If I asked you to name the “queen mother of the Civil Rights Movement,” who would you name? Rosa Parks? Coretta Scott King? If you’ve been following my blog this month, you might say Fannie Lou Hamer or Diane Nash. But according to Martin Luther King, that title belonged to an activist and educator named Septima Clark. Clark was born May 3, 1898 in Charleston, South Carolina, the second of eight children born to a freed slave father and a Haitian immigrant mother. Growing up, Clark was encouraged to pursue every educational opportunity available to her. She earned her teaching certification in 1916, but at the time, Charleston did not hire black teachers for its public schools. Clark moved to Johns Island, South Carolina, where she found a position teaching in an all-black school. She taught in segregated schools all over South Carolina for several decades. In 1956, South Carolina passed a law barring teachers from belonging to civil rights groups. Clark refused to renounce her membership with the NAACP, and was forced to resign from her teaching position.
After losing her job in South Carolina, Clark was hired by the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, which had been founded by Myles Horton in 1932 to train leaders of the labor movement. Clark led workshops teaching literacy and citizenship to black adults, teaching them what they would need to know in order to qualify to register to vote in the Jim Crow South, and giving them the tools and skills to take their knowledge back to their communities and spread it to others. Rosa Parks attended one of these workshops just a few months before she helped organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott. As news of Clark’s workshops began to spread, civil rights leader Ella Baker paid a visit to the Highlander Folk School to see whether Clark’s workshops could be incorporated in to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s work.
Clark’s workshops were absorbed into the SCLC in 1961, and Clark became SCLC’s director of education. Clark traveled around the Deep South setting up Citizenship Schools to teach civics and literacy to disenfranchised African Americans and training educators to work in these schools. Under her leadership, over 800 Citizenship Schools were created and taught over 25,000 people about their basic rights as citizens. Clark’s contribution to civil rights was enormous and earned her a reputation as the “queen mother” or “grandmother” of civil rights, but most of her work was done quietly in the background. And although Martin Luther King often called her “the Mother of the Movement,” he and other male leaders rarely gave her work the credit it deserved. Clark often found herself overlooked and under-appreciated, and said that the treatment of female activists and organizers was “one of the greatest weaknesses of the civil rights movement.”
Clark firmly believed that “Knowledge can empower marginalized groups in ways that formal legal equality can’t,” and she spent her life putting that belief into practice. In 1970, she retired to Johns Island after over five decades of educating marginalized communities to stand up for their rights and organize for justice. For her work, she was awarded a Living Legacy Award in 1979, the Order of the Palmetto (South Carolina’s highest civilian honor) in 1982, and SCLC’s Drum Major for Justice Award upon her death in 1987.