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World Changer of the Month — September 2023: Septima Poinsette Clark

The second of eight children, Septima Poinsette Clark was born May 3, 1898, in Charleston, South Carolina. Her parents, Peter Poinsette, who was enslaved at birth, and Victoria Warren Anderson Poinsette, deeply valued education and prioritized access to it for their children notwithstanding their limited means.

Clark's first educational experience was in 1904, when she started attending Mary Street School. When Clark’s mother realized that she was not being educated at the school and was instead being made to sit on a set of bleachers with scores of other 6-year-olds, learning nothing all day, she quickly withdrew her from the school. An elderly woman across the street from their house was teaching girls, so Clark learned to read and write there. Her family could not afford to pay tuition, so Clark provided child care for the woman's children every morning and afternoon in lieu of payment.

Clark graduated from high school in 1916. Unable to afford college tuition, she sat for and passed a state examination at the age of 18 which licensed her to teach. As an African American, she was barred from teaching in Charleston's public schools, but was able to find a position teaching at Promise Land School in a rural school district on St. John's Island. There she taught children during the day and illiterate adults on her own time at night.

In 1918, Clark returned to Charleston to teach sixth grade at Avery Normal Institute, a private academy for Black children. At that time, she also joined the local branch of the NAACP. While teaching at the Avery Institute, she noticed the gross discrepancies that existed between her school and the White school across the street. Clark's school had 132 students and two teachers. Clark not only worked there as a teacher, she also served in the capacity of principal. As the acting principal and teacher, Clark made $35 per week, while the other teacher made $25. Meanwhile, the school across the street had only three students, and the teacher who worked there received $85 per week. Her first-hand experience with these inequalities led Clark to become an active proponent for teachers of color. In 1920, she secured the first of many legal victories when Blacks were given the right to become principals in Charleston's public schools.

Clark settled in Columbia, South Carolina in 1929, where she began teaching at Booker T. Washington High School. During summers, Clark began studies at Columbia University in New York, and at Atlanta University in Georgia. Between 1942 and 1945, she received a bachelor's degree from Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina and a master's degree from Hampton Institute (now Hampton University). While earning her B.A.,Clark took classes in the morning, taught from noon to five in the afternoons, and took more classes in the evenings. She was earning $62.50 per month in college and every summer she traveled to Maine to earn more money. In 1945, Thurgood Marshall, Clark and the other members of the Columbia, South Carolina chapter of the NAACP sponsored a lawsuit that won the equalization of teacher salaries.

In 1956, Clark obtained the position of vice-president of the Charleston NAACP branch. That same year, the South Carolina legislature passed a law banning city or state employees from being involved with civil rights organizations. Clark refused to leave the NAACP, and was consequently fired from her job by the Charleston City School Board, losing her pension after 40 years of employment. Thereafter, no school in Charleston would hire her.

Clark is most famous for establishing "Citizenship Schools" which taught Black adults how to read, as well as citizenship rights so that they could pass the voter registration exams that had become so prevalent in many Southern states. Citizenship Schools were frequently taught in the back room of a shop so as to elude the violence of those who did not want Blacks educated. In addition to literacy, Citizenship Schools also taught students to act collectively and protest against racism.

The schools ultimately spread to a number of Southern states, growing so large that the program was transferred to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1961. With the increased budget of the SCLC, the Citizenship School Project was able to train over 10,000 teachers throughout the South, reaching and educating more than 25,000 people. By 1958, 37 adults were able to pass the voter registration test as a result of the first session of community schools. By 1969, about 700,000 African Americans became registered voters thanks to the Citizenship School movement. Clark came to national prominence, becoming the SCLC's director of education and teaching and the first woman to gain a position on the SCLC board. Clark worked closely with other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, including Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois. Washington and Clark both emphasized the importance of self-improvement before the importance of institutional reforms. DuBois and Clark agreed on the emphasis of education as the most important approach to the civil rights movement.

U.S. President Jimmy Carter awarded Clark a Living Legacy Award in 1979. She penned two memoirs: Echo in My Soul, and Ready from Within: Septima Clark and the Civil Rights Movement, which won the American Book Award. Clark died December 15, 1987. At the time of her death, she was awarded the SCLC's highest award, the Drum Major for Justice Award.


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