Septima Clark was an eduactivist, born in South Carolina on May 3, 1898. A student of W.E.B. Du Bois, she became an educator and taught throughout South Carolina for over 30 years. However, she was fired from teaching because she refused to resign from the NAACP.
A state law passed in 1956 prohibited city and state employees from belonging to civil rights organizations—Septima knew you couldn’t separate racial justice from educational justice. She also know that despite the school board separating her from her beloved teaching position, the teaching and learning she was committed to doing would continue.
She pivoted and turned her work of teaching for liberation to a broader effort—adults.
Septima spent summers teaching literacy and civil and Constitutional rights at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. The Highlander School was known as an institution of labor adult education.
She was soon hired full time, eventually serving as the director of workshops. Under Clark’s leadership, working alongside other leaders like Bernice Robinson and Esau Jenkins, the Highlander School was transformed. Once a school to prepare laborers, Highlander became a school that prepared activists by way of teaching Black people basic literacy and their constitutional rights as American citizens, while registering them to vote.
Many Black people took workshops with Clark to learn, including civil rights icon Rosa Parks.
In 1961, the school closed. Yet Clark and her work found a home with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference under the leadership of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Clark was appointed SCLC’s director of education and teaching, conducting teacher training and developing curricula. King appreciated Clark’s “expert direction,” which he called “the bulwark of SCLC’s program department.” Clark, an educator, was indeed one of the many vital Black women of Civil Rights Movement.
Upon her retirement from the NAACP, Clark’s original termination from the school district back in 1956 was ruled an unjust termination by the state and her teacher’s pension was reinstated.
As educators, it’s important that we teach students the “why” as much as it is important to teach the “what” and the “how to.” Clark taught what, why, and how to. Her pedagogy and instructional method is what an education that empowers and liberates looks like. Septima Clark is an example for all educators that our work mustn’t only lead to outcomes that can be seen on paper. Rather student outcomes must reconcile their grades in the classroom with their application in the fight for human decency.
Septima P. Clark; a member of our Black Educator Hall of Fame.
For more information on Septima Clark, visit the following site.
An original version of this piece appeared on Philly’s 7th Ward.