There are many names synonymous with the Civil Rights Movement, but there are countless lesser-known individuals who played a critical role in the fight for civil rights. While Septima Clark is not a household name, her impact on the Movement is undeniable. Septima Poinsette Clark was born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1898 to Peter and Victoria Poinsette. Peter was born into slavery while Clark’s mother, Victoria, was never enslaved and worked as a launderer. Septima Clark attended public school and worked to earn money to attend the Avery Normal Institute, a private secondary school for African Americans. Although Clark qualified as a teacher, she was not able to work in public schools in Charleston in 1916 because they did not hire African American teachers at the time. As a result, Clark left home to teach on Johns Island, South Carolina. Clark’s life was deeply affected by racism and segregation and this fueled her desire to transform her community through activism. Septima Clark realized that segregation would continue unless Black people were empowered through voting rights and an understanding of how the political system worked. Clark made it her mission to teach Southern Blacks what they needed to know to understand the political process.
Septima Clark’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement began after the end of World War II upon her return to Charleston in 1947. Black men were returning home from fighting in the war and they were finished with segregation, even if segregation was not yet finished with them. This was around the same time that Clark began to get involved in local civics through her involvement with the Young Women’s Christian Association. Clark had already joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) years earlier while still working on Johns Island. Upon Clark’s return to Charleston, she realized that the majority of Black people were not registered to vote in the state for several reasons. including intimidation tactics employed by racist white Southerners looking to protect their own interests while disenfranchising the Black community.
Through her activism Clark met many Black and white racial justice advocates, including Elizabeth Waring and Judge Waties Waring. Clark began to interact with white people, which was considered taboo at the time. Her social status in Charleston was that of a daughter of a formerly enslaved man and a working-class mother. Despite her community activism and desire to help her neighbors, Septima Clark was not seen as good enough to mingle with some of her peers due to classism and the caste system that existed in Charleston. This caused her family stress, as they did not want their neighbors seeing whites entering or leaving their family home. They also worried for Clark’s safety and the negative attention it would bring their family whenever she was entertained at the homes of white people. Septima Clark, on the other hand, loved being in community with people from various backgrounds and appreciated the opportunity to do so through her work with the Warings. In her autobiography Ready From Within, Clark reflected, “I was very happy for the kinds of people that I could meet at Mrs. Waring’s house. I couldn’t meet them otherwise.”1
In the early 1950s Clark went to the Highlander Folk School for the first time and worked, ate, and slept alongside an interracial group of racial justice fighters from across the South. Clark began the citizen education program while working at Highlander. The program would later be transferred to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Septima Clark met many other civil rights activists through her work at Highlander which eventually connected her to the work taking place at the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Septima Clark began working for the Highlander Folk School after South Carolina passed a law in 1955 that forbid city and state employees from being members of the NAACP. This was part of a concerted effort in the deep South to eliminate the NAACP after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate schools. According to Clark, “If whites could belong to the Ku Klux Klan, then surely Blacks could belong to the NAACP.”2 Refusing to hide her membership with the organization, Septima Clark was later dismissed from her teaching position for refusing to cut ties with the NAACP.
It was not before long that Clark was able to find a job with the Highlander Folk School where she began the citizenship education program. A native of Johns Island, South Carolina, Esau Jenkins was instrumental in the work Clark accomplished with the program. Jenkins was a former student of Clark and he was known for his community activism and his ongoing devotion to elevate the conditions on Johns Island. Clark and Jenkins worked collectively with the Highlander Folk School to secure a location for the first citizenship school that would help Black people learn the South Carolina laws and enable them to register to vote. Clark and Jenkins knew that racist Southerners would not respond kindly to the idea of Black people becoming empowered through the political process so they had to be extra careful when selecting a location for the first citizenship school. They found a space with two rooms in the back of the building and a front room to serve as a grocery store which fooled whites and belied the larger mission that was happening on the site, the liberation of Black people through civics education.
Initially Myles Horton, the founder of the Highlander Folk School, thought it would be sufficient for Septima Clark to enter a community, speak to a large group of people and take them to register to vote, but Clark knew better and insisted their efforts would be futile if the people did not fully understand the laws by learning how to read. Even more than being empowered with the right to vote, Clark knew that in supporting Black people with the ability to independently read and write, they were transforming lives, families and communities. As Clark herself pointed out, “In 1955 only about 25% of voting-age blacks were registered in the eleven deep south states. More than 3 ½ million weren’t registered, and many of them couldn’t read.”3
Through her collaboration with other activists including Esau Jenkins, and her cousin, Bernice Robinson, a beautician and the first teacher in the Citizenship Schools, Clark learned how to teach Black adults to read in two to three months. Clark and Robinson often took their cues from the adults they worked with to learn what was important to them and they used that information to teach literacy. Clark eventually helped train hundreds of teachers for the Citizenship Schools which were held in various locations, including beauty parlors as well as outdoors under a tree during nice weather. Of all the skills that Clark felt a teacher should possess as a Citizenship School teacher, listening was at the top of her list. Clark traveled between different Citizenship Schools to ensure that textbooks were not being used and teachers were instead relying on the interests of the adult students to guide their lessons. Clark knew that participants would feel more connected to the lessons if they aligned with the issues that impacted their lives on a daily basis. Clark’s work training hundreds of teachers led to a dramatic change in the number of Black voters in the Deep South. By 1970 almost 2 million more Black people were voting when compared to the number of Black voters in 1955.
Clark’s impact on the Civil Rights Movement was undeniable, which is noteworthy given the consequences that came with her continuous efforts to ensure racial justice. Clark and her co-conspirators faced constant harassment and stress because of their activism. Despite Clark’s clear leadership skills and ability to achieve results no matter the task at hand, Clark’s input was not always respected due to her gender. Like many other activists, Clark had health issues that were brought on by a variety of sources, including the disrespect and sexism that she faced, along with the constant stress from her intense work schedule and the ongoing harassment for her activism.
Clark worked alongside Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Stokely Carmichael, as well as countless others during the Civil Rights Movement. Septima Clark was a transformative force in the Movement and her name deserves to be spoken in conversations that uplift the leaders who fought tirelessly to help advance civil rights. Clark dealt with racism, sexism, and classism in her personal and professional life but she never allowed that to deter her from the larger mission to advance the rights of Black people. Clark was an unshakeable force and an audacious Black woman who left her mark on the Movement and in the world.