|It is good to remember, especially when faced with life's challenges, that we stand on the shoulders of many great women who have gone before us and whose legacy gives us strength. During this Women's History Month let's celebrate the great educator and civil rights leader Septima Clark, whose work and achievement is an inspiration to us all.
Septima Clark was called the "Mother of the Civil Rights Movement" since she used education as a tool to liberate and empower black people to fight against segregation and racial discrimination. But even before she began working for civil rights, Septima Clark had helped organize for equal rights for black teachers in the 1920s.
Septima Clark's courage, faith, patience, skill and intellectual and moral character was a driving force behind the civil rights movement and was fundamental to black people's literacy and access to political life in the United States. She is one of the marginalized sheroes of the civil rights movement even though she trained and inspired a majority of movement leaders, including Rosa Parks.
Septima Clark was an activist, educator, devout Christian and feminist. Born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1898, her father was a former slave and her mother, although born in Charleston, was raised in Haiti.
Septima Clark became a teacher in South Carolina public schools at the age of 18. After 40 years of teaching, she was fired because she refused to give up her membership in the NAACP. She was 58 years old at the time, but instead of considering retirement, Septima Clark went to work as director of workshops at the Highlander Folk School ("Highlander") in Tennessee. Highlander was founded by Myles Horton in 1932, as essentially a training ground for people --- both black and white --- desiring change in their communities.
Only three months after attending one of Septima Clark's workshops at Highlander in 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus.
One of Septima Clark's many contributions to the civil rights movement included the Citizenship schools she set up all over the South --- first through Highlander and then through the Southern Christian Leadership Conference ("SCLC") --- to teach blacks to read and write so they could pass "literacy tests" to be eligible to register to vote. Thousands of black people registered to vote because of Septima Clark's work either directly with them, or through one of the local people she had trained as a teacher.
Many adult blacks were unable to read or sign their own names because they had never attended school, or the schools they had attended were inferior and segregated. Septima Clark helped to change all that by traveling tirelessly all over the South to train local people to become Citizenship teachers so that they could go back into their communities to teach others. Citizenship schools taught blacks basic literacy, including how to write their names (instead of signing with an "x"), balance their checkbooks and read road signs. The schools also taught democratic principles including the United States Constitution, the way government works and how to vote in elections.
Through her Citizenship schools, Septima Clark revolutionized politics in the South. She often faced grave danger traveling through parts of the deep South where civil rights activists were beaten and lynched. She often received death threats and many of her friends were killed.
Fight Against Classism in the Movement
Through her willingness to confront class divisions within the civil rights movement Septima Clark made sure that black leaders understood the need to respect black local people in the South who were the backbone of the movement. An example of this was when Andrew Young, Septima Clark's boss at the SCLC, chartered a plane to fly in for the opening ceremonies of a new flock of recruits for Citizenship training. Septima Clark stopped him on his way to get something to eat and told him he should eat with the recruits who had just arrived by bus. When Young told her that there was no money in the budget to pay for food for the recruits she retorted that if he could use the foundation money they had gotten to run the program to rent a plane, then he could surely find two or three dollars to buy breakfast for those who had spent all night traveling on a bus to get there. If he couldn't feed the recruits then he, too, should remain hungry, she said. In the face of this blunt reasoning, Young ended up eating brown bag lunches with the new recruits.
As a feminist, Septima Clark's work on behalf of women started as early as 1955. It was that year --- before the Montgomery bus boycott --- that she spoke to black women at several churches in Montgomery and got some of them to go to Highlander for training. In 1958, she traveled to Washington, D.C. to speak to women at the National Organization for Women ("NOW") about life for black and white women in the South and she returned a few years later to talk about black womens' experiences with voter registration.
Persevering in Pursuit of her Own Education
This remarkable woman accomplished a lot during her lifetime. Although her principal and teachers recommended that she go to college when she was 18, her parents did not have the means to send her. However, she was determined to get a college education.
In 1930, at the age of 32, Septima Clark began taking summer classes at Columbia University in New York City. She began these classes primarily because she felt she was not getting the results she expected from the children she was teaching in South Carolina. Seven years later she continued at Atlanta University in Georgia where she took more courses, including one taught by W.E.B. DuBois. She persevered in her pursuit of her Bachelor's degree and finally in 1942 was awarded her degree from Benedict College. She did not stop there, however, and three years later she went on to receive a Master's degree from Hampton Institute --- at the age of 47.
Works consulted: Darlene Clark Hine, ed., Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. vol. 1 (1993); Cynthia Stokes Brown, Ready From Within: Septima Clark and the Civil Rights Movement (1990); Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 (1988).