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Freedom's Teacher The Life of Septima Clark (review)

From: Southern Cultures
Volume 18, Number 4, Winter 2012
pp. 112-113 | 10.1353/scu.2012.0037

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Katherine Mellon Charron's Freedom's Teacher, winner of the Julia Cherry Spruill prize for the best monograph on southern women's history, has clearly won the approval of historians, but it richly deserves to reach a wider audience. From her vantage point as the daughter of a black southern teacher, Charron fully understands Septima Clark's life and uses her story to show how black southern teachers worked for generations to provide the foundation from which the Civil Rights Movement could emerge. Her thesis, advanced through Clark's story, posits that the schoolhouse played as important a role in the black struggle for freedom as the church. It is a personal thrill to review this book, since I had a small hand in crafting this thesis, which Charron has brought to full fruition.

I interviewed Septima Clark in 1979 and created from my tapes her second autobiography, published in 1986 as Ready From Within: Septima Clark and the Civil Rights Movement. The first publisher I submitted the manuscript to rejected it, saying quite rightly that there was not enough feminist perspective. When I called Mrs. Clark and asked her to tell me how the women's movement came out of the Civil Rights Movement (my limited understanding), she poured out her pent-up, unexpressed feelings about how the black women's movement came first. She had not expressed this view before, not wanting publicly to criticize Martin Luther King Jr. or the NAACP. This phone conversation became a chapter in Ready From Within called "The Role of Women" and became a speech that Mrs. Clark often gave from then on. (Significantly, Alice Walker and her Wild Trees Press first published Ready From Within.)

Charron situates Clark's life in the long line of southern black women activist educators, who devoted their lives to helping people help themselves and improve their communities. The seed for this understanding was planted in Charron by her mother Patsy Berry Nixon, a high school teacher in Charlotte, North Carolina. The seed was nurtured by Charron's professor, Nellie Y. McKay, who, after Charron finished her thesis on Clark, gave her a list of autobiographies written by black women teachers. These autobiographies form the evidence that Charron uses to support the idea of the schoolhouse (women's work) being as important a site of activism as the church (men's work). Charron also uses to good effect Clark's two assisted autobiographies and the five non-published interviews with her, plus Clark's papers and extensive other archival sources.

The documentation here is unassailable, but this book is beautifully written enough that it can satisfy the reader as an example of the complex art of biography. Although the book is appropriately written in the historical third person, Charron quotes so extensively from interview tapes that Clark's voice, with its rich variations, comes through clearly. The book is an intertwined biography both of Clark's life and of the freedom struggle in its political, educational, and social fullness— capturing on paper the way our personal lives are always deeply enmeshed in our historical realities.

Charron argues that black women teachers worked at the grassroots level as liaisons between school and community, a delicate situation when state-run education was in the hands of white supremacists. The pressing motive for black women teachers was to ensure a better future for their own, and their community's, children. The activities of black teachers meshed with their culture of black clubwomen to form a national network of support. This book reformulates our understanding of both the Civil Rights and the women's movements—as important for the general reader as for historians. The reformulation comes from the perspective of southern black women, but it does not belong to them alone, for it makes the whole story more meaningful and more broadly comprehensible.

We cannot have too many well-written books about the importance of teachers. We humans are unique in our ability to accumulate knowledge and pass it on to succeeding generations in a public, socially organized manner. Teaching and learning are central human activities, an assertion I make as the daughter of a teacher, too. Much too...



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