Rosa Parks, who has been called the Mother of the Civil
Rights Movement, well remembers the first time
she met Septima Clark.
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.
Shortly 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
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 of it."
One 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
"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 write!'
"At the time, people thought I had new-fangled ideas, but
I guess those new-fangled ideas worked out,
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!"
"I 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 the Movement."
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
"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."
Another 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, life-threatening situations.
"[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
"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 special."
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
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
"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
Young 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 to make."
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
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 to affirm."
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.