Parks, who has been called the Mother of the Civil Rights
Movement, well remembers the first time she met Septima
It was at a civil rights workshop in Tennessee in the summer
of 1955. African-Americans and sympathetic whites had begun
to meet quietly, secretly, throughout the South to plan
their counterattacks against the segregation system, and
to train the new corps of volunteers for that fight. These
volunteers would come to be called civil rights workers.
Septima Clark, already a 30-year veteran of her people's
struggle, was one of the trainers.
"At that time I was very nervous, very troubled in
my mind about the events that were occurring in Montgomery,"
Rosa Parks says. "But then I had the chance to work
with Septima. She was such a calm and dedicated person in
the midst of all that danger. I thought, 'If I could only
catch some of her spirit.' I wanted to have the courage
to accomplish the kinds of things that she had been doing
for years." After the sessions with Clark, Parks returned
to Montgomery saying she had a firmness and self-confidence
she had not felt before. Three months later she refused
to give up her seat on a bus so that a white person could
sit down, the act which marks the beginning of the modern
civil rights movement.
Septima Poinsette Clark had that type of inspirational effect
on most of those whom she taught; many of Septima Clark's
students had that type of effect on the rest of the world.
She was born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1898, and
until the end of her life you could tell it from her accent;
never loud...always patient and firm. Single mother, public
school teacher, quietly devout Christian, she began organizing
anti-racist activities in the Deep South in the 1920's.
She stuck through the Movement in its most difficult moments:
dark nights of fear on lonely back highways...the bombing
and burning of churches and meeting halls...the beatings
and murders of friends and co-workers. She volunteered to
work in the most dangerous spots, surviving jail and two
heart attacks in the process. And she lived to witness the
Movement's greatest triumphs: the end of segregated public
facilities...the passage of the great civil rights legislation
of the 1960's...the election of African-American public
officials in the South for the first time in a hundred years.
before she sent Rosa Parks back to Montgomery and into the
history books, Septima had been fired from her job with
the South Carolina public schools when she refused to quit
the local chapter of the NAACP. She had been an NAACP member
since 1919, almost from the date of its inception.
At the age of 58 and following 40 years as a public school
teacher, the thought of retirement simply never seems to
have entered her mind. She took a job as Director of Education
at the Highlander Center in Tennessee, which had long been
active in the Southern struggles for unionization and racial
equality. The Center was often accused by Southern segregationists
of being run by Communists.
Septima discounted the red-baiting, saying "that was
the general feeling you got in those days whenever the races
mixed." Still, becoming a full-time civil rights worker
was an immense leap in the dark for her. "For three
long months I couldn't sleep," she recalled about the
period following her arrival at Highlander. "Then at
the end of that time it seemed to me as if my mind cleared
up, and I decided then that I must have been right."
Since the end of the Civil War, the states of the Old Confederacy
had sunk in their teeth and sucked at the life of their
former slaves while the nation turned its back and looked
the other way. And when these African-American citizens
got tired of their condition and said they'd had enough,
the violence broke upon them like sheets of summer rain.
They lost their jobs. They were beaten. They were jailed.
Their houses were firebombed. They were dragged from their
homes in the silent screaming of the night by ghostly men
in flowing robes and hung from trees and burned, their body
parts sliced off and passed around the crowd to be put on
mantelpieces in pickle jars as souvenirs. Violence, and
the threat of violence, had kept the Black South in check
for a hundred years. But by the end of the 1950's, in shanty-town
villages and cross-the-track communities throughout the
South, intimidation was no longer working. The spirit of
Freedom was rising, and many were catching it.
An army of civil rights workers spread out across South,
sitting in at lunch counters, marching in the face of police
dogs and riot sticks, registering the disenfranchised. They
were volatile, volcanic meteors that streaked across the
Southern skies and changed a way of life forever. Some saw
their contribution in thundering, inspirational speeches...some
were quiet pilgrims making witness to their faiths in jail
cells. Septima, the lifelong teacher, figured she'd set
up a few schools to show her people how to take advantage
of the new rights that were being opened up to them.
"I just tried to create a little chaos," Septima
said, explaining her role. "Chaos is a good thing.
God created the whole world out of it. Change is what comes
area that needed changing most was the area of voting rights
for African-Americans in the South. Legally, Black Southerners
had the right to vote. However, most were kept from the
polls by the various state "literacy tests." Prospective
voters were asked to read and then "interpret"
a section of the state or national constitutions. The products
of inferior, segregated school systems, many adult Blacks
could barely read or write their own names. Most did not
even bother to try to register.
First through the Highlander Center and later through Martin
Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference,
Septima organized a series of citizenship schools across
the South to train local leaders in such skills as how to
teach reading and writing and how to pass the literacy tests.
The results were revolutionary.
"One of the fellows we were teaching in Alabama went
up to the bank in his little home town to cash a check,"
Septima said. "The white man took out his pen and said,
'I'll make the X.' And the Black fellow said, 'You don't
have to make the X for me, because I can write my own name.'
The white guy says, 'My God, them niggers done learned to
"At the time, people thought I had new-fangled ideas,
but I guess those new-fangled ideas worked out, didn't they?"
Spectacularly so. The Citizenship School Movement trained
more than 10,000 community leaders from 1957 to 1970 through
nearly 1,000 grassroots, independent schools that operated
at one time or another in every county in South Carolina,
nearly 90 counties in Georgia, and in all of the heavily-Black
areas of the rest of the Deep South. At one point in 1964,
almost 200 schools operated simultaneously. Former Atlanta
Mayor Andrew Young, who served as Septima's supervisor at
SCLC, said that the Citizenship Schools were the "foundation"
of the civil rights movement, "as much responsible
for transforming the South as anything anybody did."
It was a transformation of fire and blood. Several of Septima's
friends, colleagues and students were beaten or murdered
during the course of the struggle. Police rode down on demonstrators
with horses or attacked them with dogs and fire hoses. In
the most dangerous towns, civil rights workers had to spend
each night in a different home in order to stay alive. Septima
herself was arrested in a frightening, nighttime police
raid on Highlander. The civil rights center was padlocked
by local officials and later set on fire by a mob.
Septima confessed that the attacks angered her and tested
her commitment to Christian forgiveness and King's nonviolent
philosophy. Once, after policemen clubbed a group of her
friends in Mississippi, she said "I knew that I couldn't
beat those men, but I wished that a chandelier would drop
on their heads.".
That fighting spirit came directly from her mother, a fiery
and strong-willed Haitian. Victoria Anderson Poinsette was
fiercely proud of the fact that she had never been a slave
although she was brought up in slavery time. She was a strict
disciplinarian who left her daughter with a legacy of straightforwardness
and courage. Septima talked of her mother facing down a
white policeman near the turn of the century, shouting from
her porch, "I'm a little piece of leather but well
put together, so watch out!"
learned from my mother not to be afraid," Septima once
said. She traveled to the most violent sections of the South,
often with only one or two companions, calm in the face
of the fury, the danger never deterring her.
But fearlessness and anger did not mix in her. "I never
felt that getting angry would do you any good other than
hurt your own digestion," she explained. "It kept
you from eating, which I liked to do." She argued passionately
with student leaders such as Stokely Carmichael that they
resist the natural urge to retaliate against the racists.
Her work brought her in contact with Dorothy Cotton, now
Director of Student Affairs at Cornell University, who taught
in the Citizenship Schools and served as a fellow staff
member with Septima at SCLC. Cotton said that Septima had
the effect of changing people's lives from the instant they
first met her.
"The first time Septima saw me she sat down to drink
a cup of tea with me; she wanted to know who I was, where
I was from. At the time I was just an unknown; somebody
who was attending one of her workshops. But just by talking,
she made me feel important. She did that with everybody
she met, and she met thousands and thousands of people during
Cotton said one of her strongest memories of Septima was
someone who had great patience with the people of the various
towns and rural areas who were being.
"I was almost ready to close out a workshop at Highlander
one time when an elderly man got up to leave. I tried to
stop him because I wanted everyone to hear everything that
I had to talk about. But he insisted, and finally he just
ignored me and left. Afterwards, Septima gave me a little
lecture, which she entitled 'when you got to go, you got
to go.' That's when I found out the man had to use the bathroom
and just couldn't wait." Cotton laughed. "Sometimes
we got caught up in what we were doing, but Septima never
lost sight of the fact that people had everyday, human needs
that had to be satisfied, even in the midst of these great
changes that were taking place."
The patience was learned from Septima's father, a gentle
man conceived in Africa and born into slavery in Charleston.
Peter Poinsette was never embittered by the brutality and
injustices he endured in slavery, and felt until the end
of his life that service to others was the world's highest
calling. Septima recalled learning three major things while
sitting around the family's pot-belly stove and listening
to her father's quiet sermons about "being truthful,
strengthening other people's weaknesses, and seeing that
there is something fine and noble in everybody."
of Septima's students was Bernice Johnson Reagon, then a
leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee,
now a curator with the Smithsonian Institute, and founder
of and singer with the ground-breaking Sweet
Honey in the Rock.
Reagon attended the first SCLC-sponsored Citizenship School
and taught in the program for ten years. She recalls that
Septima had a deep and powerful influence on the student
activists who flooded the South during the civil rights
years. Many of them had dropped out of college in open defiance
of their parents and were suddenly thrust into violent,
"[Listening to Septima] was like having your grandmother
tell you that it's all right for you to think for yourself,"
Reagon said. "She would really talk to
us about the things we were thinking about and worrying
about; She made us understand that we were part of and older,
deeper struggle. She kept a lot of people from going crazy.
"I remember her explaining about birth control,"
Reagon said. "In the 60's, this was something which
just wasn't talked about by older women to younger women.
She told us that she had originally been against any kind
of birth control except abstinence. But through the years
she saw so many Black women get sick and die from having
too many children too close together, and so many Black
children neglected and uncared for, and that changed her
mind. She always kept her principles, but she was able to
change and grow. That's one of the things that made her
Septima's patience, however, did not extend to those who
disrespected the common people whose lives she was working
so hard to change. When that happened, she was quick to
let her feelings be known ("That look!"
says SCLC veteran Rev. C.T. Vivian, cocking his head to
one side and folding his arms over his chest to mimic Septima's
posture. "Oh my, you didn't want her to give you that look!")..
"We had a white social worker who came to work with
us, feeling that these poverty-stricken people coming out
of Alabama and Mississippi were just so far beneath her,"
Septima once explained. "One time she missed her regular
plane and chartered a plane for herself to come to a workshop,
but she didn't send any money for the little people attending.
And there they came, all the way from Mississippi, starving."
Septima went on to say that "[the social worker] and
I argued about that quite a bit," and added drily that,
"she didn't stay long."
Another time Septima described a South Carolina workshop
where Andrew Young and Dorothy Cotton led a group in the
Movement standard "We Shall Overcome." While Young
and Cotton closed their eyes and rocked with the spirit
of the song, Septima noticed a young woman in the back of
the room, trembling and crying and refusing to join in.
The woman later explained that she'd been jailed and tortured
with cattle prods during a Georgia demonstration, and couldn't
bring herself to sing the stanza "I love everybody."
"I told Andy and Dorothy, 'You can't sing with your
eyes closed. You've got to open your eyes and see what's
happening to these people.' Andy and I had some words about
that but he learned, and he grew."
came quickly to love Septima for her forthrightness, but
many of SCLC's other ministers resented her informal lectures.
They gave her the titles of "SCLC's Mother Conscience"
and later "Queen Mother of the Movement," but
they allowed her no power. Rev. Ralph Abernathy, second
in command during the King years, tried to keep Septima
out of SCLC's executive committee meetings, and SCLC's prolific
publicity machine rarely gave the Citizenship School work
its proper credit. Cotton recalls the snickerings she received
from the ministers when she told a staff meeting that the
Citizenship Schools were SCLC's most important program.
Many of the preachers who made up SCLC's ruling corps were
used to women taking a back seat in their churches and in
their homes, and they did not look lightly on a woman taking
a leadership role in their organization. They refused to
give Septima the recognition she deserved.
Septima later wrote that the men on SCLC's executive staff
"didn't listen to me too well. They liked to send me
into many places, because I could always make a path in
to get people to listen to what I have to say. But those
men didn't have any faith in women, none whatsoever. They
just thought that women were sex symbols and had no contribution
In her last years she became an active feminist and came
to understand that she and other Movement women had been
the victims of sexism. "If you watch the movie 'From
Montgomery to Memphis,' you'll notice that they don't mention
one woman going through there. Not one. You almost never
see their role put down in any of the reports about the
Movement. You just get 'Dr. so-and-so from Alabama State
College did such-and-such.'" She called sexism "one
of the weaknesses of the civil rights movement."
Still, by strength of will, she endured. Long after the
decline of the Movement after King's assassination Septima
continued, organizing day care centers for low-income mothers,
speaking and writing in behalf of women's rights, criss-crossing
the country to share her great knowledge and deep social
concerns with anyone who would listen. In the end, the flame
that fueled her passion for human rights and equality of
justice never dimmed or wavered...one day, it simply went
out. She passed away in December of 1987 at the age of 89.
In the last years of her life she enjoyed setting up camp
on her front porch, stuffing visitors with Southern cooking
and entertaining them with her long repertoire of stories.
She described sitting drenched and shivering in the bow
of a boat headed toward the islands off the coast of South
Carolina--years before the first bridges were built--wrapping
her feet with towels to walk miles in the frozen mud to
teach in a one-room school. She spoke of the days she rode
South Carolina's two-lane highways at a time when no public
restrooms were available for Black travelers. Grandmother
and public school teacher, the only way she could relieve
herself was by squatting in the bushes on the side of the
She would recall two elderly Black men in a lively argument
over which one could make the prettiest "x" while
signing his name. She remembered an incident when Dr. King
stood in the middle of a packed meeting, dropping his hands
to his side, making no effort to resist while a white man
beat him again and again and again in the face and the audience
looked on in horror. There were Black sharecroppers and
maids trooping to the courthouse to register to vote for
the first time in their lives, and pot-bellied white farmers
in dark overalls spitting tobacco juice out of the sides
of their mouths and marveling at it all. Firebombed churches
crackled in the night--the flames leaping and licking at
heaven--civil rights workers tumbling frantically out into
the street just in time to escape the inferno. She talked
of wild rides on rolling, one-lane blacktop roads chased
by strange, angry men in pickup trucks, sometimes the good
guys just getting away. Sometimes not.
In 1975, she summed up her philosophy of work in one of
the specially-printed Christmas cards she regularly sent
out to hundreds of friends. "The greatest evil in our
country today is not racism, but ignorance," she wrote.
"I believe unconditionally in the ability of people
to respond when they are told the truth. We need to be taught
to study rather than to believe, to inquire rather than
She left a long string of honors and accomplishments: several
honorary degrees, a major book on the Martin Luther King
Jr. era dedicated to her (Parting
The Waters by
Taylor Branch), and two autobiographies of her own (Echo In My Soul, now out of print, and Ready
From Within, Wild Tree Press), recipient of the Presidential Living Legacy Award, a Septima
Clark Expressway and a Septima Clark Day Care Center in
her native Charleston. In the great irony of her life, she
ended up serving two terms on the same Charleston County
School Board that had once fired her.
But Septima Clark's greatest legacy was in the memories
she left with those who worked with her.
"I never saw her pass by someone who wanted to speak
with her," said Rosa Parks. "She was always in
the right place if you needed someone to talk to. I benefited
a great deal by knowing her."
As did we all.