Woman of Courage: The Country Bookshop Celebrates Black History Month
"Of my two 'handicaps,' being female put more obstacles in my path than being black," said Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American - man or woman - from a major political party to campaign and win a primary for president.
Septima Poinsette Clark, the courageous and legendary African-American educator who worked for most of the 20th century for racial equality, would have agreed.
"The way the men looked at women was one of the weaknesses of the civil rights movement," she said. "Members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) board didn't have any faith in women, none whatsoever. They just thought that women were sex symbols and had no contribution to make.
"Women did many things to help in the civil rights movement," she added, "but you'll never see it put down anywhere in any of the reports. I don't know why it is, but they don't give the women any of the glory at all."
Andrew Young, executive director of the SCLC, acknowledged that the Citizenship Schools Clark established, staffed primarily by black women, empowered hundreds of thousands of African-Americans and became "a foundation for Martin Luther King's non-violent movement."
But, he added, "it is impossible to measure the impact of this program on our overall efforts toward social change because we left no visible evidence of our work and our presence in the community."
Julian Bond, chair of the NAACP, later said that was "no excuse for the way some women have just been written out of history."
Now, thanks to Dr. Katherine Mellen Charron, assistant professor of history at N.C. State, the crucial role played by Septima Poinsette Clark and other African-American women has been written back into the story of the civil rights movement.
On Thursday, Feb. 11, at 4 p.m. at The Country Bookshop in downtown Southern Pines, Charron will discuss her book, "Freedom's Teacher," the chronicle of Septima Clark's lifelong work to make education a cornerstone of the 20th century freedom struggle.
"We are honored to have Dr. Charron with us to celebrate Black History Month," says Bonnie Johnson, manager of the 57-year-old independent bookshop. "So many people have read the fictional story of three black maids set in 1962 Mississippi in the novel 'The Help.' We know they will want to hear about real African-American women in the South and their true stories of activism."
Septima Poinsette Clark was born in 1898 in Charleston, S.C. Her mother was a "free issue" and her father was born on a slave plantation. She started public school at an "ABC gallery" where a hundred black children sat on bleachers in a stadium-like setting.
"The only thing I could see the teachers could do was to take you to the bathroom and back. We didn't learn too much," she recalled.
Clark's mother was determined her daughter would get an education - whether it was from an elderly black woman who taught out of her home, at the Avery Normal Institute, a private school founded for black children by white missionary women after the Civil War, or at a segregated public school.
In 1916 Clark got her high school certificate and a licentiate of instruction. (Thirty years later, she earned both bachelor's and master's degrees.) Because blacks were barred from teaching in Charleston's public schools, she moved to Johns Island to become the teaching principal at a school for blacks.
Three years later, Clark began her social activism after joining with the NAACP to fight for -and win - the right for blacks to teach in Charleston's segregated schools.
"Lawmakers said they didn't think that domestic workers, chauffeurs and garbage people wanted black teachers."
The 10,000 signatures Clark and her colleagues gathered in just one day proved them wrong. For the next three decades, she continued to lead the fight to expand rights for African-Americans.
After the Supreme Court issued the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision in 1954, South Carolina passed a law stating that no public employee could be a member of civil rights organizations. When Clark refused to leave the Charleston NAACP, she was fired from her teaching job. She decided to devote her full attention to issues that had long been on her mind.
In 1956 Clark joined the staff of the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, founded in 1932 as a training ground for people, both black and white, who desired a change in their communities. There she devised "an adult education program that was truly radical, yet appeared non-threatening because it looked like what black women teachers had been doing in the Jim Crow South for decades," Charron writes in "Freedom's Teacher." "Few moderate whites would have argued that teaching semi-literate black adults to read and write amounted to anything less than a worthy activity." For many of the students who attended the citizenship school, it was "the first time they felt like a human being."
In 1959, the Tennessee General Assembly began an investigation of Highlander. Clark, 61, was arrested in the middle of the night. She admitted that she didn't know if she would live "to see the daylight or not. I know that these young mountain boys had beaten others to death, and I had a feeling that might happen to me."
After Highlander was closed in 1961, the SCLC assumed responsibility for the citizenship schools, renamed the Citizenship Education Program (CEP), under Clark's direction. Throughout the South, tens of thousands of African-Americans were taught the skills and knowledge they needed to register to vote and to become social activists. When Head Start was launched in 1965, Clark and CEP teachers used it as another educational organizing tool to pass on lessons to a younger generation and their parents.
"From one end of the South to the other, if you look at the black elected officials and the political leaders you find people who had their first involvement in the training program of the citizenship school," Clark said.
Septima Clark retired in 1970 but never stopped working to advance civil rights for African-Americans. "The remaining workable years of my life will be promoting citizenship programs somewhere, somehow," she said.
During the last decade of her life, Clark's contributions were finally recognized. She received the Race Relations Award from the NEA, the Living Legacy Award presented by President Jimmy Carter, the Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina's highest civilian award, and the SCLC's highest award for her efforts in the area of citizenship education and interracial cooperation.
Septima Poinsette Clark passed away in 1987 at the age of 89. In paying tribute to her, Gov. Carroll Campbell declared that "we have lost a part of our collective conscience which calls out against inequality and injustice."
But her legacy still lives on.
For information, call The Country Bookshop at (910) 692-3211.
More like this story