Septima Clark

In my peacemaking training methods I’ve used experiential education, sometimes called “direct education,” methods and tools. This doesn’t come naturally to me as I was raised on lecture-centered teaching methods. I can do that well. But I’ve learned that experiential learning is far more effective in transforming people’s views and mobilizing them for action. That kind of education has deep roots. One of the most significant areas where experiential education was developed was in the Civil Rights Movement and the Citizenship Schools, drawing lessons for literacy directly out of the challenges people faced in unjust situations. Septima Clark was the driving force for the educational wing of the movement.
Daniel Buttry

Septima Poinsette Clark (1898-1987)

“I have a great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking. I consider chaos a gift.”
Septima Clark

03 Septima Clark at Highlander in 1957

Cover of the 1956-57 report from the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, where Septima Clark was director of education. Many of Septima Clark’s papers now reside at the Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston, which has digitized a significant portion of her collection and placed it online.

Born in South Carolina where education was racially segregated along with every other aspect of social life, Septima Clark had to struggle constantly to get her education. By 18 she was teaching on John’s Island off the Carolina coast. She got rid of the rote reading books filled with irrelevant sentences and pictures of white children. Instead, she rapidly taught illiterate adults how to read by starting with their life experiences, such as ordering from the Sears catalog.

Clark first became an activist with the NAACP. When she moved back to Charleston she joined in NAACP campaigns to get black principals into black schools and to equalize the pay of black teachers with white teachers. She mobilized her students to get thousands of signatures on petitions for these causes. She eventually became vice-president of the Charleston branch of the NAACP.

In 1954 Clark attended a workshop at the Highlander School in Tennessee. Miles Horton (featured in Blessed Are the Peacemakers) quickly hired her as Highlander’s director of workshops. There, she developed a program to turn illiterate sharecroppers into voters. She taught trainers to teach people how to fill out voter registration forms, driver’s license forms, mail-order forms, and how to sign checks. Among her students at Highlander was Rosa Parks from the Montgomery, Alabama NAACP. Parks went back to Montgomery to launch the campaign to desegregate the bus system, one of the key battles in the civil rights movement.

When Ella Baker (who I also have profiled in this series) saw how effective Clark’s workshops were she invited Clark to head up the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Crusade for Citizenship. In that capacity Clark trained teachers and organized “citizenship schools” throughout the South to teach illiterate blacks how to read and write and to educate them about their civic rights so that they could register to vote.

We also can recommend this biography of Septima Clark.

We also can recommend this biography of Septima Clark.

Literacy was necessary as part of voter registration because the segregationist Southern counties often used difficult literacy tests as a bar to the ballot box. Clark taught the teachers and trainers who, in the late 1950s and into the 1960s, spread throughout the South educating and equipping new voters. Many schools met in back rooms of shops to avoid the attention and violence of racist vigilantes. One practical result was that many African-American men and women soon owned small copies of the U.S. Constitution that they kept in wallets, purses and on bedside tables in their homes. By the time Clark retired in 1972 more than 10,000 citizenship schoolteachers had been trained and a huge number of African-Americans had been taught to read, write and join the struggle for their full rights as U.S. citizens. By 1969 over 700,000 African-Americans had become registered voters. The voter registration drives in Mississippi and Alabama that broke the oppressive yoke of segregation could never have succeeded without this extensive educational campaign designed and led by Septima Clark.

Clark received many honors later in life as the impact of her work was recognized. The SCLC gave her their highest honor, the Drum Major for Justice Award. U.S. President Jimmy Carter (also featured in Blessed Are the Peacemakers) honored her with a Living Legacy Award. Her second autobiography Ready from Within: Septima Clark and the Civil Rights Movement received the American Book Award. She said, “Don’t think everything went right. It didn’t.” But the right that did happen was in large part due to Clark’s vision, passion for education, and capacity to turn vision into a life-changing, society-transforming movement.

Meet more peacemakers like Septima Clark

This profile on Septima Clark comes from the pages of my book, Blessed are the Peacemakers. It contains more than 60 inspirational real-life profiles plus dozens more shorter stories that are grouped in the introductions to each section. Blessed are the Peacemakers features well-know heroes like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. as well as heroes you may have never heard of. This book circles the planet, reporting the largely unknown story of how peacemakers from a diversity of backgrounds and spiritualities have shaped our 20th and 21st centuries.