BLACK HISTORY MONTH PROFILE: Septima Poinsette Clark

Septima Poinsette Clark (1898-1987), an educator and civil and human rights activist, is often referred to as the “Grandmother of the Civil Rights Movement.” One of her greatest contributions to the movement was the development of citizenship schools throughout the South. From 1962 to 1964 she trained more than 10,000 teachers for the schools and registered 700,000 black voters.

Septima Clark“Many phenomenal African American women remain unrecognized for their contributions to the progression of the Civil Rights Movement. These women were behind the scenes working just as hard as men for little to no acknowledgment…Clark is perhaps the only woman to play a significant role in educating African Americans for full citizenship rights without gaining sufficient gratitude. ” Source: http://bit.ly/YveOCW

“Septima Clark was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 3, 1898, and was the second of eight children. In 1916 she finished 12th grade and, unable financially to attend Fisk University as her teachers had hoped and, as an African American, forbidden to teach in the Charleston public schools at that time, Poinsette took the state examination that would permit her to teach in rural areas. Her first job was on John’s Island, South Carolina. The racial inequity of teachers’ salaries and facilities she experienced while there motivated her to become an advocate for change.

Clark left John’s Island in 1919 in order to teach and to campaign for a law allowing black teachers in the Charleston public schools. The same year that the law was passed (1920), Septima Poinsette married Nerie Clark, a navy cook. The marriage ended five years later when Nerie Clark died of kidney failure. The couple had two children; one died in infancy. Clark returned to teaching on John’s Island until 1927, when she moved to Columbia, South Carolina. There she continued to teach and to pursue her own education, studying during summers at Columbia University in New York City and with W.E.B. Du Bois at Atlanta University in Georgia. She received a bachelor’s degree from Benedict College in 1942 and a master’s degree from Hampton Institute in 1945. During this time she was also active in several social and civic organizations, among them the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) with whom she campaigned, along with attorney Thurgood Marshall, for equal pay for black teachers in Columbia. In an effort to diminish the effectiveness of the NAACP, the South Carolina state legislature banned state employees from being associated with civil rights organizations, and in 1956 Clark was forced to leave South Carolina for a job in Tennessee when she refused to withdraw her membership from the NAACP.

In Tennessee she helped found citizenship schools that were designed to achieve literacy and political empowerment within the black community. Clark joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1961 as director of education and teaching. In 1962 the SCLC joined with other organizations to form the Voter Education Project, which served to train teachers for citizenship schools and assisted in increased voter registration among African Americans. A decade later the first African Americans since Reconstruction were elected to the U.S. Congress.

After Clark retired from active SCLC work in 1970, she fought and won reinstatement of the teaching pension and back pay that had been canceled when she was dismissed in 1956. She later served two terms on the Charleston County School Board. In 1979 Clark received a Living Legacy Award from U.S. President Jimmy Carter. She died on John’s Island, South Carolina, on December 15, 1987.” Source: http://bit.ly/XaKr6G

Here’s the story behind the famous photo of Septima Clark, taken when she was 89 years old by Brian Lanker for “I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America,” the book he collaborated on with Maya Angelou.