Septima Poinsette Clark

Used with permission of Clark family

There were many who fought and who sacrificed during the long struggle for civil rights in America. Septima Poinsette Clark, often referred to as the "queen mother of the civil rights movement," was certainly foremost among them. When she died at the age of 89, then Governor Carroll Campbell lauded her as "…a leading civil rights activist…a legendary educator, and humanitarian…" and declared that "…we have lost a part of our collective conscience which calls out against inequality and injustice…" (Livingston, 1987). In 1956, the same state government that later extolled her accomplishments fired Mrs. Clark from her job as a teacher when she refused to renounce her NAACP membership, and for many years she was denied a pension. Clark helped South Carolina discover the conscience that allowed this dramatic turnabout.

The future civil rights leader and educator was born in 1898 in Charleston, the second of eight children. Her father, Peter Poinsette, was a former slave from a low-country plantation who did not learn to read and write until he was a grown man with a family. In her biography, Mrs. Clark relates that her father had to learn to write his name when he was hired for a civil service job as a janitor during World War I (Clark, Echo…). Her mother, Victoria Warren Anderson, was somewhat younger than her husband and had some education. She was born free and grew up in Haiti. Septima was named for one of her mother's sisters, a name which means both "seven" and "sufficient." The family settled in Charleston, where the parents struggled to support their growing family. The father catered parties and the mother took in washing and ironing. Peter and Victoria wanted their children to have an education, and all eight children went to school until eighth grade or beyond. Septima could have begun a teaching career with just an eighth grade education, but her mother insisted that she attend high school. That meant that she would have to attend a private school because no public high schools were available to blacks. It was difficult to find the $1.50 a month for tuition at Avery Normal Institute, a school established by missionaries to educate African-American children, but the Poinsettes managed. Septima helped by working as a maid and babysitter for a neighbor. Septima's teachers wanted her to attend college, but there was no money. Many years later she would earn a college degree. For now, she would teach.

In 1916 the city of Charleston would not hire black teachers in its public schools. So Septima had to leave home in order to earn a living. She was hired as a teacher at a school on Johns Island, off the coast. Today the island is accessible by bridges, but it was a difficult trip by boat at that time. Septima was one of two teachers at a school with 132 students ranging from first to eighth graders. Conditions were poor and supplies almost nonexistent. Many students attended sporadically, since they were needed for fieldwork much of the school year. Although a stranger, she was able to communicate with the islanders in Gullah, so she quickly fit in. It was here that she first became involved in adult education. Many men in the community joined secret societies, and at first they came to her for help with preparing their speeches. But in order to be active in the societies, they had to learn to read and write and do simple math. Working with these men sparked an interest in what would become a key part of her life’s work, fighting adult illiteracy.

In 1918, Septima left Johns Island to teach sixth grade at the Avery School in Charleston. She could save money by living at home, and she would be returning to an urban environment. Activists were beginning a campaign to get black teachers hired in black public schools. Septima and many others went door-to-door, getting thousands of signatures on a petition. It was her first taste of community activism. The campaign was a success, the school board changed its policy, and in 1920, black teachers began to teach in the Charleston schools that taught black children.

1918 was significant for Septima Poinsette for another reason as well. As World War I drew to an end, many sailors returned through Charleston. Septima Poinsette met Nerie Clark while serving as a volunteer on a welcoming committee. They were married in 1919. He was at sea through most of their brief marriage. Their first child, Victoria, died at the age of one month, and Septima thought for a time that it was a judgment against her for marrying against the wishes of her parents. Short of money, she first took a job working for an elderly white couple, and then went to stay with her in-laws in the mountains of North Carolina. In 1920, she began what would be the long road to a college degree. Her husband, who was serving in the Navy, sent money from his paycheck. She spent the money on summer classes at North Carolina A and T College. She taught school in North Carolina that next year until her husband’s discharge from the Navy. The couple moved to Ohio, where their second child, Nerie, was born in 1925. In December of that year, Septima’s husband, Nerie Clark, died of kidney disease. Septima had to find a job to support herself and her young son.

Septima took a teaching job in North Carolina, near her in-laws, but she did not like the climate and she found it hard to live in her in-laws' house with their strict rules. Finally, she returned to South Carolina and accepted a teaching job at the same school on Johns Island where she had first taught. Conditions had not improved, and it was not a good place to raise her child. After an incident where a sick Nerie slipped out of the house and walked over two miles to find her at her school, Septima sent him back to live with his grandparents in North Carolina. Nerie was happy there, and he spent most of his childhood at his grandparents’ home.  Keeping him with her in a series of boarding houses simply did not work out. Making a living teaching other parents' children made it impossible to raise her own child the way that she wanted to do it. In a second irony, many years later Septima in turn would play a major role in the raising of her own grandchildren.

Septima stayed busy. In addition to teaching children, she worked with illiterate adults. In the summers she attended college in Columbia. Although she was reluctant to leave Johns Island, in 1929 she accepted a teaching job in Columbia, where the pay was better. It was a fateful move. In Columbia, she became active in many community organizations, some of which were social and some of which were political. She attended interracial meetings, she played bridge, and she became an active member of the NAACP.

The NAACP had begun to agitate for equalization of teacher salaries. Black teachers were paid far less than white teachers, regardless of their qualifications or responsibilities. Although many teachers were afraid to become involved, Septima worked with NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall and many others on the court case. She later said: “My participation in this fight…was what might be described by some …as my first “radical” job. I would call it my first effort in a social action challenging the status quo…I felt that in reality I was working for the accomplishment of something that ultimately would be good for everyone…” (Clark, Echo…, 82). As a result of the court decision requiring salary equalization, the school authorities decided to require that teachers take a national exam. Septima took the exam, made an A, and saw her salary triple. This convinced her to continue her own education, and in the years that followed, she took night and summer classes, in Columbia, in New York, and in Atlanta. In 1942 she finally received a bachelor’s degree from Benedict College in Columbia. Immediately, she enrolled at Hampton Institute in Virginia, and in 1946 received a master’s degree.

Septima Clark taught school in Columbia for eighteen years. During that period, in addition to her own studies, she taught night school classes for adults who wanted to learn to read and write. In 1947, she decided to return to Charleston, which she loved and had always regarded as her home. Her mother was ill and needed her care (Brown, 1992). Settling into a teaching job in Charleston, she became involved in various community activities, including the Tuberculosis Association, and the YWCA. All of these organizations were still segregated at that time. Clark later recalled an experience during her tenure with the YWCA which taught her patience, and the importance of keeping control of her temper. Clark and two white women who were serving together on an interracial committee had an appointment to see the mayor. When they walked into his office, he seated the two white women and sat down, turning his back on Mrs. Clark, who was still standing. But she sat down and addressed the mayor politely, making  her requests. The mayor granted the YWCA group’s requests. After the group had left the mayor’s office, the two white women told her how upset they were at the mayor's behavior. Mrs. Clark pointed out that the important thing was that they had accomplished their goals. In her biography, she said: “…hating people, bearing hate in your heart, even though you may feel that you have been ill-treated, never accomplishes anything good…Hate is only a canker that destroys” (Clark, Echo...94-95).

Through her work in the YWCA, Septima Clark met Judge J. Waties Waring, who had earlier ruled in favor of equalizing teacher salaries, and his wife. Before meeting Judge Waring she had read about his decisions, including his 1947 ruling requiring the Democrats to let blacks vote in their primary election. She thought that he must be "wonderful" (Clark, Ready...25). The YWCA had invited Mrs. Waring to speak at their annual meeting, but later sought to revoke the invitation to this controversial lady. Y officials asked Septima Clark, in her role as chair of the committee on administration, to write the letter. She refused. Mrs. Clark decided to speak directly to Mrs. Waring, and she went to her house, introducing herself. Mrs. Clark then asked Mrs. Waring to speak even if the whites on the committee asked her not to and to let her know if any blacks asked her not to speak. The YWCA continued to pressure Septima Clark to sign a letter to the newspapers saying the Y would not let Mrs. Waring speak. Septima would not sign it. By this time, the YWCA was receiving much unexpected publicity. As a result, the meeting was packed. Mrs. Waring’s speech was highly critical of Charleston and of the South, especially of the treatment of African-Americans. Septima noted in her biography that her elderly mother feared for Septima’s life and had to be carried home from the meeting (Clark, Echo… 100). Out of this controversy, a friendship developed between Septima Clark and the Warings. Septima was a frequent guest at their house. Eventually, Mrs. Waring came to Septima’s house for tea. It was Septima’s first friendship with anyone who was white. Many blacks as well as whites disapproved. Many people of both races didn't believe that the races should mix. The Warings, considered pariahs by most white Charlestonians, later retired to New York.

Septima continued her work with a variety of community organizations. She became involved with the work of the Community Chest, despite the disapproval of those who did not favor interracial activities. She worked with the Charleston Federation of Women’s Clubs, the Metropolitan Council of Negro Women, and Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. The activities of these groups ranged from providing scholarships to improving health care for poor children. But above all, she continued to work with the NAACP, an organization that she said is “…the organization that has meant most to me…” (Clark, Echo…, 111).

Much has been written about the turmoil in the South at the height of the struggle for civil rights. After the Supreme Court issued the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision in 1954, South Carolina school officials required teachers to list their organizational memberships. Septima Clark listed her membership in the NAACP, and as a result, she lost her teaching job. In 1956 the state legislature passed a law stating that no public employee could be a member of that or any other civil rights organization. Clark had signed hundreds of letters to black teachers, urging them to speak out against the law, but almost none would do so. Clark was proud to belong to the NAACP, and she would not hide her membership. But it cost her her job, and her pension, which was not restored until 1976.

It is often said that when one door closes, another opens. Fired from her teaching job, Mrs. Clark was offered positions with the South Carolina Council on Human Relations, with Voorhees Institute, and through the offices of Mrs. Waring, a teaching position in New York. Instead, Clark accepted a job offer from social activist Myles Horton and became Director of Workshops at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, where she would play a role in helping to educate adults for citizenship. Clark had previously attended and directed workshops at Highlander and had begun to exert an influence even before she became a member of the staff. Among those who came to Highlander was Rosa Parks, who attended a school desegregation workshop in 1955, some months before her refusal to give up a seat on a bus led to the Montgomery bus boycott. Parks later said that Septima Clark and the others at the workshop helped to “inspire” her to continue her work in civil rights (“Civil Rights Queen…”). Offering a unique opportunity for Southerners to meet, talk, and live with each other without regard to race, Highlander attracted people of all classes and educational levels. Speakers ranged from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, to foreign visitors and college professors. As Mrs. Clark described it, “…Highlander has trained leaders who in turn go into their home communities and train their people…” (Clark, Echo…, 188). The workshops were aimed at change, focusing on such areas as voter education, civil rights, and union organizing. “Graduates” of Highlander like Esau Jenkins went home to the Sea Islands and elsewhere to open citizenship schools. They taught the many poor people who could not read and write, and therefore, could not vote. The schools also covered a broader range of topics geared to basic survival skills for the modern world, such as managing money and understanding the Social Security program.

Over the years, Septima had developed a method of teaching based on relating subjects like math and English to the kinds of problems people faced in everyday life. She would teach adults to read by beginning with street signs and newspapers. She used this same method to teach when she worked with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (Brown, 1992).

Septima Clark developed the concept of citizenship schools early in her tenure at Highlander. Esau Jenkins was a farmer and bus driver from Johns Island whose formal education had ended at the age of 9. After a passenger asked him to help her learn to read so that she could vote, Jenkins had begun to teach the passengers on his bus to read the Constitution during the long rides to Charleston and back. Jenkins attended Highlander in 1954. Along with Septima Clark and her cousin Bernice Robinson, he was instrumental in developing the citizenship schools. Septima Clark had kept in touch with the people of Johns Island over the years and knew that conditions there were still deplorable. Jenkins had already unsuccessfully approached both the local school and a minister for help. Myles Horton agreed to provide help through Highlander. Now Clark and Jenkins had to find a facility. They raised money, purchased a building, and repaired it. Next, they had to find a teacher. Septima persuaded her young cousin, Bernice, a beautician and dressmaker who had attended a Highlander workshop, to take on this role. The first citizenship school opened in 1957 on Johns Island. Working two nights a week, Bernice first taught the students how to write their names, and then began to teach them about South Carolina's election laws. (Clark, Echo..., 150-152). Word spread, and the following year, there were requests to open schools on Wadmalaw Island and on Edisto Island. Within three years, 600 African-Americans who had attended citizenship schools were registered to vote in Charleston County. The following year, Septima Clark and Bernice Robinson, with the assistance of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, developed a program to train teachers who would work all over the South. As a result, by 1970,  two million African-Americans had registered to vote (Clark, Echo...135ff; Brinson, 1994). There were repercussions: Jenkins' children were unable to find work in the Charleston area, and the state of Tennessee shut down the Highlander School.

The state of Tennessee had been looking for an excuse to shut down the school. The white establishment had long suspected that the school had ties with Communism, and as Mrs. Clark noted, "...anyone who was against segregation was considered a Communist..." (Clark, Ready..., 55). The real reason, never stated, was the school's support of integration. The state legislature directed the attorney general to take legal action to revoke Highlander's charter. In the summer of 1959, the state attorney general directed the police to raid Highlander, charging the facility with the illegal sale of liquor. The charter did not allow the facility to sell anything, but some of the men wanted to be able to drink beer. However, the local shops refused to sell to blacks. Whites who were attending the workshops would purchase beer and keep it in a cooler at the school, where it was available to anyone who wanted it. The state later claimed that Highlander had also violated its charter as a nonprofit organization by selling other items, such as chewing gum and razor blades. Septima Clark noted that the school did make those items available to people attending workshops, but that it was not a profitmaking enterprise. But even though blacks attending the workshops had no other way of obtaining either necessary or desired items locally, the state used all of this as the basis for revoking Highlander's charter. Septima  was in charge at Highlander while Myles Horton was abroad, when the police came. After a search, the police "found" some moonshine in the basement of Myles Horton's house. Septima, who did not drink alcohol, was arrested, along with a number of others, and was refused even the right to call a lawyer. Bailed out that same night by two white teachers, she remained at Highlander with her granddaughter, who lived with her. She could not be scared off, despite nasty phone calls and threats. That fall, the court ordered Highlander closed, and the state confiscated the property (Clark, Ready...). Myles Horton hoped that the court decision would be reversed on appeal. Leaders from around the country expressed support, and Highlander continued its program of workshops while the court case was going through the appeals process. But when the Tennessee Supreme Court turned them down in 1961, Horton transferred much of the work of Highlander to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization with similar goals.

Septima Clark had become associated with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), formed in 1957 under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Although she continued her association with Highlander as long as it lasted, Dr. King asked her to come to work at SCLC. Septima felt that SCLC was basically a "parallel" organization to Highlander, and said that all that she had done was to " base of operations..." (Clark, Echo..., 214-215). Writing in 1961, Clark stated: "The Highlander at Monteagle as we knew it and loved it, I have no doubt, is finished...But I do know that no person and no sovereign commonwealth will ever be able to take our Highlander from me" (Clark, Echo..., 232).

Working out of Atlanta, she traveled through the South, telling people about the citizenship schools, and providing assistance with the planning of marches and protests. Mrs. Clark strongly supported the work of the SCLC, and believed that it was sometimes necessary to peacefully break an unjust law. She supported the sit-ins by college students seeking an end to segregation (Clark, Echo..., 217-218). Mrs. Clark recounted that when she was traveling to recruit and visit teachers for the Highlander citizenship schools, she generally sat in the fifth seat on the bus. She would refuse requests to move to the back. She wanted to make the point that African-Americans could now choose where to sit (Clark, Ready..., 60). In her work with SCLC, she drove through the South with Dorothy Cotton and Andrew Young. In 1972, Young would become one of the first blacks from the South to be elected to Congress since Reconstruction. They brought groups of people back to the Dorchester Community Center in Georgia to attend citizenship schools. They would begin by asking people questions about problems in their own communities, writing down the answers on dry cleaning bags, since they had no blackboards. Then they would teach them skills to solve these problems. Mrs. Clark recounted the story of a woman whose money had been stolen out of her bank account. The woman did not know how to write a check and had depended on white people to do that for her. Septima's response was to have a banker come speak to the group and explain how to write out a check. This activity did not go unnoticed in the local community. There were some whites in the community who verbally attacked them, but took no other action. Although the SCLC paid potential students to come to night classes, many were too afraid to do so. Only the most determined came. Most of the attendees knew little about how their local governments were run and had poor reading and writing skills. SCLC taught these potential teachers what the Constitution meant. Then they would go home to open their own citizenship schools (Clark, Ready..., 61-65).

Septima and her colleagues continued to travel throughout the South, going into communities and recruiting teachers for the citizenship schools. In 1962, the SCLC and four other civil rights groups joined together to form the Voter Education Project. Over the next four years, they prepared 10,000 teachers for citizenship schools, and nearly 700,000 African-Americans registered to vote in the South (Clark, Ready..., 70). All the states had different election laws, and they tried to make it as difficult as possible for blacks to register to vote. Clark stated that the Alabama registrar gave a college professor some Chinese to read, since he could read the Constitution so well in English. He was not permitted to register (Clark, Ready..., 67).  After Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the task of registering voters became a little easier. Without the barrier of literacy tests, a potential voter could be taught to sign his or her name in about twenty minutes. But there was still much opposition in the white community, and many blacks were afraid. Septima stood up to some black preachers who were afraid of angering whites by becoming involved in this process. Many blacks did lose their jobs when they came to the SCLC meetings. The SCLC provided money to help tide them over (Clark, Ready..., 65-70).. Clark and the other civil rights workers were often threatened. She related that when  they went into Jackson, Mississippi, Mayor Thompson was waiting at the end of the street with a tank! But they "...would usually kneel down and pray in front of the guns, and Thompson's tank didn't get to kill any of us" (Clark, Ready...,71). The Klu Klux Klan and the White Citizens' Council appeared at their meetings. Thirty civil rights workers died during the struggle to register African-Americans to vote. Some in the movement advocated violence. Septima tried to convince them that this was not the right way to bring about change, although she understood how they felt. By 1970, the year that Septima formally retired from her SCLC work, well over a million African-Americans had been registered to vote in the South (Clark, Ready..., 70).

In her later years, Septima Clark was recognized for her contributions to the civil rights movement. In 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King insisted that Mrs. Clark accompany him to Sweden when he received the Nobel Peace Prize. He said that she deserved as much credit for the achievements of the civil rights movement as did he. King acknowledged her influence on his views and philosophy. Ironically, in 1975, nearly twenty years after she lost her teaching job in the Charleston public schools, Clark was elected to the Charleston School Board. She served for two terms. In the following years she received a number of honors, including a Race Relations award from the National Education Association in 1976, an honorary doctoral degree from the College of Charleston in 1978, and a Living the Legacy award from President Carter in 1979. In 1982 South Carolina recognized her with the Order of the Palmetto, its highest civilian award. Part of a highway in the Charleston area also bears her name. She published her autobiography in 1962. Her chronicle of her role in the civil rights movement, published in 1987, won the American Book Award. The College of Charleston named an auditorium for her in 1988 (Simms, 1992). Author Taylor Branch dedicated his book on the civil rights movement to Septima Clark's memory.  Her papers are housed today in a collection at the College of Charleston.

Despite several heart attacks, Clark never really retired, and she never stopped working to resolve the problems of society. Her reaction to a refusal by the city of Charleston to fund a daycare center following a 1978 tragedy is typical. When a fire killed four children who had been left home alone by their working mother, Clark approached other women, rented a room with the money she raised, and paid a teacher. The daycare center that grew out of that experience is named for her (Njeri, 1987). On another occasion, when she was on her way to church one Sunday she saw a man who had passed out on the sidewalk. She insisted on stopping to help the man, who was drunk and not very cooperative. She paid for a taxi to take him to a shelter (Yvonne Clark, 2000).

Mrs. Clark was a strong, determined person, and a supporter of women’s as well as minority rights. She was critical of men in the civil rights movement who were unwilling to give women leadership roles and who did not take women seriously (Njeri, 1987; McFadden, 1990; Clark, Ready...,1990). She said: "I see this as one of the weaknesses of the civil rights movement, the way the men looked at women...I found all over the South that whatever the man said had to be right..." (Clark, Ready..., 79-80). She stressed the importance of citizenship training in empowering women as well as men (McFadden, 1990). She felt that women had played a major role in the civil rights movement, but had not received much credit for their contributions. The women's rights movement, she said, began before the civil rights movement (Clark, Ready..., 83).

She had to struggle financially in old age, and did not receive full compensation when her pension was restored in 1976. In 1981, she finally received back pay from the state of South Carolina for eight lost work years. In the meantime, friends helped her out. The comments of one of those friends, musician Loonis McGlohon, describe her well: “She never asked for anything…She was called on all the time to make speeches, but she never asked for a fee…she had a retarded grandson who was her ward…she even had students come to live with her and she would cook for them and take care of them…” (Livingston, 1987). Septima opened her heart and her purse to anyone with need. Her granddaughter Yvonne recalls: "When she died, she had nothing left because she had taken out loans on everything to help other people...She always said to us "you can't take it with you" so she lived her life that way. What she did have when she died was much love, respect and adoration from many people across the country" (Yvonne Clark, 2000).

Family and children were very important to Septima. She always said that "family comes first" (Yvonne Clark, 2000). When her grandchildren were very young, their mother died. Septima's son, Nerie, asked her to raise his only daughter, Yvonne. Yvonne later said that "...Sending me to live with her was the best thing that could ever have happened to me...I knew my friends had younger parents, but Mama Seppie and her younger sister, Aunt Lorene were the best substitute parents I could have hoped for...Although she worked for most of my childhood, and wasn't home like most grandmothers because she traveled so much, I didn't think much of it because I got to travel with her in the summers and other school breaks...She is my idol..." (Yvonne Clark, 2000). Yvonne's brothers were frequent visitors. "At night my brothers and I...would fight over who would get to lay their heads on her lap, because every night she would rub our heads until we fell asleep. You can't imagine the feeling of safety and love you could get from such a simple act" (Yvonne Clark, 2000). Yvonne grew up to "follow in Mama Seppie's footsteps...," taking a job with SCLC in the late 1980s while her grandmother was still alive. Septima also played a role in raising one of Nerie's sons from his second marriage. The family had been told that the grandson, David, would not live beyond the age of 12, but he lived into his late twenties. Granddaughter Yvonne Clark attributes this to Septima Clark's ", support and strength that gave David the power to live so long and to have such a full life..." (Yvonne Clark, 2000).

Until her health declined in her final months, Septima Clark continued to be active in the struggle for civil rights. Mrs. Clark was an advocate of nonviolence who never allowed herself to become embittered by her experiences. In remembering her, Yvonne Clark said: "I think her most important accomplishment is not so much what she did while alive but what she instilled in the many people that came in contact with her during her lifetime...How many can say that just meeting Septima Clark, that it made them a better person or that it made them look at life differently..." (Yvonne Clark, 2000). State Human Affairs Commissioner James Clyburn said: “She probably had the biggest heart of anybody I ever met…” (Livingston, 1987). Nelson Rivers, executive director of the South Carolina NAACP, said: “She represented so much of what is good and right about people of any color” (Livingston, 1987). Septima Clark lived a life filled with love and good works. She provided a model of how to bring about change.


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Carol Sears Botsch, USC Aiken
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last updated 8/03/2000

The University of South Carolina-Aiken

e-mail [email protected]