Meet unsung hero Septima Poinsette Clark, a pioneer in grassroots citizenship education!
Clark was born May 3, 1898 in Charleston, SC, the daughter of a former slave and laundry woman. She graduated from secondary school in 1916, passed her teacher’s exam, and taught at a black school on Johns Island outside of Charleston.
Clark studied under W.E.B. DuBois at Atlanta University in 1937. She eventually earned a bachelor’s degree from Benedict College in Columbia in 1942, and shea earned her master’s degree in 1946 from Virginia’s Hampton Institute. Clark worked with the YWCA, The Federation of Women’s Clubs, and the Council of Negro Women, participated in a lawsuit filed by the NAACP that led to equal pay for black and white teachers in South Carolina. However, in 1956 South Carolina passed a statute that banned individuals from membership in civil rights organizations. Clark refused to resign from the NAACP, and after 40 years of teaching, her employment contract was not renewed, and she lost her pension.
Before her firing, Clark had begun work with the Highlander Folk School, a grassroots social justice education center in Tennessee. Just months before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Rosa Parks participated in one of Clark’s workshops. She was hired by Myles Horton to be the full-time director of workshops for Highlander. Clark taught basic literacy skills, rights and duties as U.S. citizens, and voter registration.
After Highlander’s closure in 1961, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) established the Citizenship Education Program (CEP). Modeled after Clark’s workshops, she, along her cousin Bernice Robinson spearheaded the project with Clark serving as director of education and teaching. The purpose of the program was to educate blacks in literacy, state government, and election procedures. Clark traveled across the South training teachers and assisting with marches and protests, working closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Andrew Young.
Clark retired from the SCLC in 1970 and conducted workshops for the American Field Service. She was elected to the Charleston, SC School Board in 1975. The following year, the governor of South Carolina, determining that she had been unjustly terminated in 1956, reinstated her teacher’s pension. Clark wrote two autobiographies, Echo In My Soul (1962) and Ready From Within (1986) and was given the Living Legend Award by President Jimmy Carter in 1979.
Septima Poinsette Clark was instrumental in educating African-Americans in full citizenships rights. We salute her!