African American Women of the Modern Civil Rights Movement – Septima Poinsette Clark

(Photo from Bob Fitch Photography Archive – Stanford University Libraries.[1])

by Madeleine Stout (@CelloWolfe)

*This article is part of a month long series on underrepresented women within the Modern Civil Rights Movement.

Until recently, women such as Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Pauli Murray, and Daisy Bates have been confined to the shadows within the history of the Modern Civil Rights Movement (1954-1965). This month-long series looks at the accomplishments and activism of women of color leading up to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963. By analyzing the lives of Baker, Clark, Murray, and Bates, women of color emerge as the backbone of the Civil Rights movement before 1963. These women are among the many that deserve a place alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., A. Philip Randolph, John Lewis, and Stokely Carmichael.

Septima Poinsette Clark was another influential matriarch of the Civil Rights Movement. Her activism focused on voter registration, citizen education, and women’s rights. Both The Crisis and Ebony magazines share no information on Septima Clark’s death or her life as an activist. As a result, the dates concerning the early years of Clark’s activism vary.[2] Clark’s father was a former slave, while her mother lived in Haiti for a time. Clark wanted to be a teacher, and she spent the majority of her life doing just that. Similar to Baker, Clark met with resistance from the patriarchal hierarchy of organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She was an independent activist who believed that the Civil Rights Movement would benefit from engaging with black communities in poor and rural areas throughout the south. Both Clark and Baker excelled at educating and inspiring others to act against white supremacy and racial inequality.[3] They also were both known for trying to stay out of the limelight and for playing parts within the development of the grassroots struggle for racial equality.

Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to Clark as the “Mother of the Movement.”[4] In contrast to his glowing referral, Septima Clark left behind little personal sources from her life, working in the shadows to educate African American men and women. Clark’s activism began in 1918-1919 when she joined the Charleston chapter of the NAACP and attempted to take up teaching there. Because Charleston law prohibited blacks from teaching students in the public school system, Clark’s first teaching job was on Johns Island, just off the coast of Charleston.[5] Clark made it her mission to end teacher segregation. She used her connections within the NAACP to lead a petition drive and shortly after the ban on black teachers was lifted.[6] After fighting teaching segregation  in Charleston, Clark devoted her attention to fighting unequal salaries between white and black educators. When she was not teaching students in elementary schools, Clark could be found helping illiterate adults learn how to read, to write, and to learn about their rights as citizens.[7] In 1935, Clark became a teacher in the South Carolina Adult Education Program where she helped illiterate black soldiers learn to read and write.[8]

In the 1940s, Clark earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in education from Benedict College of Columbia and the Hampton Institute, and became instrumental in multiple organizations. She joined the Black Columbia Young Women’s Christian Association, Federated Women’s Club of South Carolina, the state teachers’ association, and the Columbia Chapter of the NAACP.[9] She spent her time in these organizations engaging in the local community of Columbia and continued her work when she moved to Charleston. Clark not only continued to fight for equality between educators, but also advocated for community advancement. In the mid-1940s, Clark worked with fellow activists Elizabeth Waring, wife of Judge Waties Waring, Thurgood Marshall, and Harold R. Boulware, to end unequal pay among teachers.[10] Throughout the 1940s, Clark involved herself in community outreach programs, she taught not only children, but adults the importance of citizenship.

Septima Clark 2

(Septima Clark (Right) photo found through NewYork Times courtesy of Bob Fitch Archive/Stanford University Library.)

In the 1950s, Clark became more involved in teaching and in her Civil Rights activism. In 1954, Clark travelled to the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee to continue her training as an activist. The Highlander Folk School was an institution that encouraged Civil Rights leaders to interact and live together. The school was known for defying the state law prohibiting black and white individuals from eating and sleeping in the same spaces.[11] Clark repeatedly returned to the Highlander Folk School after 1954. At first she attended the workshops and then became a teacher and leader within the school. It was at the Highlander Folk School that Clark met Rosa Parks, in a workshop which Clark was directing.[12] This is another common connection between Clark and Baker; both women influenced and taught Rosa Parks about leadership within the Civil Rights Movement. While Clark found a place to continue inspiring ordinary people that their actions could lead to change, her job as a teacher met resistance.

 In 1955, the South Carolina legislature reacted to the Brown v. Board of Education decision by ruling  that no city or state employee could belong to the NAACP. As a result in 1956 Clark lost her job teaching and devoted the next few years to working at the Highlander Folk School, leading workshops and influencing future activists.[13] In the 1960s, she developed and launched the Citizenship Schools, funded by loans from the Highlander Folk School. These schools were disguised from southern whites by the installation of a grocery store at the front of the building.[14] Charles Payne defined the goal of the Citizenship Schools as to “create involved citizens, not just voters.”[15] Clark convinced Ella Baker to visit the Highlander Folk School in 1960. Clark and Baker saw the Highlander Folk School as a way to educate students in tactics of Civil Rights leaders.[16]

Under Clark’s leadership, the Citizenship Schools students created credit unions, nursing homes, a kindergarten school, and low-income housing projects. By 1961, the Citizenship Schools had spread throughout the South and Septima Clark had convinced the SCLC to bring the schools under the wing of the organization.[17] It took pressure from both Septima Clark and Ella Baker to convince Martin Luther King, Jr. to take over the program. Under the SCLC, 897 Citizenship Schools were established throughout the South.[18] Both women pointed out that the Citizenship Schools had not only led to the education of individuals in poor and rural southern areas, but also to an increase in voter registration of blacks in the South, an increase that was greater than that of the SCLC voter registration drives.[19] One of the strengths of Clark’s activism is that she, like Baker, believed that voter registration and education of blacks in the rural south were not the end goal, but the first step towards achieving equality in the United States.

In 1961, Clark became the SCLC director of education and training which made her the first woman elected to the Executive Board of the SCLC. This differed from Baker’s position in the founding of the SCLC when she held a temporary interim position until a man could be found to take over. Clark was recruited and elected by Martin Luther King, Jr. As a result, she had to leave her position at the Highlander Folk School as a Director of Workshops and Chief Fundraiser after working there for three years from 1957-1960. Clark took the position at the SCLC when she was in her late sixties. Her position on the SCLC staff required her to travel across the South directing workshops on how to become involved in non-violent grassroots activism.[20] In 1963, Clark’s work within the SCLC had gained attention for helping educate and register over 21,000 blacks to vote throughout the South.[21] As a result of Clark’s travels in the South, black people were able to register to vote and became active participants in body politics against white supremacy.

Not only was Clark able to fight against racial inequality, she advocated for the equal rights of women. Clark believed that by training women in citizenship education and creating teachers out of her female students, they would be able to realize their worth in society, although the main objective remained training quality educators.[22] Clark stayed on her position with the SCLC until 1970 when she finally retired.[23] Clark’s dedication to citizenship education influenced the Civil Rights Movement’s voter registration drives. She demonstrated the importance of education to voter registration and the Civil Rights Movement and inspired countless leaders in the Movement. Ella Baker and Septima Clark are known as two of the matriarchs of the Civil Rights Movement. Their engagement with and development of grassroots activism helped inspire and educate the masses of the Civil Rights Movement.

[1] “Clark, Septima Poinsette.” Stanford, Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute.

[2] An article in Time by Erin Blakemore claims Clark became a member of the NAACP in 1919, while Lynne Olson states it was in 1918 that Clark joined the organization.

[3] Olson, Freedom’s Daughters, 216-217.

[4] Septima Clark, Echo in My Soul (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1962) 131-133.

[5] Erin Blakemore. “The Woman Who Schooled the Civil Rights Movement” Time (New York, NY) February 16th, 2016. See also, Rosetta E. Ross. Witnessing and Testifying: Black Women, Religion, and Civil Rights (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003) 60-61.

[6] Erin Blakemore. “The Woman Who Schooled the Civil Rights Movement” Time.

[7] Ross, Witnessing and Testifying, 60-63.

[8] Grace Jordan McFadden, “Septima P. Clark and the Struggle for Human Rights” in 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, 1990) 88.

[9] Ross, Witnessing and Testifying, 66-67.

[10] Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkley: University of California Press, 1995) 68-70. See also, McFadden, “Septima P. Clark and the Struggle for Human Rights” in Women in the Civil Rights Movement, 88.

[11] Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 70-71.

[12] Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 71.

[13] Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 72-73. See also, Jacqueline A. Rouse “We Seek to Know…in Order to Speak the Truth” in Sister’s in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement. Ed. Bettye Collier-Thomas and V.P. Franklin (New York: New York University Press, 2001) 106-107.

[14] Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 73-74.

[15] Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 75.

[16] McFadden, “Septima P. Clark and the Struggle for Human Rights” in Women in the Civil Rights Movement, 88-90.

[17] Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 75-76.

[18] Jacqueline A. Rouse “We Seek to Know…in Order to Speak the Truth” in Sister’s in the Struggle, 112-113.

[19] Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 75.

[20] McFadden, “Septima P. Clark and the Struggle for Human Rights” in Women in the Civil Rights Movement, 88-90.

[21] “Thousands of Dixie Negroes Studying to Win Right to Vote.” Chicago Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1960-1973), Mar 25, 1963. While Clark is mentioned in this article, Martin Luther King publicly received the credit for the actions of Clark’s Citizenship Schools.

[22] McFadden, “Septima P. Clark and the Struggle for Human Rights” in Women in the Civil Rights Movement, 94-95.

[23] Olson, Freedom’s Daughters, 223.

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