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Clark, Septima Poinsette

Abstract and Keywords

Septima Poinsetta Clark (1898–1987) is well-known for her citizenship schools, literacy training, voting and civil rights activism, and community, political, and social services.

Keywords: civil rights, educator, feminism, human rights, social justice, voting rights

Septima Poinsetta Clark (1898–1987) was born in Charleston, South Carolina in the lingering shadow cast by America’s Reconstruction era. Her parents were Victoria, who was raised in Haiti, and Peter, who had been a slave. Instilled into her was the value of each person, education, hard work, and sharing. Such values and qualities positioned her to be able to contribute to helping others throughout her life.

Given Jim Crow laws, other segregationist laws, and grossly unequal educational opportunities in general throughout the United States and in particular in the South, it could not be expected that she would achieve a linear experience from elementary through university educational levels. She started out attending small private schools, obtained a certificate in 1916 from Avery Normal Institute (Charleston), and achieved a BA from Benedict College in 1942 and an MA in 1945 from Hampton Institute.

She contributed significantly to the achievement of social justice issues such as voting rights, civil rights, improvements in communities, and human dignity for all. The lives of hundreds were radically altered by her spearheading a campaign against Charleston’s exclusionary policies; teaching in Black schools on rural John’s Island; teaching interracial adult education at the Highlander Folk School; initiating an adult literacy program providing training in life and citizenship skills, including, but not limited to, how to complete drivers’ license forms, voter registration forms, and check signing; and assisting in conducting door-to-door campaigns for the employment of Black teachers in public schools. Septima worked tirelessly with numerous voting and civil rights organizations and notable figures (herself among them, though women struggled for equal footing in these organization): National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Blacks United for Action, and many others, as well as working in conjunction with Dr. M. L. King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Andrew Young, Stokely Carmichael, Ralph Abernathy, and numerous others.

Her autobiography, Echo in My Soul, along with a collection of her papers at the College of Charleston Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture contain rich data and verification of her lifelong hard work and seemingly limitless contributions to (a) improving the lives of the disenfranchised and marginalized, (b) empowering the powerless to find their strength and add it to the struggles for social justice and human rights, and (c) creating social justice victories in everyday life.

Retirement found Clark continuing a rigorous life of service. She was fortunate to see the overturn of the Reconstruction era denial of political office to Black politicians. She was involved in civil rights activism, feminist endeavors, and several social, religious, and civic organizations. With the passage of time, she was able to observe the dismantling of legally-supported segregated public spaces and practices and experience the 1960s civil rights laws. She died in 1987 at 89 years of age.