Septima Poinsette Clark
|Septima Poinsette Clark|
|Born||May 3, 1898
Charleston, South Carolina, USA
|Died||December 15, 1987
Johns Island, South Carolina, USA
|Political movement||American Civil Rights Movement|
|Spouse(s)||Nerie David Clark|
|Awards||Martin Luther King, Jr., Award 1970
Living Legacy Award 1979
Drum Major for Justice Award 1987
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."  Septima Clark's work was commonly under appreciated by Southern male activists. She became known as the "Queen mother" or "Grandmother of the American Civil Rights Movement" in the United States. Martin Luther King, Jr. commonly referred to Clark as "The Mother of the Movement."  Clark's argument for her position in the civil rights movement was one that claimed "knowledge could empower marginalized groups in ways that formal legal equality couldn't."
Early life 
Clark was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1898. Her life in Charleston was greatly affected by the era of Reconstruction, as well as power relations during the time. Her father, Peter Poinsette, was born a slave on the Joel Poinsette farm between the Waccamaw River and Georgetown. Joel Roberts Poinsett was a distinguished US politician of his time. After the Civil War, he got a job as a caterer. Clark remembers only ever being punished by her father when she did not want to attend school; however, Clark's father was not able to write his own name until the later years of his life. 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. Victoria Warren Anderson Poinsette lived in a constant struggle of wanting to improve her social class; she wanted to live in a middle-class society, but on a working-class budget. Clark recalls her mother as very strict, and punished Clark for minor disobedience. Clark's parents, Peter and Victoria, met between the years 1890 and 1892 in Jacksonville after Peter's non-violent exit from slavery.
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.
NAACP Involvement 
In 1919, Clark returned to Charleston to teach sixth grade at Avery Normal Institute, a private academy for black children. In Charleston, she joined the Charleston Branch and 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. Her participation in the NAACP was Clark's first statement in political action.
The late-1940s proved to be a difficult time for Clark as she stood up with the NAACP's aim of equalization to integration against many other members and activists.
Marriage and Children 
In May 1920, Septima Poinsette married seaman Nerie Clark, Sr.. 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. In total, it appears that Septima Clark spent a total of 17 years in Columbia, South Carolina. Much of her work there is documented by the University of South Carolina History Department which, under the direction of Dr. B. J. Donaldson, has conducted extensive research on African American education, with special emphasis on the history of the Booker T. Washington High School. In 1929, Septima Clark was employed at Booker T. Washington where she is still remembered as an outstanding educator. She worked closely with the principals of Booker T. Washington High School, both C. A. Johnson who recruited her for the teaching position she would hold for 17 years and later with J. Andrew Simmons, who was originally from Charleston and whom she may have known previous to their working together in Columbia. While in Columbia, Septima Clark completed the foundations upon which her career, reputation, and memory would rest: she became a highly valued faculty member at Booker T. Washington High School, she completed her Bachelor's degree at Columbia's Benedict College, and she completed her graduate studies at New York's Columbia University and Atlanta's Clark College. The level and quality of the education that Septima Clark achieved was typical of what was required by the administrators of the Booker T. Washington High School of Columbia who recruited highly trained teachers from all over the country. After J. Andrew Simmons left Booker T. Washington High School to take a position in New York in 1945, Septima Clark stayed on for two additional years, before finally leaving Booker T. Washington High School, an institution she had helped to mold, in order to return to Charleston, SC to take care of her ailing mother, Victoria.
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. Clark's decision to send Nerie, Jr. to live with his paternal grandparents was a common action at this time due to slavery and financial issues. Septima Poinsette Clark's marriage to Nerie David Clark resulted in a course of depression for Clark, as well as a significant decline in her self-confidence.
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 believed that a combination of relations, such as social and power relations, were a major contributor to schooling. Clark was upfront in her refusal to leave the NAACP, and was thus fired from her job by the Charleston City School Board, 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 Monteagle, 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, in hopes of carrying on a tradition. The creation of citizenship schools as a result of Septima Clark's teaching of adult literacy courses throughout interwar years. 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 citizenship schools are also seen as a form of support to Martin Luther King, Jr. in his non-violent civil rights movement.
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. They required a week's worth of training in a program that was ultimately designed by Clark. 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. Transferring the program to the SCLC was also a result of financial troubles at Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. 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 On top of these 10,000 teachers, citizenship schools reached out and taught more than 25,000 people. By 1958, 37 adults were able to pass the voter registration test as a result of the first session of community schools. Before 1969, about 700,000 African-Americans became registered voters thanks to Clark's dedication to the movement. Clark came to national prominence, becoming the SCLC's director of education and teaching. Clark was the first woman to gain a position on the SLCL board. Andrew Young, who had joined Highlander the previous year to work with the Citizenship Schools, also joined the SCLC staff. The SCLC staff of citizenship schools were mainly women, as a result of the daily experience gained by becoming a teacher. 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. Clark claimed that women being treated unequally was "one of the greatest weaknesses of the civil rights movement."
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, the 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.
Clark has major relations to other black activists of the civil rights movement, such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. Washington and Clark both emphasized the importance of self-improvement before the importance of institutional reforms. DuBois and Clark agreed on the emphasis of education as the most important approach to the civil rights movement.
- I have a great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking. I consider chaos a gift.
- Don't ever think that everything went right. It didn't.
- This country was built up from women keeping their mouths shut.
Septima Poinsette Clark wrote two autobiographies during her lifetime, in which she recorded her lifelong experiences. The first, written in 1962, was named Echo In My Soul. It is a combination of her life story, as well as her work at the Highlander Folk School. The work also discussed her views concerning the Jim Crow laws and the legitimacy of the civil rights movement. Clark's second autobiography, Ready from Within (1979) was an oral recollection of lifelong experiences.
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- Brown-Nagin, Tomiko (2006). The transformation of a social movement into law? the SCLC and NAACP's campaigns for civil rights reconsidered in the light of the educational activism of Septima Clark. Routledge.
- Women had key roles in civil rights movement
- Charron, Katherine Mellen (2009). Freedom's Teacher : The Life of Septima Clark. The University of North Carolina Press.
- Crawford, Vicki L. Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers, 1941-1965, Indiana University Press, (1993) - page 96, ISBN 0-253-20832-7
- Crawford, Vicki L. Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers (1993), page 96
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- Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.
- American Book Award List
- Collier-Thomas, Bettye. Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black (2001), page 95
- Clark, Septima Poinsette. Ready from Within: Septima Clark and the Civil Rights Movement, Wild Trees Press, (1986)
- Charron, Katherine. Freedom's Teacher: The Life of Septima Clark (2009)
- McFadden, Grace Jordan. "Septima P. Clark and the Struggle for Human Rights." Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers 1941-1965. Ed. Vicki L. Crawford, Jacqueline Anne Rouse, and Barbara Woods. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, (1993) pp. 85–97 - ISBN 0-253-20832-7
- Horton, Myles. The Long Haul: An Autobiography. NY: Teachers College Press, (1998) - ISBN 0-8077-3700-3
- Septima Poinsette Clark and Cynthia Stokes Brown, Ready from Within: A First Person Narrative, Red Sea Press, 1990
- The Septima Poinsette Clark Foundation
- Biography on South Carolina African American History Online
- Botsch, Carol Sears. Septima Poinsette Clark University of South Carolina. 3 Aug 2000.
- Oral History Interviews with Septima Poinsette Clark ,  from Oral Histories of the American South
- Civil Rights Movement Veterans