Charleston, South Carolina (JFK+50) On our tour of the Council Chamber of the city of Charleston last week, we saw a portrait of Septima Poinsette Clark.* In today's post we will take an in-depth look at the "Queen Mother of the Civil Rights Movement."
The portrait of Mrs. Clark was painted by Dorothy B. Wright in 1997. The civil rights activist, who was the first African-American woman to serve on the Charleston School Board and taught school for 40 years, was a trainer at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee.
There, in the summer of 1955, she met Rosa Parks who said of her...
"(Septima) 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."
Three months later, Rosa without doubt did catch some of Septima's spirit, as she refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
Septima Clark is most noted for establishing "Citizenship Schools" which taught reading to adults throughout the South. These schools, which were active from 1957 to 1970, trained 10,000 teachers and taught 25,000 students. Collectively, they would provide the nucleus of the drive for voter registration.
Taylor Branch's "Parting The Waters" is dedicated to Mrs. Clark and there is an expressway and day care center named in her honor. The auditorium of the College of Charleston also bears the name of Septima Clark.
One of her students who became an activist in the movement said...
"I never saw (Mrs. Clark) pass by someone who wanted to speak with her."
And still another said listening to Mrs. Clark was "like having your grandmother tell you that its alright for you to think for yourself."
As was true for many women in the civil rights movement, Septima Clark met with gender inequality as well as racial inequality. She stood up against both with dignity. Mrs. Clark was a keynote speaker at the convention of the National Organization of Women.
There was even sexism within the civil rights movement. Septima Clark saw it as one of the movement's weaknesses.
She once said...
"This country was built up from women keeping their mouths shut."
She also said...
"I tried to create a little chaos. I have a great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking. I consider chaos a gift."
In 1975, Septima Clark wrote...
"The greatest evil in our country today is not racism, but ignorance. I believe, unconditionally in the ability of people to respond when they are told the truth. We need to be taught to study rather than believe, to inquire rather than to affirm."
Septima had discovered ways for her students to succeed in the face of gross disadvantages. On St. John's Island, her students learned to write on paper bags since they did not have paper and Mrs. Clark had them share stories about their lives since they had no textbooks.
Septima Clark called her approach the "Two Eye Theory" of education...
"one eye to gather student's views on what they needed to learn," and the other to picture strategies and teaching methods that would help the students meet their needs."
Septima Poinsette Clark won the Palmetto Award in 1982, the highest honor bestowed in the state of South Carolina.
Upon her death, Governor Carroll Campbell described her as "a legendary educator and humanitarian."
*Septima Poinsette Clark (1898-1987) was born in Charleston, SC. She graduated from Avery Normal Institute in 1916, earned her B.A. at Benedict College in Columbia, SC in 1942 and her M.A. at Hampton Institute in 1945.
SPC joined the NAACP in 1919 and lost her teaching position as well as her pension when her state passed a law banning city/state employees from being involved in the civil rights movement.
President Jimmy Carter awarded Mrs. Clark a Living Legacy Award in 1979. She wrote two autobiographies: "Echo In My Soul," and "Ready From Within: South Carolina and the Civil Rights Movement."
The most recommended biography of SPC was written by Katherine Mellen Charron, a professor of history at North Carolina State University. The title is "Freedom's Teacher, the Life of Septima Clark," published by the University of North Carolina Press.
"A Tour of Charleston City Council Chamber," conducted by Mrs. Lindsay M.P. Barrios, Docent, January 8, 2015.
"Septima Clark and the Citizen Schools," Women Civil Rights Leaders, www.pps.k12.or.us/
"Septima Clark: Teacher to a Movement," by J. Douglas Allen-Taylor, www.satero.org/
Septima Poinsette Clark