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  • "I train the people to do their own talking":Septima Clark and Women in the Civil Rights Movement
  • Jacquelyn Dowd Hall (bio), Eugene P. Walker (bio), Katherine Mellen Charron (bio), and David P. Cline (bio)

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Septima Poinsette Clark is a name that should be as familiar to us as Rosa Parks. Both women contributed significantly to the African American freedom struggle. Each had a long record of participation in the NAACP; each challenged segregation and was arrested as a result; and each worked with Martin Luther King. Septima Clark (right) and Rosa Parks (left) with Coretta Scott King, at the "1000 Women Honor Rosa Parks" event in Detroit, 1961, from the Septima Poinsette Clark Scrapbook, 1919-1983, courtesy of Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, College of Charleston, Charleston, South Carolina.

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At both Highlander and SCLC, Septima Clark (here) and her colleagues prepared a network of grassroots teachers in week-long training sessions. Prospective teachers from across the South learned how to recruit students, gauge their educational levels, develop lesson plans, and much more. As Director of Education at Highlander for the cover of its 25th Annual Report, from the Septima Poinsette Clark Scrapbook, 1919-1983, courtesy of Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, College of Charleston, Charleston, South Carolina.

Septima Poinsette Clark is a name that should be as familiar to us as Rosa Parks. Both women contributed significantly to the African American freedom struggle, and striking similarities exist in their stories. Each had a long record of participation in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAAC P); each challenged segregation and was arrested as a result; and each worked with Martin Luther King. In fact, four months before Rosa Parks's infamous arrest, she attended a workshop at the Highlander Folk School, an interracial adult education center in Monteagle, Tennessee, where activists gathered to devise solutions for problems in their communities and where Clark served as Director of Education.

Yet, unlike Parks, Clark never captured the national media's attention for her Civil Rights activism. This certainly offers one explanation for her relative obscurity. Another lies in Clark's age. Born on May 3, 1898, in Charleston, South Carolina, she was nearly sixty years old when the classic phase of the Civil Rights Movement began, which has eclipsed her role in narratives that focus on youth, such as those in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Finally, there is the nature of Clark's work in the Movement: using education to empower grassroots people, particularly African American women, so they might become leading citizens in their communities. [End Page 32]

Septima Clark spent forty years as a public school teacher and civic organizer in the Jim Crow South, teaching citizenship by helping people to help themselves. In the mid-1950s, she drew on her experiences to develop a citizenship education program that directly linked self-help to politics by teaching African Americans to read and write so they could pass the literacy tests required by southern states to register to vote. Beyond adding their names to the voting rolls, however, students also discovered how to transform their relationship to the wider society. Teachers relied on charts, for example, to explain the structure of local and state government as they led discussions of what citizens do; they taught people how to create a household budget, balance a check book, and apply for Social Security benefits. As students learned of citizenship responsibilities that included establishing local voting leagues, paying taxes, and lobbying for improved municipal services, they came to understand citizenship as more than an individual legal right they possessed. Indeed, African American adults who passed through the classes acquired both the knowledge and the skills to apply their citizenship on behalf of the broader community.

In editing these oral history interviews, we have chosen excerpts that highlight telling moments in Septima Clark's personal development and that underscore her activist approaches. Foremost, conditions in the rural and urban segregated schools in which Clark taught sensitized her to the need to advocate on behalf...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 31-52
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-20
Open Access
No
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