Clark, Septima 1898–1987

views updated May 09 2018

Septima Clark 18981987

Educator, civil rights activist

At a Glance

Painful Losses

Discovering Highlander

Ready from Within

Integration Was What Worried Them

I Want That Dream Enforced

Selected writings


Little has been written about Septima Clarks life, and many Americans have never heard of her; yet those who knew and worked with Clark remember her as one of the most influential women in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. A schoolteacher for most of her life, she came to activism through teaching and remained committed to the idea that education was the key to political empowerment. Her citizenship schools, which combined the teaching of literacy with voting rights organization, spread throughout the southeastern United States and were, in large part, responsible for the registration of thousands of African American southerners to vote.

Clarks passion for racial equality stemmed from her experiences as a teacher and a mother in the segregated South; she wrote in her 1962 autobiography Echo in My Soul: There is nothing worse than having to teach a black child that none of the pleasant things in life are for him explaining why the native soil is such a hard place for the native to grow in.

Septima Poinsette Clark was born on May 3, 1898, in Charleston, South Carolina. Her father, Peter Poinsette, was born a slave; after being freed, he worked low-paying jobs as a cook, caterer, and custodian. Her mother, Victoria Warren Anderson Poinsette, had grown up free and financially comfortable in Haiti. All her married life, Victoria hated being poor and deeply resented having to take in washing to support the family. In a 1981 interview for Eliot Wiggintons Refuse to Stand Silently By, Clark told Peter Wood that her mother used to get angry with her father because he refused to condemn the whites who mistreated him. Clark always believed that she had learned equally from her two very different parents: from her father, she learned nonviolence and patience; from her mother, she got courage. As she told Wood, her mother wasnt afraid of anyone, and so when I had to face the [Ku Klux] Klan [when working for the civil rights movement], I never felt afraid.

Clark dedicated her life to the one thing her parents valued in common: education. The only thing I remember that my father would whip you for was if you didnt want to go school, she told Wood. A study routine was strictly enforced; between homework and chores, the only time the Poinsette children were allowed to play was on Friday afternoon.

At a Glance

Born Septima Poinsette, May 3, 1898, in Charleston, SC; died December 15, 1987, in Charleston; daughter of Peter (a freed slave, cook, and custodial worker) and Victoria Warren Anderson (a laundress) Poinsette; married Nerie David Clark, May 5, 1920 (separated before his death in 1924); children: Victoria (died at three weeks of age), Nerie, Jr. Education: Studied under W. E. B. Du Bois at Atlanta University, 1937; Benedict College, B.A., 1942; Hampton Institute, M.A., 1946.

Promise Land School, Johns Island, SC, teacher, 1916-19 and 1926-29; Avery Institute, Charleston, SC, teacher, 1919-21; teacher in McClennanville, SC, 1921-22, Columbia Public School System, 1929-47, and Charleston Public School System, 1947-56. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), membership chair in Charleston office, 1947-56; fired by Charleston School Board for NAACP membership, 1956. Young Womens Christian Association (YWCA), member of committee on race relations and first black member of central board, 1948. Began conducting workshops at Tennessees Highlander Folk School, 1955; director of workshops at Highlander, 1956-61, and head of citizenship schools, beginning 1957; arrested in raid on Highlander, 1959. Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), director of education, 1961-70. Charleston School Board, first black female member, 1974-82.

Member: NAACP, SCLC.

Awards: Martin Luther King, Jr., Award from SCLC, 1970; National Education Associations Race Relations Award, 1976; honorary doctorate, College of Charleston, 1978 Living Legacy Award from President Jimmy Carter, 1979; Order of the Palmetto, 1982; American Book Award, 1987, for Ready from Within.

In 1916, after Clark graduated from the Avery Institute, a private secondary school, she looked for a teaching job. At that time, people of color could not teach in the Charleston public schools. The Promise Land School on Johns Island, South Carolina, needed a teacher, so she moved there. Johns Island provided Clarks first exposure to rural desperation. She told Wood: The people there were virtual slaves. They had no choice but to work in the fields for the white people. Thats one of the reasons we had so many babies die. A mother was only allowed to stay two or three days in the house after giving birth, and then she had to be back in the fields.

Painful Losses

In 1919 Clark went back to Charleston and taught at the Avery Institute. After two years, she moved to the town of McClellanville to teach in the public schools. There she met Nerie Clark, a Navy cook, and after a short courtship, he asked her to marry him. Years later, Clark admitted that she had consented because she hadnt had much experience with men. She liked Nerie and was afraid that if she turned him down, she might never have another chance to marry and have children. Her mother bitterly opposed the match, mostly because Nerie was from North Carolinaanyone from out of South Carolina was suspect, Clark laughingly told Wood years later in Refuse to Stand Silently By.

The marriage was not a harmonious one. As Clark explained to Brian Lanker, photojournalist and author of the photo essay collection I Dream a World, Nerie did not think that women had the right to do anything worthwhile. He always felt that a woman should stay in her place, the house so we could not agree.

Their first baby, Victoria Clark, lived only a few weeks. Clark blamed herself; she told Wood, I felt I was being punished for having disobeyed my mother. Her husband abandoned her shortly after baby Victorias deathand before the birth of their second child, Nerie, Jr., Septima Clark lived for a while with her husbands family, then went back to teaching on Johns Island. However, she found the health conditions on the island too dangerous for Nerie, Jr.the child was frequently ill. She also found it nearly impossible to support her son on her meager teachers salary, so she sent him to live with his grandmother in Hickory, North Carolina, where he spent most of his childhood. The separation between mother and son was painful, but Clark knew he would be well cared for.

Discovering Highlander

She stayed on Johns Island from 1926 to 1929, then settled in Columbia, South Carolina. There she taught elementary school and helped several other teachers and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to prepare a 1945 court case that forced the Columbia Public School System to make black and white teachers salaries equal.

In 1947, after more than 17 years in Columbia, she moved back to Charleston to take care of her mother, where she continued her involvement with the NAACP, serving as the Charleston branchs membership chairperson. She also worked with the Young Womens Christian Association (YWCA) in Charleston, first as part of a committee on race relations, then as the first black central board member. Through her YWCA work, she heard about Tennessees Highlander Folk School, a center for civil rights organizing and dialogue that was run by activist/educator Myles Horton. Clark was intrigued by the schoola unusual place where blacks and whites could come together and talk about race relations and the growing civil rights movement. She visited the Highlander Folk School in the summer of 1954. I was really surprised to find out that a white woman would sleep in the same room that I slept in, or eat at the same table, she recollected in the interview with Wood. We just didnt do that in Charleston. At that point in U.S. history, it took an enormous amount of courage for the school to go against the laws and social customs that prohibited blacks and whites from working together.

From meeting and talking to white people from different backgrounds at Highlander, Clark learned that there were many other forms of discrimination and oppression besides racism; she later told Cynthia Stokes Brown, coauthor of the biography Ready from Within, I found out the low income whites were considered dirt under the feet of the wealthy whites, just as the blacks were.

Ready from Within

In 1956 South Carolina passed a statute prohibiting city employees from joining civil rights organizations. The Charleston School Board then fired Clark because she refused to resign from the NAACP. Her efforts to mobilize other black teachers to strike against the statute were unsuccessful. Nearly 30 years later, Clark told Brown that she would always see these attempts as one of the failures of my life, because I tried to push them into something they werent ready for. That taught me a good lesson. The experience led her to an ideal that served her well throughout her organizing and teaching career and would later title her biography: social change could not be dictated by an outside leadera community must be ready from within.

Myles Horton immediately offered her a job at Highlander, where she began the citizenship schools program, which quickly spread throughout the southeastern United States. Dedicated to both literacy and political empowerment, these schools taught people to write their names, balance check books, fill out a voting ballot, and understand their rights and duties as U.S. citizens. At the heart of the citizenship schools was Clarks belief that political rights are inseparable from education. As she explained in Ready from Within, I just thought that you couldnt get people to register and vote until you teach them to read and write and I was so right.

Integration Was What Worried Them

The Highlander Folk School was frequently raided and harassed by the local police. In one such raid, Clarka well-known teetotallerwas arrested and charged with selling liquor. But, as she told historian John Egerton in Shades of Gray, integration was what really worried them. The school was frequently said to be a hotbed of communist activity. Clark observed in Ready from Within that anyone who was against segregation was called a communist. White southerners couldnt believe that a southerner could have the idea of racial equality; they thought it had to come from somewhere else.

By 1961 the citizenship schools had grown too big for Highlander to effectively administer on its own. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which, at that time, was the leading church-based civil rights organization, expressed a willingness to take over the program, so Clark went to work for the SCLC as director of education.

In Ready from Within, Clark explained that when she first joined the SCLC, she, like many of the other women in the group, thought it was up to the men to do the talking. But later on, I found out that women had a lot to say, and what they had to say was really worthwhile. So we started talking, and have been talking quite a bit since that time. Clark believed that the civil rights movement would never have taken off if some women hadnt started to speak up.

Clark felt that some of the men in the civil rights movement were, at best, slow to acknowledge the womens contributions. She told Brown, Those men didnt have any faith in women, none whatsoever. Though Clark had tremendous respect for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.s vision and his nonviolent example, she had a great feeling that [he] didnt think too much of women, either. She recalled that when she traveled with him, he would say, Anything I cant answer, ask Mrs. Clark. But he didnt mean it, because I never did get the chance to speak.

After she retired from the SCLC in 1970, Clark continued to be actively involved in civil rights struggles, particularly surrounding education and day care. In 1974 she was elected to serve on the Charleston School Boardthe same school board that had fired her nearly 20 years before. To Clark, that represented a real triumph in the civil rights movement. It just goes to show, she told Egerton, that we can get something done nonviolently.

I Want That Dream Enforced

However, Clark strongly believed that the civil rights struggle had not won complete equality for blacks. Segregation laws were defeated, but, as she observed in the interview with Wood, more subtle things remained. What about your legislature? What about your city council?, she asked. Im the only black on the school board, and when I get off I wonder if there will be another one.

In the interview with Lanker for I Dream a World, Clark looked back on her lifes work: Dr. King had a dream that all people should be free that they should be able to do all the things they want to do in America. I think were nearer. I want people to say, This is my dream and I want it carried forth. I want that dream enforced.

Clark believed that struggle would always go on, and she spoke out against injustice up to the very end of her lifefrom environmental destruction to President Ronald Reagans education budget cuts. She saw such protest as a crucial part of being a U.S. citizen. As she put it in Ready from Within, Idont ever expect to see a utopia.I think there will always be something that youre going to have to work on, always.

Selected writings

Clark, Septima, Echo in My Soul, Dutton, 1962.

Clark, Septima, and Cynthia Stokes Brown, Ready from Within, Wild Trees Press, 1986.



Branch, Taylor, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963, Touchstone, 1988.

Clark, Septima, Echo in My Soul, Dutton, 1962.

Clark, Septima, and Cynthia Stokes Brown, Ready from Within, Wild Trees Press, 1986.

Egerton, John, Shades of Gray: Dispatches from the Modern South, Louisiana State University Press, 1991.

Horton, Myles, and Herbert and Judith Kohl, The Long Haul: An Autobiography, Doubleday, 1990.

Lanker, Brian, I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America, Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1989, p. 164.

Wigginton, Eliot, Refuse to Stand Silently By: An Oral History of Grass Roots Social Activism in America, Doubleday, 1991, pp. 6-19 and 399.

Yarborough, Tinsley E., A Passion for Justice: J. Wattes Waring and Civil Rights, Oxford University Press, 1987.


Chicago Tribune, November 15, 1991.

Houston Chronicle, January 1, 1993.

New York Times, February 23, 1992.

Washington Post, February 12, 1990.

Additional information for this profile was taken from a United Press International wire report dated June 30, 1982; interviews with Clark are part of the University of North Carolinas Southern Oral History Program Collection.

Liza Featherstone

Clark, Septima Poinsette (1898–1987)

views updated May 14 2018

Clark, Septima Poinsette (1898–1987)

African-American educator, civil-rights activist, humanitarian, training director for Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and driving force behind the influential Citizenship Schools. Born Septima Poinsette on May 3, 1898, in Charleston, South Carolina; died on December 15, 1987, on John's Island, South Carolina; daughter of Peter Porcher Poinsette (born a slave on the Poinsette plantation, later worked as a caterer on a steamship) and Victoria Warren Anderson Poinsette (freeborn in Charleston and reared in Haiti); graduated (12th grade) from Avery Normal Institute, a private school to train black teachers in Charleston, S.C., 1916; awarded A.B., Benedict College, 1942; granted M.A., Hampton Institute, 1946; married Nerie David Clark, May 1920 (died of kidney failure in December 1925); children: daughter (who died within a month of birth); son, Nerie David, Jr. (b. 1925).


Martin Luther King Award from SCLC (1970); Race Relations Award from National Education Association (1976); the Septima P. Clark Expressway named after her in Charleston (1978); honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, College of Charleston(1978); received Order of the Palmetto from Governor Richard Riley (1982).

Unable to teach in Charleston public schools because of race, obtained a position at the Promiseland School on John's Island, South Carolina; took a position with Avery Normal School and joined in a political crusade to change the law barring black teachers in the Charleston public schools (1919); enrolled in college, earning her bachelor's degree (1942) and master's (1946); as a longtime member of the NAACP, refused to renounce her affiliation when South Carolina passed a law prohibiting NAACP membership for state or city employees; thus, fired from her teaching job at the Henry Archer School (1956); hired as director of education for Highlander Folk School (HFS) in Tennessee by Myles Horton for adult literacy programs; taught skills to enable deep South blacks to qualify to vote and become effective citizens in her Citizenship Schools, based at HFS; because of harassment by Tennessee officials at Highlander, her citizenship training was moved to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), where she continued to conduct literacy training programs that substantially increased the rolls of black voters (early 1960s); retired from SCLC (1970), age 72; elected to the Charleston School Board (1976).

Septima Clark had been teaching successfully for 40 years when she was suddenly fired for being a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). At age 58, Septima Clark was about to become a legend of the civil-rights era.

Septima Poinsette Clark was born just as the prejudicial "Jim Crow" codes of the South were being solidified, two years after the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. In that decision, the Court found no violation of the Constitution in the new segregation laws being imposed throughout the South. Having witnessed the transition from slavery to freedom, it must have been particularly hard for her parents' generation to bear this dramatic retreat from the march to freedom. Clark told Grace McFadden that her mother had been a proud woman because she had been free-born, never a slave. "I never gave a white woman a drink of water," Septima recalled her mother saying. In contrast, Septima's father, an extremely gentle man, had experienced slavery on the Joel Poinsette plantation near Georgetown, South Carolina. Fortunately, Clark inherited a bit of both personalities. "His nonviolence helped me to work with the people" in rough places of Mississippi and Texas, noted Clark, "and her haughtiness helped me to stay, enduring the harassment."

After a secure childhood in Charleston, Septima attended Avery Normal Institute through the 12th grade, graduating in 1916 with a license to teach. Her first position was in a small school on John's Island, where she and another teacher taught 132 children. Though the white teacher at the whites-only school on the island had only three pupils, she received a salary of $85 per month, compared to Septima's $35. This experience figured significantly in Clark's efforts on behalf of salary equalization, which she began after returning to teach at her alma mater, the Avery Normal Institute, in 1919. Inspired by the rhetoric of black leaders Edwin Halston and Thomas Ezekiel Miller, whom she heard address the issue of unequal pay for black teachers at NAACP meetings, Clark participated in a petition drive, going door to door for signatures. In addition to equal pay, the campaign worked to secure for blacks the right to teach in the Charleston public schools and the right to be named as school principals. As she has written in her autobiography, Echo in My Soul, the petition-drive proved effective in prompting the state legislature to enact their demands into law in 1920.

Septima married Nerie Clark in 1920. It was not a happy union. During the early years of their marriage, Nerie was in the navy, and a daughter died soon after birth. In 1925, after the birth of their son Nerie, Jr., the couple separated. That same year, Nerie Clark died of kidney failure; Septima remained close to his parents.

To provide for Nerie, Jr., Septima Clark moved in with her in-laws in Hickory, North Carolina. Then, in 1929, she moved to Columbia, South Carolina. Unable to support her son, she sent him back to Hickory to live with his paternal grandparents until he completed high school. During this period, Clark returned to school to earn an A.B. from Benedict College (1942). In the summer of 1944, she began working toward her M.A. at Hampton Institute. Taking courses for three summers, she earned the degree in 1946. Earlier, in 1937, she had taken a course, under W.E.B. Du Bois at Atlanta University, entitled "Interpersonal Relationships of Human Beings." Du Bois predicted a time when the segregation laws of the South would be abolished. His example of teaching and activism provided Clark with an inspiring model for her later work at Highlander and with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) Citizenship Schools.

In Columbia, Clark began working with Wil Lou Gray of the South Carolina Adult Education Program, who was developing a literacy training program for the U.S. army at Camp Jackson. The emphasis was on practical literacy, that is, students learned to sign their names, read paychecks, maps, bus schedules, and the like, as well as basic arithmetic. Clark would use this model for citizenship training at the Highlander School and for the SCLC, more than 20 years later.

It was while teaching in the elementary level at the Booker T. Washington School in Columbia that Clark resumed her political fight for better wages for South Carolina's black teachers. Another renowned civil-rights leader, Modjeska M. Simkins , was a math teacher in the same school. They, along with principal J. Andrew Simmons, challenged the lower pay scale for black teachers in federal court. Assisted by the NAACP, which sent Thurgood Marshall to represent them, the case was argued before Judge Julius Waties Waring of the District Court for the Eastern District of South Carolina. Waring issued a favorable ruling requiring equal salaries for black and white teachers. As a result, Clark's salary was increased. "When I went to Columbia, my salary was $65 a month. When I left I was getting almost $400 a month," she wrote in Echo.

In 1947, Septima moved back to Charleston to be nearer her mother, who had suffered a stroke. That year, Judge Waring was involved in another case brought by the NAACP, Elmore v. Rice, in which he ruled that the Southern practice of holding "whites only" primaries violated the U.S. Constitution. Waring's pro-civil-rights decisions made him extremely unpopular in the white community of Charleston and elsewhere in the state. To make matters worse, Clark developed a friendship with the Warings after she extended an invitation to Mrs. Waring to speak out against segregation before the (black) YWCA, an event reported in the newspapers. After repeated harassments and a number of violent threats against the Warings by white supremacists, the couple decided to leave the South and move to New York City in 1950. Septima Clark was also criticized by her family and friends, and by the administration of her school, for having transgressed the racial code when she visited the Warings' home and entered through the front door.

In 1954, Clark paid a visit to the Highlander School, run by Myles Horton, near Chattanooga, Tennessee. There, she found blacks and whites living and working together. The experience had a powerful impact on her, she told Cynthia Brown , because that "wasn't done" in South Carolina. When she returned to Highlander in the summer of 1955, escorting groups from South Carolina to attend integration workshops, she chanced to meet Rosa Parks , an attendee from Montgomery, Alabama. Parks appeared meek and timid, writes Clark in Ready from Within; thus, she was surprised when Parks made headlines that year by refusing to move to the back of the bus, that refusal precipitated the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Septima Poinsette Clark">

The greatest evil in our country today is not racism but ignorance.

—Septima Poinsette Clark

Simkins, Modjeska M. (b. 1899)

African-American civil-rights activist and educator. Born Mary Modjeska Monteith on December 5, 1899, in South Carolina; eldest child of Henry Clarence Monteith and Rachel Evelyn (Hull) Monteith; Benedict College, A.B., 1921; also attended Columbia University, Morehouse College, University of Michigan, and Eastern Michigan University (then Michigan State Normal School); married Andrew Whitfield Simkins (a businessman).

In 1931, after teaching at the Booker T. Washington School in Columbia, South Carolina, Modjeska Simkins was named "Director of Negro Work" for the South Carolina Tuberculosis Association. For the next 11 years, she set up clinics for TB testing at schools, churches, and sometimes on the plantations; she also circulated a newsletter and held conferences. When a jittery state senate demanded that all state employees, including Simkins, break from the NAACP, she refused and was discreetly fired. She then began her long campaign as an agitator for civil rights.

The NAACP continued to win segregation cases, the most noteworthy being the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas Supreme Court case of 1954, declaring segregated school systems illegal. Subsequently, Southern state policymakers initiated campaigns of repression against the NAACP and other civil-rights organizations. In South Carolina, in April of 1956, the state legislature passed a law making it illegal for employees of the state or city governments to belong to a civil-rights group. Since Clark would not renounce or hide her NAACP membership, she was fired from her teaching position at the Henry Archer School in Charleston (as were ten other blacks). The 58-year-old Clark, with 40 years experience as a teacher, also lost her pension. (Twenty years later, the state legislature would yield to pressure from the National Education Association and grant her a small pension of $3,600 per year.)

Myles Horton took this opportunity to recruit Clark to work at the Highlander School, located on a 200-acre farm about 50 miles to the northeast of Chattanooga, outside the town of Monteagle. Hired full-time to direct the workshops, Clark expanded this into a general program of citizenship training that eventually qualified thousands of Southern blacks to pass the literacy tests that enabled them to vote.

The Highlander School, like other organizations promoting integration and civil rights, soon drew fire from the authorities. It had often been called a "communist" organization by its critics, including the local paper. In 1957, when Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed a group assembled in honor of Highlander's 25th anniversary, a photograph was published of King standing near another man, apparently unknown to King, who was there to report the event for The Daily Worker, an American Communist Party newspaper. Reproduced widely, the photograph even adorned billboards, said Clark, to prove that King was a communist and Highlander was a "communist training center."

Such publicity attracted the attention of the Tennessee state legislature, which debated the legality of the Highlander organization. In July of 1959, the state police raided Highlander on a warrant for illegally selling liquor. They seized some dusty jugs from the basement as evidence and, because she was the manager of Highlander at the time, locked Clark in jail overnight. As a result of the raid, Highlander had its charter revoked. A panel of admittedly biased jurors, writes Donna Langston , found the school guilty on three trumped-up charges. The school property, valued at $175,000, was confiscated by the state.

Clark did not remain idle long. She developed "Citizenship Schools" in a number of places throughout the South. Her prototype was set up on John's Island, off the South Carolina coast, where most of the island's black population could not read or write. Secretly, Highlander paid for the rental of a classroom and for minimal supplies, fearing that whites would put an end to the schools if they learned of them. As William Ayers writes in the Harvard Educational Review: "Learning to read in the South of Ella Baker and Septima Clark was a subversive activity, an activity that many thought could change the fundamental structure of the Jim Crow system."

The training programs began by teaching the non-traditional students to write their names in cursive script, as required on the ballot forms. It then moved to practical reading and writing, drawing content from the daily routines of the students. The schools were organized around work schedules. Classes were more often held during winter months because there was less field work to be done then. Clark hoped that graduates would become the next wave of teachers, thereby multiplying the effect of her efforts. By 1961, 82 teachers from the Citizenship Schools were holding classes in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

Though she began having health problems soon after her ouster in Charleston, Clark did not let it slow her work. In 1957, working at Highlander with some women from Montgomery, she suffered a heart attack and spent four days in the Sewanee hospital, integrating it in the process. It was the "first time a black person had ever been in the Sewanee hospital," she told Brown. She experienced a second heart attack in January of 1961, which forced her to rest for several weeks.

That summer, King invited Clark to move to the SCLC headquarters in Atlanta. From that base, she organized Citizenship Schools, assisted by the United Church of Christ (UCC) organization of New York, and by Andrew Young, who was working for the UCC at that time. Through them, the SCLC acquired use of the Dorchester Cooperative Community Center in McIntosh, Georgia, located about 40 miles south of Savannah, as a home base. At Dorchester, Clark, Young, and Dorothy Cotton created a well-structured program for teacher training, inviting up to 70 individuals for weeklong training sessions. The Marshall Field Foundation, which had supported Clark's work at Highlander, contributed a $250,000 grant to the SCLC for the Citizenship Schools project, enabling Clark to bring in more trainees and pay them a small stipend.

Her work with the SCLC brought her notoriety. By 1963, the FBI regarded her with suspicion. That spring, as the Birmingham protests resulted in mass arrests of nonviolent demonstrators, officials wondered at the resolve and organization evidenced by the marchers. FBI officials suspected a conspiracy and "took note of a report from the Savannah office that the Negroes," writes Taylor Branch, "'were all trained' at Septima Clark's Dorchester retreat." This was false. Only a small percentage of the protestors at Birmingham had been to the Dorchester literacy and voter registration training sessions.

As newly literate black voters tried to register, they encountered more barriers, like tests without objective answers, the correctness of an answer depending on the whim of the registrar. It has been reported that even highly educated black citizens, some with doctoral degrees, were denied the right to vote in this way. Responding to such procedural devices, Clark participated in protests and in lobbying Washington to have these practices stopped. Eventually, in 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, and the federal government subsequently moved with a firm hand to end voting discrimination in the South. This greatly simplified the work of the teachers at the Citizenship Schools. The new requirement simply called for a ballot form signed in cursive writing, a skill relatively easy to teach. Preparing for the next election in 1966, Clark set up 150 Citizenship Schools in Selma, Alabama, from May 18 to August 15, 1965, paying teachers $1.25 an hour for two hours of teaching every weekday morning. They registered over 7,000, and the new voters soon made themselves heard. By 1972, Andrew Young of Georgia and Barbara Jordan of Texas became the first African-Americans elected to the U.S. Congress from any of the 11 states of the "Deep South" in the 20th century, and the number of black officeholders at all levels began to increase steadily.

When the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, Clark was 67 years old and ready to reduce her level of activity. The following year, after ten years of full-time civil-rights work, she bought a house for herself and her sister, which needed substantial repairs. She turned her attentions to that task. Though Clark officially retired from the SCLC in 1970, she remained active and, in 1976, became the first African-American woman to be elected to the Charleston School Board, the same board that had fired her 20 years earlier.

Late in life, Septima Clark received much deserved recognition for her work. A portion of the cross-town expressway in Charleston, from Spring Street to Coming Street, was named the Septima P. Clark Expressway in 1978. That year, she was honored by the College of Charleston, which bestowed upon her an honorary doctorate. In 1982, South Carolina governor Richard Riley awarded her the Order of the Palmetto. "If I were young again, starting all over," wrote Clark, "I'd do the same things over and over again. We do have problems. But I have lived so long that I have seen great progress."


Ayers, William. "'We Who Believe in Freedom Cannot Rest Until It's Done': Two Dauntless Women of the Civil Rights Movement and the Education of a People," in Harvard Educational Review. Vol. 59, no. 4. November 1989.

Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954–1963. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1988.

Clark, Septima P. Echo In My Soul. NY: E.P. Dutton, 1962.

——. Ready from Within (as told to Cynthia Stokes Brown). Navarro, CA: Wild Trees Press, 1986.

Crawford, Vicki, et al, eds. Black Women in United States History: Trailblazers and Torchbearers, 1941–1965. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson, 1990.

Langston, Donna. "The Women of Highlander," in Black Women in United States History. Edited by Vicki Crawford, et al. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson, 1990.

McFadden, Grace Jordan. "Clark, Septima Poinsette," in Black Women in America, Vol 1. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson, 1993.

Salem, Dorothy C., ed. "Clark, Septima," in African-American Women: A Biographical Dictionary. NY: Garland, 1993.

suggested reading:

McFadden, Grace Jordan. Oral Recollections of Septima Poinsette Clark. Columbia: USC Instructional Services Center, 1980.


Septima Clark Collection, Robert Scott Small Library, Charleston, South Carolina; Highlander Folk School files, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison; Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; Papers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 1954–1970, Archives of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Social Change, Atlanta, Georgia.

Michael D. Cary , Chair, Department of History and Political Science, Seton Hill College, Greensburg, Pennsylvania

Clark, Septima Poinsette (1898–1987)

views updated Jun 27 2018


An educator and civil rights activist, Septima Poinsette Clark was born in Charleston, South Carolina. Her father was Peter Poinsette, a former slave, and her mother was Victoria Warren Anderson Poinsette, a free woman who had spent her early years in Haiti. Although better known for her civil rights activism, Clark used her experiences as an educator as the basis for much of her activism, especially issues dealing with equity in teaching salaries, literacy, and citizenship.

In 1916, Clark completed the twelfth grade at Charleston's Avery Institute, a liberal arts school founded in 1865 by Charles Avery and the American Missionary Association. After passing the state examination, Clark accepted her first teaching position at the age of eighteen on Johns Island, South Carolina. She taught on Johns Island from 1916 until 1919 when she accepted a position teaching the sixth grade at the Avery Institute. In May 1920, Septima Poinsette married Nerie Clark, and shortly after a son, Nerie Clark Jr., was born. When Clark's husband died in December 1925, Clark sent her son to live with his grandparents in Hickory, North Carolina, so she could teach. Teaching did not pay her enough money to support her son, and most boarding houses did not allow children.

Clark's experience as a teacher provided firsthand knowledge of an oppressive system as well as possible solutions to problems of inequality, illiteracy, and poverty. Clark, like most African-American teachers in the South, faced inadequate schoolhouses, lack of transportation for students, short school terms, and overcrowded classrooms, as well as low wages. For the school year of 19151916, the value of schoolhouses in South Carolina for whites was more than $5 million compared to a little over $600,000 for blacks. The average expenditure according to enrollment was $17.02 per white child and $1.90 per black child (1916 State Superintendent Report, pp. 140, 146). Out of 1,176 school buildings for African Americans, most were made of logs and only two were brick buildings; 778 were in churches or lodge halls. In 1916, Clark received $35 per month as principal and teacher and her associate received $25 for teaching a class of more than sixty students each. In comparison, white teachers taught classes with no more than eighteen students. One teacher taught only three students. They were paid $85 per month.

Clark became an advocate for a teachers' salary equalization campaign as early as 1928. Later she worked on the issue with principal J. Andrew Simmons of Booker T. Washington High School (Columbia), NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall, and Harold R. Boulware, a South Carolina civil rights lawyer. Clark spent long nights convincing white and black teachers to show records of their pay. In 1945, Federal District Judge J. Waties Waring of South Carolina ruled that black teachers with equal education should receive pay equal to their white counterparts.

In 1935, Clark helped Wil Lou Gray, head of the South Carolina Adult Education Program, establish a program to help educate illiterate soldiers at Fort Jackson. Her experiences training soldiers to sign their checks, to read bus routes, and to learn to count were inspired in part by the citizenship schools Clark had designed at the Highlander Folk School and later Southern Christian Leadership Council. At Highlander in Monteagle, Tennessee, in 1956, Clark accepted a position of liaison between Highlander and Johns Islands residents to combat illiteracy and to teach skills necessary for true citizenship. Clark worked with Esau Jenkins, a Johns Island native, and community activist Bernice Robinson, of Charleston, South Carolina, to develop plans for the citizenship school classes. The Highlander loaned funding for the purchase of a building. Setting the front of the building up as a cooperative store, they used the back room of the building for Robinson to teach classes so as not to risk attracting attention from whites. In 1961, Clark accepted a position with the Southern Christian Leadership Council as director of education and teaching, focusing her attention on citizenship training, voting, and literacy. The program reached eleven states in the Deep South.

In 1956, forty years after her first teaching assignment, the South Carolina legislature passed a law that barred city and state employees from affiliating themselves with any civil rights organization. Clark was fired; she had openly confronted an unequal system, becoming an agitator for civil rights, requesting equal salaries for black teachers, and refusing to dissociate herself from the NAACP. When Clark lost her job at 58 years of age, she also lost her state retirement benefits. She spent two decades fighting for her benefits, which she finally received in 1976.

As an educator within an oppressive Jim Crow system, Clark's understanding of the connections among illiteracy, poverty, and power allowed her to link social reform and educational advancement. These were issues she spent her entire life addressing both as a teacher and a private citizen. In her autobiography, Echo in My Soul, Clark wrote: "In teaching [the poor and underprivileged] and thereby helping them raise themselves to a better status in life, I felt then that I would [also] be serving my state and nation, too, all of the people, affluent and poor, white and black. For in my later years I am more convinced than ever that in lifting the lowly we lift likewise the entire citizenship" (p. 51).

See also Education Reform; Multicultural Education.


Clark, Septima Poinsette, and LeGette, Blythe. 1962. Echo in My Soul. New York: Dutton.

Forty-Eighth Annual Report of the State Superintendent of Education of the State of South Carolina, 1916. 1917. Columbia, SC: Gonzales and Bryan.

McFadden, Grace Jordan. 1990. "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. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson.

Valinda Littlefield

Clark, Septima Poinsette (1898–1987)

views updated May 14 2018

Clark, Septima Poinsette (1898–1987)

African-American educator and civil-rights activist. Born Septima Poinsette, May 3, 1898, in Charleston, South Carolina; died Dec 15, 1987, on John's Island, South Carolina; dau. of Peter Porcher Poinsette (born a slave on the Poinsette plantation, later worked as caterer on a steamship) and Victoria Warren Anderson Poinsette (freeborn in Charleston and reared in Haiti); graduated (12th grade) from Avery Normal Institute, a private school to train black teachers in Charleston, SC, 1916; Benedict College, AB, 1942; Hampton Institute, MA, 1946; m. Nerie David Clark, May 1920 (died of kidney failure, Dec 1925); children: daughter (who died within a month of birth); son, Nerie David Jr. (b. 1925).

A legend of the civil-rights era, was the driving force behind the influential Southern Christian Leadership Conference Citizenship Schools; unable to teach in Charleston public schools because of race, obtained a position at the Promiseland School on John's Island, SC; took a position with Avery Normal School and joined in a political crusade to change the law barring black teachers in Charleston public schools (1919); enrolled in college, earning bachelor's degree (1942) and master's (1946); as a longtime member of NAACP, refused to renounce her affiliation when South Carolina passed a law prohibiting NAACP membership for state or city employees; thus, was fired from teaching job at Henry Archer School (1956); hired as director of education for Highlander Folk School (HFS) in Tennessee for adult literacy programs; taught skills to enable deep South blacks to qualify to vote and become effective citizens in her Citizenship Schools, based at HFS; because of harassment by Tennessee officials at Highlander, her citizenship training was moved to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), where she continued to conduct literacy training programs that substantially increased the rolls of black voters (early 1960s); retired from SCLC (1970); elected to Charleston School Board (1976). The Septima P. Clark Expressway runs through Charleston (1978).

See also autobiographies Echo In My Soul (Dutton, 1962) and (with Cynthia Stokes Brown) Ready from Within (Wild Trees, 1986); and Women in World History.