Septima Poinsette Clark (May 3, 1898–December 15, 1987) was an American educator and civil rights activist. Clark developed the literacy and citizenship workshops that played an important role in the drive for voting rights and civil rights for African Americans in the American Civil Rights Movement." She became known as the "Queen mother" or "Grandmother of the American Civil Rights Movement" in the United States.
Clark was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1898. Her father, Peter Poinsette, was born a slave on the Joel Poinsette farm between the Waccamaw River and Georgetown. After the Civil War, he got a job as a caterer. Her mother, Victoria Warren Anderson Poinsette, was born in Charleston but raised in Haiti by her uncle, who took her and her two sisters there in 1864. Victoria Poinsette had never been a slave. She returned to Charleston after the Civil War and worked as a launderer. Clark's mother did not work directly for whites, and refused to allow their daughters to work in white houses in order to protect them from sexual harassment.
Listen to and read an interview with Septima Poinsette Clark, free from the University of North Carolina.
Clark graduated from high school in 1916. Due to financial constraints, she was not able to attend college, but began work as a school teacher. As an African American, she was barred from teaching in the Charleston, South Carolina public schools, but was able to find a position teaching in a rural school district, on John's Island, the largest of the Sea Islands. During this time, she taught children during the day and illiterate adults on her own time at night. During this period she developed innovative methods to rapidly teach adults to read and write, based on everyday materials like the Sears catalog.
Clark recalls the gross discrepancies that existed between her school and the white school across the street. Clark's school had 132 students and only one other teacher. As the teaching principal, Clark made $35 per week, while the other teacher made $25. Meanwhile, the white school across the street had only three students, and the teacher who worked there received $85 per week. It was her first-hand experience with these inequalities that led Clark to become an active proponent for pay equalization for teachers. It was in 1919 that her pay equalization work brought her into the movement for civil rights.
In 1919, Clark returned to Charleston to teach sixth grade at Avery Normal Institute, a private academy for black children. In Charleston, she began attending meetings of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Her first task with the NAACP was to knock on doors and ask people to sign petitions. One of the causes she petitioned for was to allow blacks to become principals in Charleston's public schools. The NAACP wanted to bring 10,000 signatures to the legislature. With the permission of the principal at Avery, Clark took her sixth graders out of class one day to help her collect signatures. In 1920, Clark enjoyed the first of many legal victories when blacks were given the right to become principals in Charleston's public schools.
Marriage and Children
In May 1920, Septima Poinsette married seaman Nerie Clark. The couple had a daughter who died one month after birth and also has a son, Neri Clark, Jr. The three moved to Dayton, Ohio, but after Nerie Sr. died of kidney problems in December 1925, Clark, struggling to support her son, stayed with Nerie's relatives in Dayton and Hickory, North Carolina. She settled in Columbia, South Carolina in 1929, and accepted a teaching position that year. During this time, Clark had trouble providing for Nerie, Jr. In 1935, she decided to send him back to Hickory to live with his paternal grandparents.
Columbia University and NAACP leadership
During summers, Clark began studies at Columbia University in New York, and at Atlanta University in Georgia with the landmark figure in the racial equality movement, W. E. B. Du Bois. Between 1942 and 1945, she received a bachelor's degree from Benedict College, Columbia University and a master's from Hampton (Virginia) Institute (now Hampton University). In 1947, Clark returned to Charleston to take care of her mother who had had a stroke. While caring for her mother Clark's role as an educator and activist did not subside. During this time, she taught in the Charleston public schools, she was active with the YWCA, and served as membership chairperson of the Charleston NAACP. In 1956, Clark obtained the position of vice president of the Charleston NAACP branch.
That same year, the South Carolina legislature passed a law banning city or state employees from being involved with civil rights organizations. Clark was upfront in her refusal to leave the NAACP, and was thus fired from her job, losing her pension after 40 years employment. She soon found that no school in Charleston would hire her. A black teachers' sorority held a fundraiser for her benefit, but no member would have their picture taken with her, fearing that they would lose their own jobs.
Highlander Literacy Courses
Around this time, Clark was active with the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. She first attended a workshop there in 1954. Before long she was teaching literacy courses, drawing on her experience on John's Island. "In a compressed week's workshop, Clark promised to turn sharecroppers and other unschooled Negros into potential voters..."
Clark and her cousin, Bernice Robinson, expanded and spread the program. They taught students how to fill out driver's license exams, voter registration forms, Sears mail-order forms, and how to sign checks. Clark also served as Highlander's director of workshops, recruiting teachers and students. One of the participants in her workshops was Rosa Parks. A few months after participating in the workshops Parks helped to start the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
The Spread of Citizenship Schools
Clark is most famous for establishing "Citizenship Schools" teaching reading to adults throughout the Deep South. While the project served to increase literacy, it also served as a means to empower Black communities. Citizenship schools were frequently taught in the back room of a shop so as to elude the violence of racist whites. The teachers of citizenship schools were often people who had learned to read as adults as well, as one of the primary goals of the citizenship schools was to develop more local leaders for people's movements. Teaching people how to read helped countless Black Southerners push for the right to vote, but beyond that, it developed leaders across the country that would help push the civil rights movement long after 1964. The citizenship schools are just one example of the empowerment strategy for developing leaders that was core to the civil rights movement in the South.
The project was a response to legislation in Southern states which required literacy and interpreting various portions of the US Constitution in order to be allowed to register to vote. These laws were used to disenfranchise black citizens. Citizenship Schools were based on the adult literacy programs Clark and Robinson had developed at Highlander. Septima Clark hired her cousin Bernice Robinson, to be the first teacher. Bernice was also a Highlander alumna. In addition to literacy, Citizenship Schools also taught students to act collectively and protest against racism.
They ultimately spread to a number of Southern states, growing so large that, upon the recommendation of Myles Horton and Clark, the program was transferred to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), in 1961 though initially Martin Luther King Jr was hesitant about the idea. With the increased budget of the SCLC, the citizenship school project trained over 10,000 citizenship school teachers who led citizenship schools throughout the South, representing a popular education effort on a massive scale. Clark came to national prominence, becoming the SCLC's director of education and teaching. Andrew Young, who had joined Highlander the previous year to work with the Citizenship Schools, also joined the SCLC staff. Clark would struggle against sexism during her time on the SCLC, as had Ella Baker, with the bulk of sexism emanating from Martin Luther King Jr.
Other Civic Service
During her career in service organizations, she also worked with the Tuberculosis Association and the Charleston Health Department. She was also an active member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. Clark retired from active work with the SCLC in 1970. She later sought reinstatement of the pension and back salary that had been canceled when she was dismissed as a teacher in 1956, which she won. She was later to serve two terms on the Charleston County School Board.
Death and Legacy
U.S. President Jimmy Carter awarded Clark a Living Legacy Award in 1979. In 1987, her second autobiography, Ready from Within: Septima Clark and the Civil Rights Movement, Wild Trees Press, (1986), won the American Book Award.
Septima P. Clark died December 15, 1987, in a eulogy presented at the funeral, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), described the importance of Clark's work and her relationship to the SCLC. Reverend Joseph Lowery asserted that "her courageous and pioneering efforts in the area of citizenship education and interracial cooperation" won her SCLC's highest award, the Drum Major for Justice Award. She is buried at Old Bethel United Methodist Church Cemetery in Charleston, South Carolina.