Link to I Love the Lowcountry video on Septima P. Clark.
Certainly there are many, many people who say they have been inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Yet relatively few people have heard the story of a woman who, Dr. King said, inspired him: Septima Poinsette Clark. Indeed, though they had their differences, King invited Mrs. Clark to accompany him to Sweden when he went to accept the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, noting in his speech that this American educator and early civil rights activist had been an inspiration to him.
Septima Poinsette was born May 3, 1898, to Peter and Victoria Warren Anderson Poinsette. Peter had been born a slave on Joel Poinsett's farm near Georgetown on the Waccamaw River. A house slave, Peter's principal responsibility was getting the children to and from school.
Upon emancipation, Peter took a job working on ships in Charleston Harbor. During one of his travels to Haiti, he met Victoria, who had been born a free person of color in Charleston, but moved to Haiti as a young child to be raised by her brother. Peter and Victoria returned to Charleston and Victoria took a job as a laundress, declaring proudly that she had never been, nor would ever be, anyone's servant.
Victoria was a strict mother, particularly on her daughters, and was determined that they would grow up to be ladies. They were allowed to play with friends just one day a week, with the other six being devoted to their lessons and their chores. They were admonished to never go out without their gloves, to never yell or scream, and to never eat standing on the street rather than seated properly at a table. Septima's father, however, was more lenient and she recalled being disciplined by him only once: when she tried to skip school one day.
Septima began school in 1904 when she was six, attending the Mary Street School. Her parents, however, felt that she was not learning much and so enrolled her with a private teacher who lived across the street from the school. Because her parents were too poor to pay for her education, Septima babysat for the tutor's children in lieu of tuition.
When Septima graduated from sixth grade, there was no public high school for black children in Charleston. Nevertheless, she passed an exam that allowed her to begin attending 9th grade at Avery Academy, a high school founded by missionaries from Massachusetts. Initially all of her teachers were white women whom she admired and sought to emulate. In 1914, two years before Septima's graduation, the first black teachers were hired at Avery, and this undoubtedly nurtured her desire to teach.
There was no money for Septima to continue her studies once she graduated from Avery. Thus at 18, she passed an exam that qualified her to teach in the rural community of Johns Island. After three years in this position, she returned to teach at Avery, where she used her earnings to attend Benedict College in Columbia part time. She eventually went on to earn her master's degree at Hampton Institute in Virginia.
During this time she married a man from out of state, Nerie David Clark. Her mother never forgave her for marrying a man she deemed to be "a stranger." Mr. Clark did not live long after their marriage, during which the couple had two children, only one of which survived.
Mrs. Clark returned to Johns Island where she taught children during the day, then voluntarily taught adults literacy and basic skills during the evenings, often using the Sears catalog as a teaching resource. Although she had her master's degree, Charleston did not hire black teachers at that time.
Mrs. Clark made $35 a week teaching 132 rural black children. Her assistant teacher earned $25. Meanwhile the white teacher across the street was earning $85 teaching three white children. This disparity fueled Mrs. Clark's involvment in the new Civil Rights Movement. Her work, some of which was conducted along side Thurgood Marshall, who would become the first black U.S. Supreme Court Justice, would help lay the foundation for the eventual desegregation of public schools.
After teaching for several years in Columbia, where she was actively involved in politics, Mrs. Clark returned to Charleston. As the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, South Carolina passed a law that banned city or state employees from being involved. Mrs. Clark refused to resign her position as an officer of the NAACP state chapter and was fired, losing her pension after 40 years of teaching in the public school system.
She then went to Tennessee and began teaching at the Highlander Folk School, teaching illiterate sharecroppers to read, fill out driver's license exams and voter registration forms, sign checks and complete order forms from the Sears catalog. This was especially important as some states required literacy and the ability to interpret portions of the U.S. Constitution as prerequisites to voting. One of her students at Highlander was Rosa Parks (at right).
She and her cousin extended the Highlander concept into "Citizenship School," essentially, empowering the black community by not only teaching them how to read and write, but also engendering pride in one's self and one's culture and an understanding of one's rights as a U.S. citizens. This was the crossroads of her most important work with MLK, teaching people how to act collectively and protest nonviolently against racism. It has been estimated that by 1969, Mrs. Clark had been instrumental in registering 700,000 voters.
She and Dr. King, however, had their up's and down's. She felt that he was guilty of gender discrimination, denying women the same equality he sought for black men. She called him on it publicly, saying that women's being treated unequally was "one of the greatest weaknesses of the civil rights movement."
Upon her retirement, Mrs. Clark sued for reinstatement of the pension she lost when she was fired in 1956. She got it and went on to serve two terms on the Charleston County School Board, the same institution that had fired her so long ago. She was also awarded the Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina's highest civilian honor.
Septima P. Clark died on Dec. 15, 1987, and is buried at Old Bethel Methodist Church on Calhoun Street. One of Charleston's most prominent thoroughfares, the Septima P. Clark Parkway (commonly referred to as the Crosstown) was named in her honor, as was Septima P. Clark Academy on James Island.
SOURCES & MORE INFORMATION
Septima Clark wrote two autobiographies. The first, Echo In My Soul (1962), is a combination of her life story, her work at the Highlander Folk School, her views concerning the Jim Crow laws and the legitimacy of the Civil Rights Movement. The second, Ready from Within (1979), was an oral recollection of her life experiences.
Hear Mrs. Clark herself in this oral history interview with Jane Roth, One Person One Vote.
Freedom's Teacher: The Life of Septima Clark, by Katherine Mellen Charron. University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
Septima P. Clark Papers, ca. 1910-1990, at the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture.
"Septima P. Clark and the Struggle for Human Rights," by Grace Jordan McFadden in Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers 1941-1965. Ed. Vicki L. Crawford, Jacqueline Anne Rouse, and Barbara Woods. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, (1993) pp. 85–97 - ISBN 0-253-20832-7