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Child Watch® Column: "Honoring Septima Clark"

Release Date: February 28, 2014

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 Mrs. Septima Clark—the woman Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the “Mother of the Movement.” Readers familiar with Brian Lanker’s marvelous book I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America will recognize Mrs. Clark as the proud, strong, and beautiful woman with silver braids whose portrait graces the front cover. Brian captured her indomitable spirit a few weeks before her death in 1987 at age 89 and called me with excitement saying he knew after a very few moments and a few shots that he had found his cover. Throughout much of her long life Mrs. 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 like Mrs. Clark.

Mrs. Clark was born in Charleston in 1898, the second of eight children born to a former slave father and laundrywoman mother. She graduated from Avery Normal Institute in 1916 with a teaching certificate, but because the city of Charleston would not hire Black teachers, she found a job in a rural community on Johns Island, South Carolina. 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 the summers—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 forty 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 signed her name to a letter to 726 other Black teachers asking them to protest the law, but only 11 of them agreed to attend a meeting with her and the superintendent, and on the day of the meeting only four showed up. She later said that effort was the big failure of her life, and she believed it failed because she tried to push the other teachers into something they weren’t ready for. The lesson she learned was that people needed to be trained first so that they would be prepared to act—and the trainings she went on to develop helped shape the course of the civil rights movement.

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, Alabama, Mrs. 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.

In addition to teaching basic reading skills using familiar materials like the Sears catalog and covering practical topics like how to write checks, these “schools” taught basic civics and citizenship rights and focused on the arcane voting requirements specific to each local community that were being used to disenfranchise Black voters. Classes met on evenings and weekends in churches, store backrooms, and other available spaces. Lessons were written on dry-cleaning bags in place of blackboards. They relied on training local citizens to teach other community members; Fannie Lou Hamer was among the local leaders who volunteered. Mrs. 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.”

As a woman in the movement, Mrs. Clark said she felt the men around her often did not do a good job of listening to or including her or other women. Yet she observed that it was largely women who got things done: “In stories about the civil rights movement you hear mostly about the black ministers. But if you talk to the women who were there, you’ll hear another story. I think the civil rights movement would never have taken off if some women hadn’t started to speak up.” Even later in life Mrs. Clark 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 forty 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.

Although her signature accomplishment may be the programs she established for Black adults, she never lost her original and enduring passion for educating children. She celebrated her 78th birthday by becoming the first Black woman elected to the Charleston School Board. 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

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

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Here's what others have said:

Submitted by JB at: March 6, 2014
Septima Poinsette Clark is the alpha and the omega in my I Dream a World book. Marian, thanks for sharing the story which I hope will motivate many.

Submitted by Joy at: March 3, 2014
Ms. Clark was a true woman of courage and I so admire her.

Submitted by Anonymous at: March 3, 2014
Absolutely awesome. Material for teaching.

Submitted by Inus at: March 3, 2014
Marian--Great article. As you may know, since my retirement from the Ohio Senate IN 2011, I have been publishing THE COLUMBUS AFRICAN AMERICAN. Could I have your permission to reprint this article in the March (Women's History Month) edition of our news journal?

Submitted by Qiueen at: March 3, 2014
Dear Mrs. Wright Edelman, First of all, congratulations upon being inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame. As you know, I, too, am a South Carolinian, and I am quite familiar with the works of both you and Mrs. Septima Clark. I find your website very resourceful and recently listed it as one of the key resources for the Social Political Action (SPA) Committee for the AME Zion Church. I am serving my 3rd four-year term as Chair of this committee. Also, at our recent Executive Board meeting of the Connectional lay Council, I presented the "Cradle Through College" model in the SPA Strategic Action Plan as an initiative that we should undertake. Queen E. Degraphenreid

Submitted by Char at: March 3, 2014
Ms. Septima Clark and Ms. Marian Wright Edelman are two women who used their courage, commitment and passion to fight for social justice. They both dedicated their lives to ensuring our children are valued and educated to be all that they can be. I am extremely grateful for their persistence and love of what is right and just. Ms. Wright Edelman - we continue to lift you up in love and prayers.

Submitted by Blaq Mike at: March 3, 2014
The proudest moment in my life to be asked to represent the Poinsette -Clark families and unveil her portrait for such a High Honor. The Plaque will soon be home in Charleston's Avery Institute Museum with her other awards and historic documents. D.Michael Clark G.Nephew

Submitted by letpeacereign at: March 2, 2014
What an amazing woman, what an amazing life, what an amazing role model. I am in awe.

Submitted by Anonymous at: March 2, 2014
The book, I Dream of a World graces my coffee table to this day. Congratulations on your honor and thank you for this portrait of Mrs. Clark.

Submitted by Sue at: March 2, 2014
Very enlightening and inspirational

Submitted by Deb at: March 2, 2014
Powerful story!

Submitted by Anna at: March 1, 2014
Very good article. Was Clark her maiden name?

Submitted by Anonymous at: March 1, 2014
Thank you.

Submitted by Anonymous at: March 1, 2014
Congratulations to you Mrs. Wright Edelman and thank you for sharing this story of the great Septima Clark, yet another lesson of America's history everyone should know.

Submitted by mariana at: March 1, 2014
I really had not heard much about this woman before now. It is information like this that our history keeps from us. Instead, I hear much about the black man who is raping, killing, abusing, cursing, stealing, and neglecting his children. What WE need to do is focus on our great, rich history and TEACH our children that there is more to life than a 200 pair of sneakers, a $500 watch, a $2,000 flat screen, a rimmed up BMW, a saggin pair of pants that expose boxer shorts, and the loudest rap music one can stand! I am almost appalled at what WE have allowed our society to become. No one can blame us, but us. My moma was a fighter, like Ms. Clark, and she taught us morals, values, the value of an education, and discipline. What are we teaching our children today?

Submitted by Lorraine at: March 1, 2014
Thanks for sending the information about this great lady. I did not know about her contribution., so magnificent! To civil rights.

Submitted by Anonymous at: March 1, 2014
A beautiful story of how one woman's courage can change the future for millions of others. Thank you for teaching it to us. I will teach it to others. Juliet

Submitted by CHAPPYE at: March 1, 2014

Submitted by DLE at: February 28, 2014
It was great and very inspirational to read of the accomplishments of Ms. Clark. Her story is an inspiration to all of us who get weary some time. No matter her age, she continued to fight for education for children and for voter rights to those who were targeted for disenfranchisement.

Submitted by E-Mah-Day at: February 28, 2014
That was a beautifully-written article! I have owned "I Dream a World" for years and plan to share the story of those remarkable women with my granddaughter when she is a little older. Congratulations, Mrs. Edelman, for your well-deserved induction!