“The grandmother of the Movement”, Septima Clark

Indeed any discussion of the Civil Rights movement must include this formidable woman. She is in the center of the photo above, and it takes place on Johns Island in the 1950s as Mrs. Clark teaches a citizenship class.

Septima Clark was a school teacher. In 1916 Charleston would not hire black public school teachers or principals, so she was forced to teach on Johns Island, one of the Gullah islands just northeast of Pin Point.

Her brief stint on the island would later have enormous consequences for the civil rights movement. When she did find work in Charleston, at the private Avery School she almost began agitating for the hiring of black public school teachers and principals. In 1956, upon being named vice-president of the Charleston NAACP, she was fired from her teaching position and lost her pension (which was finally restored in 1976).

By the time of her dismissal, she had already begun an association with Highlander Folk School, conducting workshops there during the summers of 1954 and 1955. Rosa Parks participated in a Clark-directed leadership workshop four months before she refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, and the two women became close friends.

Clark’s strong belief in the connection between education and citizenship led to the creation of a program called Citizenship School. It focused on encouraging voter registration, emphasizing that ordinary people could address and solve issues through social activism at the grass roots. Her program set up schools that concentrated on uneducated blacks, not only for the purpose of preparing them to pass the literacy tests required for voter registration in every southern state, but also to educate people to the idea that they could take control of their own lives.

Whilst in Memphis, I completed my individual project on her, and from them on in, I was determined to find out more about her teacher training method. She must have been extraordinary. I wonder how strict she was – or how impassioned she was. Or both. She inspires me to use education as a tool for organization and mobilization. She 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. At one point in 1964, almost 200 schools operated simultaneously. The results were revolutionary.

In the process of mastering the literacy tests imposed on prospective black voters, some African Americans came to see reading as the portal to first-class citizenship and community change. On Johns Island, citizenship classes in the 1950s designed to teach voter registration became the model. We drove to Johns Island from Charleston, a mere half an hour drive, though before the bridge was built, getting to the island required an 8 hour trip through creeks and swamps in a small rowboat! Most of the island’s inhabitants were descendants of cotton plantation slaves who lived off peas, corn and potatoes. Dirt roads wound through arcades of long-limbed oaks draped in Spanish moss.

The island was dense, both in temperature and foliage. And in the 1950s the island lacked modern facilities. Many residents ate the food that grew wild but the forests were not consistent with their produce, and often residents endured malnutrition. Despite these conditions, Johns Island was fertile ground for Movement organizing. Many people owned their own land, which gave them a measure of independence.

Mrs. Clark first taught school in the patched log cabins of Johns Island for 25 dollars a month and wrote lessons out on dry cleaners’ bags instead of a blackboard! Talk about resourceful.

She met Esau Jenkins who convinced her that adult illiteracy was the primary obstacle to social and economic progress. Jenkins wanted to set up an adult reading class at night and the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee supported him. The school agreed to sponsor the first citizenship school held in the back of a food co-op store on Johns Island called the Progressive Club.

In 1960, Highlander decided to replicate the Johns Island citizenship schools in other areas of the South.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.

The requirements for teaching were simple: some high school education, the ability to read well and write legibly on a blackboard, and knowledge of local government. Makes you think, right?

Today Johns Island is much changed since the 1960s. Federal grants have enabled the creation of low-cost housing, health clinics and many Methodist church communities have expanded health care and sponsored community programs, such as literacy programs. Despite the improvements, Johns Island still stands in stark contrast with the luxury resorts developed on the adjacent islands of Kiawah and Seabrook.

Septima Clark was elected to the Charleston school board in 1972. She remained active in Civil Rights until her death in 1987. Today as Route 17 enter Charleston, it becomes the Septima P. Clark Expressway. I was immensely proud to drive down this highway.

Emma Sevitt
Teacher, swimmer, cyclist, straddling a British-Canadian identity, and a lover of good tomatoes.

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