In celebration of Black History Month, we will be profiling black educators in our series Black Excellence in Education. Our next entry focuses on the Queen Mother of the Civil Rights Movement, Septima Poinsette Clark.
Septima Poinsette Clark was born May 3, 1898 in Charleston, South Carolina, She was one out of eight children born to a father who was a former slave and a mother born a freeperson in Haiti. Clark’s parents married after the Civil War. Her mother always questioned her father’s passive attitude toward the racial oppression in the South. This fighting spirit would stay with Clark as she grew up.
Clark’s parents gave her an early love for education. She graduated from high school in 1916, and had intended to attend Fisk University for her undergraduate studies. But her family struggled to pay for her college. Instead, she applied and earned a teaching license that allowed her to teach in rural areas. State laws at the time forbade black teachers from working in her native Charleston, so she started teaching in Johns Island, South Carolina.
In 1919, Clark left her teaching post to join the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Charleston. She joined the organization’s campaign against the ban on black teachers, going door to door to collect petition signatures. The city would overturn the law a year later after much public outcry.
Clark married in 1920, but her husband soon died of kidney failure five years later. She returned to Johns Island in 1927 to continue teaching. At the same time, she took summer courses in Columbia and Atlanta University, eventually earning a bachelors degree from Benedict College in 1942 and a masters from Hampton Institute in 1945. Clark also continued her work with the NAACP, fighting for higher black teaching wages. Teachers pay was eventually equalized by 1946.
The gains the NAACP were winning proved to be threat to the majority of whites in the South. In 1956, Clark was fired from her job citing a law that barred public employees from being members of national organizations. But she did not let this stop her from teaching. In 1958, she found the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, which combined its teachings with citizenship and civil rights workshops. Clark taught literacy there along with citizenship laws and civil rights.
Racist policies would again force Clark out of the job when the state of Tennessee revoked the school’s charter, closed down its facilities and arrested all its teachers. Clark was taken in on false illegal alcohol possession charges, but the allegations were later dropped. At that point, her “Citizenship School” model was starting to gain traction as a way to provide for underserved black students. She was invited by Martin Luther King Jr. to create similar schools in Georgia, continuing her work with education and empowerment there. Rosa Parks even counts her as an inspiring mentor, who once said, “I only hope there is a possible chance that some of [Clark’s] great courage and wisdom has rubbed off on me.”
In 1961, she was appointed the director of education and teaching of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). While there, she led efforts increase teacher trainings for citizenship schools and black voter registration. Clark would retire from the SCLC in 1970, but she continued her education and advocacy work, later serving two terms in the Charleston County School Board.
In 1979, she received the Living Legacy Award from Jimmy Carter. Clark died in December 15, 1987. In her 1986 autobiography, she wrote, “I have a great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking. I consider chaos a gift.” Clark’s continued disruption of an educational system not made for her created chaos that led to the successes of the Civil Rights Movement.