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A pioneer in grassroots citizenship education, Septima Clark was coined the “Mother of the Movement” and the epitome of a “community teacher, intuitive fighter for human rights and leader of her unlettered and disillusioned people”, as described by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The daughter of a laundrywoman and a former enslaved person, Clark was born May 3 1898, in Charleston, South Carolina. In 1916 she graduated from secondary school and, after passing her teacher’s exam, Clark taught at a Black school on Johns Island, just outside of Charleston.
For more than 30 years, she taught throughout South Carolina, including 18 years in Columbia and nine in Charleston.
Septima Poinsette’s mother, Victoria, was raised in Haiti, and her father, Peter, was a former enslaved person.
According to African American Registry, her education came from those who insisted on performance and hard work with pride.
In 1920, she married Nerie Clark, a Black Navy cook with whom she had two children; Clark’s mother raised one, and the other died at birth. Shortly thereafter, she became involved in various civic organizations and continued her education in Columbia.
Carrying on the fight for Black teachers throughout the state, Clark received her B.A. from Benedict College in 1942 and her M.A. from Hampton Institute in 1945.
Although her activist efforts with the NAACP helped initiate an equal pay ruling that year, she was fired from teaching in Charleston in 1947 because she was a member of the NAACP.
Septima Poinsette Clark taught practical literacy for everyday life and social activism
Unable to find work, Clark relocated to Monteagle, TN, teaching interracial adult education at the Highlander Folk School, where she formed an adult literacy program with another woman, teaching people how to fill out driver’s licenses and voter registration forms and how to sign checks.
Guided by her belief that education and Black equality were integral subjects when she became director, Clark devised a curriculum that focused on promoting voter registration and empowering people to solve their issues through social activism.
Septima Poinsette Clark was a legend surrounded by legends
Dedicated to her craft, Clark continually pursued her own education during summer breaks.
When she would return to class, her students were educated and encouraged to not only learn, but become a part of the movement towards equality. A teacher of legends like herself, one of those students was Rosa Parks.
In 1937 Clark studied under W. E. B. Du Bois at Atlanta University before eventually earning her BA (1942) from Benedict College in Columbia, and her MA (1946) from Virginia’s Hampton Institute.
Clark also worked with the YWCA and participated in a class action lawsuit filed by the NAACP that led to pay equity for Black and White teachers in South Carolina.
Rosa Parks participated in one of Clark’s workshops just months before she helped launch the Montgomery bus boycott.
SC created laws forcing Clark to choose between her people and her job. She chose her people.
In 1956 South Carolina passed a statute that prohibited city and state employees from belonging to civil rights organizations.
After 40 years of teaching, Clark’s employment contract was not renewed when she refused to resign from the NAACP.
Stanford University writes by the time of her firing in 1956, Clark had already begun her side gig conducting workshops during summer vacations at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, a grassroots education center dedicated to social justice.
Myles Horton would later hire Clark full time as Highlander’s director of workshops. When the state of Tennessee forced Highlander to close in 1961, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) established the Citizenship Education Program (CEP), modeled on Clark’s citizenship workshops.
In 1975 she was elected to the Charleston, South Carolina, School Board. The following year, the governor of South Carolina reinstated her teacher’s pension after declaring that she had been unjustly terminated in 1956.
After retiring from SCLC in 1970, Clark conducted workshops for the American Field Service.
She was given a Living Legacy Award by President Jimmy Carter in 1979 and published her second memoir, Ready from Within, in 1986.
According to African American Registry, her autobiography, “Echo in My Soul,” was published in 1962. She was the keynote speaker at the first convention of the National Organization of Women (NOW), speaking on “The Need of Women Challenging Male Dominance.”
Septima P. Clark received many awards over her lifetime, including winning the American Book Award for her second biography, “Ready from Within: Septima Clark and the Civil Rights Movement,” in 1987.
She passed later that year in Charleston.