By Marian Wright Edelman
During this Black History Month, I was deeply honored to be inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame at the same time as Septima Clark—the woman Dr. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Jr. called the “Mother of the Movement.”
Throughout much of her long life Clark was often at odds with South Carolina leaders and made other enemies as she traveled throughout the Deep South pioneering literacy and citizenship education for Black Americans. Yet, her richly deserved Hall of Fame induction symbolizes just how far South Carolina and the nation have come – in part, thanks to the work of citizen heroines such as Mrs. Clark.
Clark was born in Charleston in 1898, the second of eight born to a former slave father and laundrywoman mother. She graduated from Avery Normal Institute in 1916, with a teaching certificate because the city of Charleston would not hire Black teachers, she found a job in a rural community on Johns Island.
The White teacher in that community had only three White students but was paid $85 a month, while the Black school had two teachers for 132 children and the two Black teachers were paid a combined salary of $60. It was the first of many injustices throughout her long career. But as time went on she started speaking out even when others around her would not. As she put it simply years later: “They were afraid, but I wasn’t.”
In 1919 Mrs. Clark returned to Charleston, where she volunteered for a NAACP petition effort that ultimately changed the local law prohibiting Black teachers. For the next several, decades she taught primarily in Charleston and Columbia while continuing her own education in summer at Columbia University in New York ; at Atlanta University, where W.E.B. DuBois was one of her professors; at Benedict College, where she finally received a bachelor’s degree; and at Hampton Institute, where she earned her master’s.
She fought for equalization of salaries for Black and White teachers in South Carolina. After Federal District Court Judge J. Waties Waring, following the law rather than White southern mores, ordered equal pay for teachers and also ruled that Black citizens must be permitted to vote in primary elections, he and his wife and Septima became friends and social pariahs in their communities. But after 40 years, her career as a South Carolina public school teacher came to an abrupt halt in 1956 when the state legislature ruled that state employees could not belong to the NAACP. Mrs. Clark refused to resign or lie about her membership, and was dismissed.
Mrs. Clark had already attended several meetings at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, the legendary grassroots education center devoted to social justice. In the summer of 1955 she led a workshop at Highlander on developing leadership whose participants included a shy, quiet NAACP member from Montgomery, Ala., Rosa Parks.
After Mrs. Clark was fired from her teaching job in 1956, Highlander’s extraordinary director, Myles Horton, invited her to be Highlander’s full-time director of workshops, where she pioneered innovative programs that combined literacy education for adults with citizenship and voter education. When the state of Tennessee forced Highlander to close in 1961 Mrs. Clark continued the same work as director of education and teaching for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)’s new Citizen Education Program. Her workshops formed the basis for the Citizenship School movement she helped establish across the South.
Fannie Lou Hamer was among the local leaders who volunteered to help. Clark eventually helped establish and recruit and train teachers for hundreds of Citizenship Schools: “They were in people’s kitchens, in beauty parlors, and under trees in the summertime. I went all over the South, sometimes visiting three Citizenship Schools in one day…One time I heard Andy Young say that the Citizenship Schools were the base on which the whole civil rights movement was built. And that’s probably very much true.”
Rosa Parks also said that while she may have sat down once, Mrs. Clark kept on working and building: “I am always very respectful and very much in awe of the presence of Septima Clark because her life story makes the effort that I have made very minute. I only hope that there is a possible chance that some of her great courage and dignity and wisdom has rubbed off on me.”
Even later in life was never hesitant to speak up. One of the injustices after her 1956 firing was that South Carolina refused to pay the pension she had earned for her 40 years of teaching or the pay she would have earned in the few years before her retirement if she had not been dismissed. She did not give up on waiting for those wrongs to be righted, and in 1976 the governor reinstated her pension and in 1981 the legislature approved paying her back pay.
Near the end of her life she said: “Education is my big priority right now. I want people to see children as human beings and not to think of the money that it costs nor to think of the amount of time that it will take, but to think of the lives that can be developed into Americans who will redeem the soul of America and will really make America a great country.” Let’s honor Septima Clark’s legacy right now by making this priority our own with urgency and perseverance.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.