The majority of Americans regard Martin Luther King, Jr., as the father of the Civil Rights Movement, but King himself regarded Septima Poinsette Clark as “the Mother of the Movement.” In addition to King’s epithet, Clark is variously dubbed as the Queen Mother or Grandmother of the Movement. Given such lofty designations, Clark’s position in the history of American equality movements is decidedly significant. Throughout her nearly ninety years Clark worked to equalize pay, literacy, and civil rights across race and sex, triumphing over inequality and discrimination in ways unparalleled prior—or after.
Clark was born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1898. Turn-of-the-century Charleston majorly influenced Clark’s perception of the world. Rife with classicism, harshly segregated, and molded into rough callousness by the Reconstruction, Clark’s Charleston was an abrasive environment for a young black woman. Clark’s mother, who was never a slave and refused to be perceived as such, raised her daughters to be ladies, demanding they wear gloves in public, requiring them never to yell, and even isolating them from their peers. Her mother constantly strove for upward mobility through the classes and encouraged her daughters to do so as well.
Clark rebelled against her mother’s strict guidelines in many ways but inherited her ambition and tenacity, overcoming obstacles in order to graduate from high school in 1916. Rather than capitulate to laws that forbade her from teaching in Charleston public schools because of her race, Clark moved to the rural community of John’s Island to teach following her graduation. In addition to her education of children during the day, Clark also taught illiterate adults at night. Her nightly tutoring sessions were also personally educational, and through them she developed programs for quickly teaching adults to read and write using commonplace materials, such as Sears catalogues.
Even as she was developing a system to combat illiteracy, Clark embarked on another mission of equality. John’s Island had two schools: the black school, which Clark administrated and taught at, had 132 students and two teachers (including Clark), while the island’s white school had only three students and one teacher. Clark’s concern arose from the disparity between their pay; Clark earned $35 a week and her fellow teacher $25, while the white teacher with a fraction of the demands earned $85. Clark’s battle against pay inequality between the small schools of the isolated community of John’s Island led her directly to the Civil Rights Movement in 1919.
It was around this time that Clark returned to Charleston to teach at the Avery Normal Institute, a private school for black children. Almost simultaneously Clark joined the NAACP. Never one to falter in the face of injustice, Clark soon inspired her own students with her passion, sending them door-to-door for signatures on a petition which would allow black principals to govern at Avery. Within a single day, Clark and her students gathered 10,000 signatures. The taste of success was so sweet for Clark that she pursued the matter further, and by 1920 blacks were given the right to become principals of Charleston’s public schools.
After her success in her initial forays in civil rights, Clark focused on her family, moving to her new husband’s hometown of Hickory, North Carolina, and then back to Charleston before finally settling at Booker T. Washington High School in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1929. It was during her time at Booker T. Washington that Clark developed into a true leader and activist. She stayed at the prestigious high school for seventeen years, even earning her B.A. and M.A. in the mornings, nights, and summers surrounding her teaching. Booker T. Washington was renowned for its highly-qualified teachers, and Clark only elevated the institution further during her time there, so it was with a heavy heart that she returned to Charleston to care for her ailing mother.
In 1956, after teaching for some time in her hometown, Clark was nominated to the illustrious role of vice-president for the Charleston chapter of the NAACP. In an almost ironic twist of fate and almost synchronously, the South Carolina state legislature passed a law banning city and state employees from participating in or being associated with civil rights organizations. Once again, Clark refused to concede to such blatantly offensive decrees and was quickly fired.
Clark’s loss of her teaching position was not entirely detrimental; the loss of her job led her to the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, where she found her greatest retaliation against injustice. At Highlander Clark employed the knowledge she gained from teaching literacy classes as a young adult on John’s Island to disseminate literacy throughout the rural, usually black, classes. Clark helped found Citizenship Schools, which taught reading and writing to adults throughout the Deep South and, via that same vessel, greatly empowered the black community. Citizenship Schools were a direct retaliation against legislation in Southern states that required voters to be literate and interpret parts of the Constitution in order to register to vote. Such legislation very intentionally hindered black Americans and denied them their right to vote. Citizenship Schools, which were usually held in the backs of shops to shelter students from angry white reactionaries, legitimized the hopes of formerly provincial blacks. The program eventually outgrew Highlander, and Clark helped move it to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1961. From that time, Citizenship Schools trained over 10,000 teachers who diffused literacy throughout the South. By 1969, over 700,000 blacks became registered voters as a result of Clark’s efforts and Citizenship Schools.
Clark went on to become SCLC’s Director of Education and Training—the first woman to achieve a position on the SCLC board. But even there, in the heart of the Civil Rights Movement, Clark still battled inequality directly. Other members of the SCLC, including King, exhibited sexism and chauvinism toward Clark. Rather than be disheartened by the seemingly endless battle against prejudice and inequity, Clark strove forward, maintaining her position at the SCLC and continuing to assist the underrepresented, the quelled, and the marginalized. Septima Poinsette Clark’s actions and reactions, through her entire life, prove she was not just the Mother of one Movement, but of many.