I felt I was being punished for having disobeyed my mother" Her husband abandoned her shortly after baby Victoria's death--and before the birth of their second child, Nerie, Jr, Septima Clark lived for a while with her husband's family, then went back to teaching on Johns Island However, she found the health conditions on the island too dangerous for Nerie, Jr--the child was frequently ill She also found it nearly impossible to support her son on her meager teacher's salary, so she sent him to live with his grandmother in Hickory, North Carolina, where he spent most of his childhood The separation between mother and son was painful, but Clark knew he would be well cared for She stayed on Johns Island from 1926 to 1929, then settled in Columbia, South Carolina There she taught elementary school and helped several other teachers and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to prepare a 1945 court case that forced the Columbia Public School System to make black and white teachers' salaries equal.
In 1947, after more than 17 years in Columbia, she moved back to Charleston to take care of her mother, where she continued her involvement with the NAACP, serving as the Charleston branch's membership chairperson She also worked with the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) in Charleston, first as part of a committee on race relations, then as the first black central board member Through her YWCA work, she heard about Tennessee's Highlander Folk School, a center for civil rights organizing and dialogue that was run by activist/educator Myles Horton Clark was intrigued by the school--a unusual place where blacks and whites could come together and talk about race relations and the growing civil rights movement She visited the Highlander Folk School in the summer of 1954 "I was really surprised to find out that a white woman would sleep in the same room that I slept in, or eat at the same table," she recollected in the interview with Wood "We just didn't do that in Charleston" At that point in US history, it took an enormous amount of courage for the school to go against the laws and social customs that prohibited blacks and whites from working together.
From meeting and talking to white people from different backgrounds at Highlander, Clark learned that there were many other forms of discrimination and oppression besides racism; she later told Cynthia Stokes Brown, coauthor of the biography Ready from Within, "I found out the low income whites were considered dirt under the feet of the wealthy whites, just as the blacks were" In 1956 South Carolina passed a statute prohibiting city employees from joining civil rights organizations The Charleston School Board then fired Clark because she refused to resign from the NAACP Her efforts to mobilize other black teachers to strike against the statute were unsuccessful Nearly 30 years later, Clark told Brown that she would always see these attempts as "one of the failures of my life, because I tried to push them into something they weren't ready for.
That taught me a good lesson" The experience led her to an ideal that served her well throughout her organizing and teaching career and would later title her biography: social change could not be dictated by an outside leader--a community must be "ready from within" Myles Horton immediately offered her a job at Highlander, where she began the "citizenship schools" program, which quickly spread throughout the southeastern United States Dedicated to both literacy and political empowerment, these schools taught people to write their names, balance check books, fill out a voting ballot, and understand their rights and duties as US citizens At the heart of the citizenship schools was Clark's belief that political rights are inseparable from education As she explained in Ready from Within, "I just thought that you couldn't get people to register and vote until you teach them to read and write .
and I was so right" The Highlander Folk School was frequently raided and harassed by the local police In one such raid, Clark--a well-known teetotaller--was arrested and charged with selling liquor But, as she told historian John Egerton in Shades of Gray, "integration was what really worried them" The school was frequently said to be a hotbed of communist activity Clark observed in Ready from Within that "anyone who was against segregation was called a communist White southerners couldn't believe that a southerner could have the idea of racial equality; they thought it had to come from somewhere else" By 1961 the citizenship schools had grown too big for Highlander to effectively administer on its own The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which, at that time, was the leading church-based civil rights organization, expressed a willingness to take over the program, so Clark went to work for the SCLC as director of education.
In Ready from Within, Clark explained that when she first joined the SCLC, she, like many of the other women in the group, "thought it was up to the men to do the talking But later on, I found out that women had a lot to say, and what they had to say was really worthwhile So we started talking, and have been talking quite a bit since that time" Clark believed that "the civil rights movement would never have taken off if some women hadn't started to speak up" Clark felt that some of the men in the civil rights movement were, at best, slow to acknowledge the women's contributions She told Brown, "Those men didn't have any faith in women, none whatsoever" Though Clark had tremendous respect for Dr.
Martin Luther King, Jr's vision and his nonviolent example, she "had a great feeling that [he] didn't think too much of women, either" She recalled that when she traveled with him, "he would say, 'Anything I can't answer, ask Mrs Clark' But he didn't mean it, because I never did get the chance to speak" After she retired from the SCLC in 1970, Clark continued to be actively involved in civil rights struggles, particularly surrounding education and day care In 1974 she was elected to serve on the Charleston School Board--the same school board that had fired her nearly 20 years before To Clark, that represented a real triumph in the civil rights movement "It just goes to show," she told Egerton, "that we can get something done nonviolently" However, Clark strongly believed that the civil rights struggle had not won complete equality for blacks.
Segregation laws were defeated, but, as she observed in the interview with Wood, "more subtle things" remained "What about your legislature? What about your city council?," she asked "I'm the only black on the school board, and when I get off I wonder if there will be another one" In the interview with Lanker for I Dream a World, Clark looked back on her life's work: "Dr King had a dream that all people should be free .
that they should be able to do all the things they want to do in America I think we're nearer I want people to say, 'This is my dream and I want it carried forth' I want that dream enforced" Clark believed that struggle would always go on, and she spoke out against injustice up to the very end of her life--from environmental destruction to President Ronald Reagan's education budget cuts She saw such protest as a crucial part of being a US citizen As she put it in Ready from Within, "I don't ever expect to see a utopia.
I think there will always be something that you're going to have to work on, always".