During this Black History Month I was deeply honored to be inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame at the same time as Mrs. Septima Clark—the woman Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the “Mother of the Movement.” Readers familiar with Brian Lanker’s marvelous book I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America will recognize Mrs. Clark as the proud, strong, and beautiful woman with silver braids whose portrait graces the front cover. Brian captured her indomitable spirit a few weeks before her death in 1987 at age 89 and called me with excitement saying he knew after a very few moments and a few shots that he had found his cover. Throughout much of her long life Mrs. Clark was often at odds with South Carolina leaders and made other enemies as she traveled throughout the Deep South pioneering literacy and citizenship education for Black Americans. Yet her richly deserved Hall of Fame induction symbolizes just how far South Carolina and the nation have come—in part thanks to the work of citizen heroines like Mrs. Clark.
Mrs. Clark was born in Charleston in 1898, the second of eight children born to a former slave father and laundrywoman mother. She graduated from Avery Normal Institute in 1916 with a teaching certificate, but because the city of Charleston would not hire Black teachers, she found a job in a rural community on Johns Island, South Carolina. The White teacher in that community had only three White students but was paid $85 a month, while the Black school had two teachers for 132 children and the two Black teachers were paid a combined salary of $60. It was the first of many injustices throughout her long career. But as time went on she started speaking out even when others around her would not. As she put it simply years later: “They were afraid, but I wasn’t.”
In 1919 Mrs. Clark returned to Charleston, where she volunteered for a NAACP petition effort that ultimately changed the local law prohibiting Black teachers. For the next several decades she taught primarily in Charleston and Columbia while continuing her own education in the summers—at Columbia University in New York; at Atlanta University, where W.E.B. DuBois was one of her professors; at Benedict College, where she finally received a bachelor’s degree; and at Hampton Institute; where she earned her master’s. She fought for equalization of salaries for Black and White teachers in South Carolina. After Federal District Court Judge J. Waties Waring, following the law rather than White southern mores, ordered equal pay for teachers and also ruled that Black citizens must be permitted to vote in primary elections, he and his wife and Septima became friends and social pariahs in their communities. But after forty years her career as a South Carolina public school teacher came to an abrupt halt in 1956 when the state legislature ruled that state employees could not belong to the NAACP. Mrs. Clark refused to resign or lie about her membership, and was dismissed.
Mrs. Clark signed her name to a letter to 726 other Black teachers asking them to protest the law, but only 11 of them agreed to attend a meeting with her and the superintendent, and on the day of the meeting only four showed up. She later said that effort was the big failure of her life, and she believed it failed because she tried to push the other teachers into something they weren’t ready for. The lesson she learned was that people needed to be trained first so that they would be prepared to act—and the trainings she went on to develop helped shape the course of the civil rights movement.
Mrs. Clark had already attended several meetings at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, the legendary grassroots education center devoted to social justice. In the summer of 1955 she led a workshop at Highlander on developing leadership whose participants included a shy, quiet NAACP member from Montgomery, Alabama, Mrs. Rosa Parks. After Mrs. Clark was fired from her teaching job in 1956, Highlander’s extraordinary director, Myles Horton, invited her to be Highlander’s full-time director of workshops, where she pioneered innovative programs that combined literacy education for adults with citizenship and voter education. When the state of Tennessee forced Highlander to close in 1961 Mrs. Clark continued the same work as director of education and teaching for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)’s new Citizen Education Program. Her workshops formed the basis for the Citizenship School movement she helped establish across the South.
In addition to teaching basic reading skills using familiar materials like the Sears catalog and covering practical topics like how to write checks, these “schools” taught basic civics and citizenship rights and focused on the arcane voting requirements specific to each local community that were being used to disenfranchise Black voters. Classes met on evenings and weekends in churches, store backrooms, and other available spaces. Lessons were written on dry-cleaning bags in place of blackboards. They relied on training local citizens to teach other community members; Fannie Lou Hamer was among the local leaders who volunteered. Mrs. Clark eventually helped establish and recruit and train teachers for hundreds of Citizenship Schools: “They were in people’s kitchens, in beauty parlors, and under trees in the summertime. I went all over the South, sometimes visiting three Citizenship Schools in one day…One time I heard Andy Young say that the Citizenship Schools were the base on which the whole civil rights movement was built. And that’s probably very much true.” Rosa Parks also said that while she may have sat down once, Mrs. Clark kept on working and building: “I am always very respectful and very much in awe of the presence of Septima Clark because her life story makes the effort that I have made very minute. I only hope that there is a possible chance that some of her great courage and dignity and wisdom has rubbed off on me.”
As a woman in the movement, Mrs. Clark said she felt the men around her often did not do a good job of listening to or including her or other women. Yet she observed that it was largely women who got things done: “In stories about the civil rights movement you hear mostly about the black ministers. But if you talk to the women who were there, you’ll hear another story. I think the civil rights movement would never have taken off if some women hadn’t started to speak up.” Even later in life Mrs. Clark was never hesitant to speak up. One of the injustices after her 1956 firing was that South Carolina refused to pay the pension she had earned for her forty years of teaching or the pay she would have earned in the few years before her retirement if she had not been dismissed. She did not give up on waiting for those wrongs to be righted, and in 1976 the governor reinstated her pension and in 1981 the legislature approved paying her back pay.
Although her signature accomplishment may be the programs she established for Black adults, she never lost her original and enduring passion for educating children. She celebrated her 78th birthday by becoming the first Black woman elected to the Charleston School Board. Near the end of her life she said: “Education is my big priority right now. I want people to see children as human beings and not to think of the money that it costs nor to think of the amount of time that it will take, but to think of the lives that can be developed into Americans who will redeem the soul of America and will really make America a great country.” Let’s honor Septima Clark’s legacy right now by making this priority our own with urgency and perseverance.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to staging.childrensdefense.org.
Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.