Septima Clark

Septima Clark

“The greatest evil in our country today is...ignorance...We need to be taught to study rather than to believe.” 

 Illustration by  Priscilla Weidlein

Illustration by Priscilla Weidlein

As a teacher, Septima Poinsette Clark's civil rights activism was uniquely focused on education, and the systematic racism that was perpetuated through schools. She believed that "knowledge could empower marginalized groups in ways that formal legal equality couldn't."

Clark's father was a former slave, who worked as a house servant. Once freed, he found work on a Charleston-based ship, and met Clark's mother on a voyage to Haiti. They had eight children, Septima Poinsette Clark was their second, born in 1898.

Clark's own schooling proved difficult, as black schools were terribly underfunded. High school was not even offered to blacks at the time.  She worked to pay for her own schooling at the Avery Normal Institute, an all-black private school with white teachers.

Clark wanted to be a teacher and was certainly qualified, but Charleston did not allow black public school teachers at that time. She relocated to Saint John's Island to teach at a black school there, earning far less than her white counterparts at other schools.

It was at this time that Clark joined the NAACP, meeting many of the key figures in the Civil Rights movement, and learning the best methods to protest the inequalities she encountered. She believed in a grassroots approach to civil rights, building up local children and undereducated adults to become leaders.

With the NAACP's help, Clark was able to successfully campaign against the laws that prohibited black people from being hired as teachers at public schools. Equal pay among teachers of all races was her next successful mission, and she saw her own pay triple as a result.

After a law was passed in South Carolina that prohibited public employees from being NAACP members, Clark quit her job to continue her work with the NAACP. She then moved to Tennessee to continue teaching at a progressive pro-integration school where she had previously taught workshops in the summer. There, she found herself directing their Citizenship School program which educated adults in the community so that they could pass the literacy test that was required for voting, thus encouraging civil accountability through learning. She found that reading also inspired confidence in these adults, which inspired them to stand up to the white power structure in their own community.

Her quiet, patient method of promoting blacks in as teachers and principals in schools, teaching literacy, to empower a generation of fighters goes unnoticed among any, but, those that know her work consider her the "Queen Mother" of the Civil Rights Movement, and largely credit her with the resulting success of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and generations of educated, confident black people ready to make a change.

"Clark was a truth seeker who emboldened others with her vision. Her memory can help us to channel this chaos." -Priscilla Weidlein

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ProLiteracy, the largest adult literacy and basic education membership organization in the nation, believes that a safer, stronger, and more sustainable society starts with an educated adult population. For more than 60 years, ProLiteracy has been working across the globe to create a world where every person can read and write.

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