VNV Thursday Bonus Edition – Speaking Her Truth: Septima Clark (1898-1987) 2/8/18

Photograph of Septima Clark, ca. 1960, Avery Photo Collection, 10-9, Courtesy of the Avery Research Center.

Like many white folk, my knowledge of the icons of the civil rights movement is limited at best and thoroughly deficient at worst. When I read that Dr. King had once described Septima Clark as the “Mother of the Movement” and realized that I had no knowledge of her role, I knew it was time to do some digging. As usual, this is just an overview, intended to whet your curiosity and encourage you to do some digging of your own.

A teacher and a life-long educator, Clark is most remembered for her role in establishing Citizenship Schools, which had the goal of providing full citizenship through education. In 1961, she became the SCLC director of education and teaching and traveled throughout the South, directing workshops which taught participants their constitutional rights, how to organize, as well as teaching literacy. Even more mundane topics like how to write a check were covered. Clark felt that literacy was the keystone for advancement:

I went to SCLC and worked the Dr. King as director of education and director of teaching. And there traveled from place to place getting people to realize that they wanted to eliminate illiteracy. We had to eliminate illiteracy first! And then after eliminating illiteracy, the we went into registration and voting and getting them to want to register and vote. And of course, you know we had a terrible struggle because thirty or more persons were killed in the registration and voting drive. But we didn’t stop! We went on! And in ’64 we got the Civil Rights Bill and they couldn’t harass us as we worked in the lines.
Source: Septima P. Clark and the Struggle for Human Rights; essay by Grace Jordan McFadden in Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazer and Torchbearers 1941-1965, edited by Vicki L. Crawford, Jacqueline Anne Rouse, and Barbara Woods

Neither was Clark willing to be silent about the role of women in the Movement:

I found Dr. King to be a very, very nonviolent man. He proved to us all that nonviolence would work. He also made black people aware of their blackness and not ashamed of being black. The thing that I think stands out a whole lot was the fact that women could never be accorded their rightful place even in the southern Christian Leadership Conference. I can’t ever forget Reverend Abernathy saying, “Why is Mrs. Clark on the Executive Board?” And Dr. King saying, “Why, she designed a whole program.”…I think that up to the time that Dr. King was nearing the end that he really felt that black women had a place in the movement and in the whole world. The men didn’t though! The men who worked with him didn’t have that kind of idea.
Source: Septima P. Clark and the Struggle for Human Rights; essay by Grace Jordan McFadden in Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazer and Torchbearers 1941-1965, edited by Vicki L. Crawford, Jacqueline Anne Rouse, and Barbara Woods

In 1965, Clark wrote a Christmas message entitled “A Look to the Future” which included this statement of her political and social philosophy:

The greatest evil in our country today is not racism but ignorance…This is the great challenge to black and white leadership. Our basic philosophy is clear. We do not need a new one. We are committed to an integrated society — for a truly democratic society, there can be no freedom without integration. Our task then is to nurture and strengthen the newly developing political strength among both young Blacks and young Whites, who have already made a magnificent contribution to the struggle for a more humane and just society. But further, we must try harder than ever to reach the great mass of the uninformed, whose basic interests are no different from our own — if they but knew it.
Source: Septima P. Clark and the Struggle for Human Rights; essay by Grace Jordan McFadden in Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazer and Torchbearers 1941-1965, edited by Vicki L. Crawford, Jacqueline Anne Rouse, and Barbara Woods

And now from Twitter…


  10 comments for “VNV Thursday Bonus Edition – Speaking Her Truth: Septima Clark (1898-1987) 2/8/18

  1. bfitzinAR
    February 8, 2018 at 9:27 am

    {{{DoReMI}}} – Septima Clark sounds like my mother. At least the quotes do. Of course their lives were very different – but their words are the same. Momma never talked about “desegregation” – she talked about integration. moar {{{HUGS}}}

    • DoReMI
      February 8, 2018 at 11:00 am

      I think Ms. Clark is so important to hear, because despite the oppression she experienced as an African-American and woman, she wasn’t afraid to advocate for what is now the dirty word of incrementalism. She recognized that if people were still relying on signing with an “X”, they were still too often at the mercy of the representatives of white supremacy. And learning one’s constitutional rights sounds simplistic now, but there were huge swathes of the population in the South that didn’t even know they had the right to vote. That seems shocking until one reads recent headlines like this:

      Citizenship Schools are not just history; they give us a path to continue to correct injustice.

      • bfitzinAR
        February 8, 2018 at 1:27 pm

        We still need Citizenship Schools – and not just for people of color. Too damned many white folks don’t know what their rights are – and what their rights aren’t. Especially what their rights aren’t. But unless/until they know how the system really works rather than the way they want it to work they are incredibly manipulable. So the need is 2-fold. Folks of color need to know their rights so they can work on getting them. White folks need to know how the system works so the “welfare queen” & “Indians get free housing” & “bussing to the polls” crap can’t be used to manipulate them. (and a certain group of a specific Independent’s supporters need to learn who actually makes the laws/rules about voter registration, early voting, etc.)

  2. WYgalinCali
    February 8, 2018 at 9:49 am

    Good morning, Pond Dwellers and thanks, DoReMi for the double dose this week. Also, thanks for allowing me to use your Tuesday diary on self care. Some may call it cheating but I say we are simply maximizing the exposure. Plus, it’s adorable.

    As I stated in the 🍊, I am not knowledgeable about Septima Clark (nor that much about the CR movement). It wasn’t in my books growing up because it was still a struggle. We covered the death of MLK in current affairs but not that much. So, I appreciate the education that you’ve given me. It’s up to me to supplement.

    44 with a high of 73 today. It’s never a bad time for more coffee.

    • DoReMI
      February 8, 2018 at 11:05 am

      I see your 73 and raise you:
      19 now with a high of 21 expected; also a winter storm watch starting tonight and going through Friday night with 6-10″ of snow predicted (last night it was 5-9″…I have no idea where the extra inch came from!)

      And it’s only cheating if someone hates Bassets, and who is ever going to admit that?

  3. Batch
    February 8, 2018 at 10:28 am

    Morning meese…Thanks for the bonus edition this morning Sher…Always look forward to learning and your diaries always hit the spot…Septima Clark was someone I had no knowledge of but I do now…So, thanks!

    There is a lot people could learn if they’d just get over their preconceived thoughts and read a little about the people who have fought for equal rights…Seems like black men on the whole were just as misogynistic as the white men of today have shown themselves to be….Times are changing though…

    • DoReMI
      February 8, 2018 at 10:48 am

      Thanks, Batch! There’s so much I didn’t even mention: her years as a teacher and a principal; her own ongoing education; her involvement with the NAACP; getting fired from her job because she was a member of the NAACP…I could go on and on. She was 63 when she took on the Citizenship Schools for the SCLC, so she had a full career as a teacher and activist well before that. One of these weeks I’m going to do finish the post I’ve started on the “school” where she received so much of her training (as did so many other civil rights activists). Learning to organize did not just happen out of the clear blue, which is a lesson I think most of us here realize, but some on the leftiest left have yet to learn.

      I also do these posts because my age and my privilege have left me ignorant of so many of these strong, amazing activists, particularly the women. On my twitter feed, the mantra is, “Listen to the black women.” I try to do that, but I also want to hear the voices of the original “mothers of the Movement.” So this is a series that will be ongoing for awhile.

      • bfitzinAR
        February 8, 2018 at 1:35 pm

        So glad you are doing a series on these women. I feel a little uncomfortable with calling the the mothers of the Movement, although of course that’s exactly what they are, since that term is currently used for women who’ve lost children/family to our criminal justice system. The women who “designed a whole program” are certainly the Founding Mothers of the Civil Rights movement though and some of them did lose family to our criminal justice system so it is appropriate both ways. I’m definitely looking forward to your coming diaries. {{{HUGS}}}

        • DoReMI
          February 8, 2018 at 2:32 pm

          Dr. King gave Ms. Clark the moniker, but nowadays (probably to avoid confusion) she is often referred to as the Grandmother of the movement or the Queen Mother of the movement. No question though that a lot of people stand on her shoulders.

          • bfitzinAR
            February 8, 2018 at 5:29 pm

            Absolutely – ALL women of the Movement “stand on her shoulders” – although I prefer the metaphor of handing on the torch. She definitely lit and handed out a whole lot of torches, just as she received her torch from those who came before her, and the world is much illuminated thereby. I like “Grandmother of the Movement” – but then I’m a grandmother. :) – and it reflects the reality that there are great-grandmothers of the Movement reaching back further than is even written down.

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