Historical Figures

Septima Poinsette Clark, Mother of the Civil Rights Movement

Last updated:2022-07-25

Civil rights activist, Septima Poinsette Clark (1898 – 1987) developed workshops and working groups in favor of literacy and the right to vote for African Americans. Martin Luther King refers to her as "the mother of the civil rights movement".

A strict upbringing

Septima Poinsette was born on May 3, 1898 in Charleston, South Carolina (United States), in the midst of of segregation. His father, Peter, was born into slavery; after the abolition, he finds a job on board a boat. His mother, Victoria, works as a laundress; Having vowed to herself never to be anyone's servant, she sets out to uplift herself and her family in society.

Septima and her siblings receive a gendered and very strict upbringing, especially for girls. Victoria wishing to make distinguished ladies out of her daughters, they receive strict instructions such as not to shout, not to eat in public or even not to go out without gloves. Septima quickly rebels against her mother's severity.

Septima finished her secondary education in 1916. The family's finances did not allow her to pursue studies and the young girl, then aged 18, began to work as a teacher. Being black, she could not obtain a position in the public schools of Charleston, but taught in a school in the Sea Islands and then in Avery.

The beginning of an engagement with the NAACP

During the day, Septima teaches the children of the school, with means far inferior to those granted to the school for white children located in the same street. For 132 students, they are only two teachers, and do not earn half of what their counterparts in the neighboring school earn. After her teaching hours, Septima takes on her free time to teach adults to read, and develops teaching methods from the material she has.

It was while teaching on the Sea Islands that Septima first heard of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1919, when she returned to Charleston to teach at a private school for black children, she joined the NAACP. That same year, against the order of the school principal, Septima led his students across town to sign a petition demanding the possibility of having black principals. She obtained 10,000 signatures and, in 1920, she won her case.

Equal pay

In 1923, Septima married Nerie David Clark, a former Navy cook from North Carolina. Her mother disapproves of this marriage, considering Nerie to be an outsider, and her relationship with her daughter is deteriorating greatly. In 1926, their first child died and this tragedy hit Septima hard.

In 1929, Septima Poinsette Clark and her husband settled permanently in Columbia where the young woman took up a teaching position at Booker T. Washington High School. She becomes a recognized and respected member of the teaching community there, and returns to her studies part-time to complete her education and obtain her university degree.

During this period, Septima remained committed to the NAACP. In 1945, she joined an important lawsuit whose issue was equal pay between black and white teachers; the case is a major success for the NAACP.

The Highlander Folk School

In 1947, Septima Poinsette Clark returned to Charleston to care for her mother who had had a stroke. A teacher in public schools in Charleston, she became vice president of the NAACP and was also involved in the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), an interracial association aimed at developing opportunities for power for women.

In 1956, South Carolina prohibited state employees from joining civil rights associations. Adamantly refusing to leave the NAACP, Septima lost his public school job and was unable to find work. Many even avoid being seen with her, fearing for their jobs.

At the same time, Septima became involved in literacy programs with the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. She teaches adults, particularly with a view to encouraging them to use their right to vote, and directs literacy actions herself.

Citizenship schools

With her cousin, Bernice Robinson, Septima Poinsette Clark developed the program and established real “citizenship schools”, schools of citizenship. Beyond reading and writing, they teach their students to complete the driver's license exam and voter registration forms, or to sign checks. Through these schools, Septima strives to support a sense of civic rights and cultural pride within Black communities. The students of the citizenships schools often become teachers there in turn, or engage in the movement for civil rights; Rosa Parks will be one of the many students.

Based on the literacy methods developed by Septima at the beginning and then throughout his career, the schools of citizenship spread in the Southern states to the point of being transferred to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), chaired by Martin Luther King. With the budget of the SCLC, the schools of citizenship train 10,000 citizens who in turn run schools in the southern states, representing a considerable popular education movement. Before 1969, nearly 700,000 African Americans were registered to vote thanks to the Septima movement.

Within the SCLC

Septima Poinsette Clark becomes director of education for the SCLC and becomes the first woman to rise to a leadership position within the movement. This is not without its problems, and Septima will also have to face the sexism of some members of the SCLC. She would say that issues of sexism were one of the greatest weaknesses of the civil rights movement.

In 1970, Septima retired from its activities within the SCLC. In 1979, US President Jimmy Carter presented him with a Living Legacy Award. In 1987, his autobiography Ready from Within:Septima Clark and the Civil Rights Movement wins the American Book Award.

Septima Poinsett Clark died on December 15, 1987. Her commitment to literacy and the civil rights movement earned her recognition from the entire movement; Martin Luther King referred to her as "the Mother of the movement".