May 3, 1898 – Birth of Septima Clark, Educator, Civil Rights Activist, Called “The Grandmother of the Civil Rights Movement”

Septima Poinsette Clark was born on this day in history in Charleston, South Carolina. She faced racial and financial obstacles both in obtaining an education for herself and later, for teaching children when she was adult. 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. She developed innovative methods for teaching adults to read and write, based on everyday materials like the Sears catalog.

Septima Poinsette Clark

Clark also furthered her own education during summer breaks. 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.

Stanford’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Institute reports Clark participated in a class action lawsuit filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that led to pay equity for black and white teachers in South Carolina. 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. 

By this time, however, Clark was conducting civil rights workshops at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, a grassroots education center dedicated to social justice. Believing that literacy and political empowerment are inextricably linked, Clark taught people basic literacy skills, their rights and duties as U.S. citizens, and how to fill out voter registration forms. Rosa Parks participated in one of Clark’s workshops just months before she helped launch the Montgomery bus boycott.

Clark (left) with Rosa Parks at the Highlander Folk School in 1955, right before the Montgomery bus boycott.

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. According to the Stanford Institute MLKJr. site:

Clark became SCLC’s director of education and teaching, conducting teacher training and developing curricula. King appreciated Clark’s “expert direction” of the CEP, which he called “the bulwark of SCLC’s program department” (King, 11 August 1965). Although Clark found that most men at SCLC “didn’t respect women too much,” she thought that King “really felt that black women had a place in the movement” (Clark, 25 July 1976; McFadden, “Septima Clark,” 93).”

 

She became known as the “Queen mother” or “Grandmother” of the 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.

Clark with a student in Wilcox County, Alabama

In 1978, Clark was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by the College of Charleston.[20] 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.

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.

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