Read more about Septima P. Clark
Biography from The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.
A pioneer in grassroots citizenship education, Septima Clark was called the “Mother of the Movement” and the epitome of a “community teacher, intuitive fighter for human rights and leader of her unlettered and disillusioned people” (McFadden, “Septima Clark,” 85; King, July 1962).
The daughter of a laundrywoman and a former slave, Clark was born 3 May 1898 in Charleston, South Carolina. In 1916 she graduated from secondary school and, after passing her teacher’s exam, taught at a black school on Johns Island, just outside of Charleston. For more than 30 years, she taught throughout South Carolina, including 18 years in Columbia and 9 in Charleston.
Clark pursued her education during summer breaks. In 1937 Clark studied under W. E. B. Du Bois at Atlanta University before eventually earning her BA (1942) from Benedict College in Columbia, and her MA (1946) from Virginia’s Hampton Institute. Clark also worked with the YWCA and participated in a class action lawsuit filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that led to pay equity for black and white teachers in South Carolina. In 1956 South Carolina passed a statute that prohibited city and state employees from belonging to civil rights organizations. After 40 years of teaching, Clark’s employment contract was not renewed when she refused to resign from the NAACP.
By the time of her firing in 1956, Clark had already begun to conduct workshops during her summer vacations at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, a grassroots education center dedicated to social justice. Rosa Parks participated in one of Clark’s workshops just months before she helped launch the Montgomery bus boycott. After losing her teaching position, Myles Horton hired Clark full time as Highlander’s director of workshops. Believing that literacy and political empowerment are inextricably linked, Clark taught people basic literacy skills, their rights and duties as U.S. citizens, and how to fill out voter registration forms.
When the state of Tennessee forced Highlander to close in 1961, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) established the Citizenship Education Program (CEP), modeled on Clark’s citizenship workshops. Clark became SCLC’s director of education and teaching, conducting teacher training and developing curricula. King appreciated Clark’s “expert direction” of the CEP, which he called “the bulwark of SCLC’s program department” (King, 11 August 1965). Although Clark found that most men at SCLC “didn’t respect women too much,” she thought that King “really felt that black women had a place in the movement” (Clark, 25 July 1976; McFadden, “Septima Clark,” 93).
After retiring from SCLC in 1970, Clark conducted workshops for the American Field Service. In 1975 she was elected to the Charleston, South Carolina, School Board. The following year, the governor of South Carolina reinstated her teacher’s pension after declaring that she had been unjustly terminated in 1956. She was given a Living Legacy Award by President Jimmy Carter in 1979 and published her second memoir, Ready from Within, in 1986.