SEPTIMA POINSETTE CLARK

(1898 – 1987)

 

“We are living now at a time when the question is: Who’s going to do it and when? — not whether it can be done.”

Septima Poinsette Clark was an educator and civil rights leader whose citizenship schools helped drive one of the largest voter education initiatives for African Americans.

Born in Charleston, South Carolina, she was the second of eight children. Her father Peter was born enslaved, and her mother Victoria was raised in Haiti. Her mother’s upbringing as a free black person played a major role in encouraging Clark to get an education. She attended public school, then worked to earn the money needed to attend the Avery Normal Institute, a private school for African Americans. Thereafter, Clark qualified as a teacher, but Charleston did not hire African-Americans to teach in its public schools. Instead, she became an instructor on South Carolina’s Johns Island in 1916.

Clark returned to Charleston in 1919 to teach at Avery Normal Institute, and she joined the local branch of the NAACP in an effort to get the city of Charleston to hire African American teachers. After this major victory, Clark was continually involved with the NAACP, and in 1945 she worked with Thurgood Marshall on a case that sought equal pay for black and white teachers. By 1961, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had taken over the Highlander Folk School’s education project she had led in Tennessee. Many civil rights leaders participated in her workshops, including Rosa Parks. Clark then joined the SCLC as its Director of Education and Teaching. Under her leadership, more than 800 citizenship schools were created. After Clark retired from the SCLC, President Jimmy Carter honored her with a Living Legacy Award.