SEPTIMA POINSETTE CLARK (1898-1987)

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septima_king.institute.stanford.edu
Bob Fitch photography archive, © Stanford University Libraries

The daughter of a former slave and a laundrywoman, Septima Poinsette Clark was an educator and an activist. She developed the literacy and citizenship workshops that played a significant role in securing voting rights and civil rights for African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement.

Martin Luther King referred to Septima Poinsette Clark as “The Mother of the Movement”.

Clark lived in Charleston South Carolina and after completing school she qualified to teach, but Charleston wouldn’t hire African Americans to teach in its public schools. In 1916 she became an instructor on South Carolina’s John Island instead. She returned to Charleston a few years later and joined with the NAACP to work on getting the city to hire African American teachers.

When she moved to Columbia, South Carolina later, she joined the local chapter of the NAACP and along with Thurgood Marshall, they worked on a legal case seeking equal pay for black and white teachers. Her salary more than doubled after they won the case.

In 1947, two years after winning the case, she returned to Charleston and took another teaching position while maintaining her NAACP membership. In 1956 South Carolina made it illegal for public employees to belong to civil rights groups and she lost her job as a result, as she refused to renounce the NAACP. Clark was hired by Tennessee’s Highlander Folk School, which supported integration and the Civil Rights Movement. She went on to direct the Highlander’s Citizen School program. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference later took over the project, with Clark becoming the director of education and teaching. Under her leadership, numerous citizen schools were created.

Clark’s belief was that knowledge could empower marginalized groups in ways that formal legal equality couldn’t.

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter named her the recipient of the Living Legacy Award for her work with African Americans and literacy.

Clark_Septima
Mrs. Septima Clark and Rosa Parks at Highlander Folk School, Monteagle, Tennessee 1956. PC: Library of Congress, loc.gov

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