Monday, February 22, 2016



   Septima Poinsette Clark was born in 1898 and died in 1987.  A teacher and an organizer, she was another key person in the civil rights movement who is little known to the general public.  She taught African Americans citizenship and writing so they could become voting members of society.  She struggled mightily just for her own education, and then later to educate others.  She is known for teaching other civil rights leaders to respect the ordinary people they encountered every day in the struggle.  What was good enough for them had to be good for the people [oh how we need this today!!].

   Here is what the mother of the civil rights movement [Rosa Parks] had to say about Septima Clark:
"Rosa Parks, who has been called the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement, well remembers the first time she met Septima Clark.

It was at a civil rights workshop in Tennessee in the summer of 1955. African-Americans and sympathetic whites had begun to meet quietly, secretly, throughout the South to plan their counterattacks against the segregation system, and to train the new corps of volunteers for that fight. These volunteers would come to be called civil rights workers. Septima Clark, already a 30-year veteran of her people's struggle, was one of the trainers.

   "At that time I was very nervous, very troubled in my mind about the events that were occurring in Montgomery," Rosa Parks says. "But then I had the chance to work with Septima. She was such a calm and dedicated person in the midst of all that danger. I thought, 'If I could only catch some of her spirit.' I wanted to have the courage to accomplish the kinds of things that she had been doing for years." After the sessions with Clark, Parks returned to Montgomery saying she had a firmness and self-confidence she had not felt before. Three months later she refused to give up her seat on a bus so that a white person could sit down, the act which marks the beginning of the modern civil rights movement."

   "She was born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1898, and until the end of her life you could tell it from her accent; never loud...always patient and firm. Single mother, public school teacher, quietly devout Christian, she began organizing anti-racist activities in the Deep South in the 1920's. She stuck through the Movement in its most difficult moments: dark nights of fear on lonely back highways...the bombing and burning of churches and meeting halls...the beatings and murders of friends and co-workers. She volunteered to work in the most dangerous spots, surviving jail and two heart attacks in the process. And she lived to witness the Movement's greatest triumphs: the end of segregated public facilities...the passage of the great civil rights legislation of the 1960's...the election of African-American public officials in the South for the first time in a hundred years."

   "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."  (  

"Shortly before she sent Rosa Parks back to Montgomery and into the history books, Septima had been fired from her job with the South Carolina public schools when she refused to quit the local chapter of the NAACP. She had been an NAACP member since 1919, almost from the date of its inception.
   "At the age of 58 and following 40 years as a public school teacher, the thought of retirement simply never seems to have entered her mind. She took a job as Director of Education at the Highlander Center in Tennessee, which had long been active in the Southern struggles for unionization and racial equality. The Center was often accused by Southern segregationists of being run by Communists.
   "Septima discounted the red-baiting, saying "that was the general feeling you got in those days whenever the races mixed." Still, becoming a full-time civil rights worker was an immense leap in the dark for her. "For three long months I couldn't sleep," she recalled about the period following her arrival at Highlander. "Then at the end of that time it seemed to me as if my mind cleared up, and I decided then that I must have been right."

   "An army of civil rights workers spread out across South, sitting in at lunch counters, marching in the face of police dogs and riot sticks, registering the disenfranchised. They were volatile, volcanic meteors that streaked across the Southern skies and changed a way of life forever. Some saw their contribution in thundering, inspirational speeches...some were quiet pilgrims making witness to their faiths in jail cells. Septima, the lifelong teacher, figured she'd set up a few schools to show her people how to take advantage of the new rights that were being opened up to them.

"I just tried to create a little chaos," Septima said, explaining her role. "Chaos is a good thing. God created the whole world out of it. Change is what comes of it."

   "One area that needed changing most was the area of voting rights for African-Americans in the South. Legally, Black Southerners had the right to vote. However, most were kept from the polls by the various state "literacy tests." Prospective voters were asked to read and then "interpret" a section of the state or national constitutions. The products of inferior, segregated school systems, many adult Blacks could barely read or write their own names. Most did not even bother to try to register.

   "First through the Highlander Center and later through Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Septima organized a series of citizenship schools across the South to train local leaders in such skills as how to teach reading and writing and how to pass the literacy tests. The results were revolutionary.

"One of the fellows we were teaching in Alabama went up to the bank in his little home town to cash a check," Septima said. "The white man took out his pen and said, 'I'll make the X.' And the Black fellow said, 'You don't have to make the X for me, because I can write my own name.' The white guy says, 'My God, them niggers done learned to write!'

"At the time, people thought I had new-fangled ideas, but I guess those new-fangled ideas worked out, didn't they?"

   Septima Poinsette Clark left a deep impression on all that knew her. She was a gracious and excellent teacher, mentor, civil rights worker.  There would likely have been a less successful movement if she had not been part of it.     
[My thanks to J. Douglas Allen-Taylor for his excellent article about Septima Clark.  It should be published!!!] -- 
Black past - 
African American Registry - 
Encyclopedia Britannica - 
North Carolina Humanities Council - 
Unpublished article by Douglas Allen Taylor - 
MLKing Encyclopedia -   
Sister Mentors --   

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