Septima P. Clark and the National Civil Rights Movement

Septima Poinsette Clark, Avery Class of 1916
Septima Poinsette Clark, photograph by Ida Berman, ca. 1960s, courtesy of the Avery Research Center.

Septima Poinsette Clark, photograph by Ida Berman, ca. 1960s, courtesy of the Avery Research Center.

Children riding Esau Jenkins' bus, ca. 1950s and 60s, courtesy of the Avery Research Center.

Children riding Esau Jenkins' bus, ca. 1950s and 60s, courtesy of the Avery Research Center.

Septima Poinsette Clark was a nationally influential civil rights activist and educator. Due to a citywide ordinance mandating that only white teachers could work in Charleston’s public schools, Clark left Charleston after graduating from the Avery Normal Institute in 1916 to become a teacher on nearby Johns Island. She worked in this sea island’s Black community for three years before returning to Charleston to teach at Avery. During that time, the Charleston branch of the NAACP organized a major campaign to overturn the city’s ordinance against Black teachers. As her first foray into political action, Clark joined this successful campaign in 1919. For over three decades, she taught in various public schools in Charleston and Columbia. 

In 1956, Charleston’s School Board fired Clark due to her open affiliation with the NAACP. In response, she became more involved in civil rights activism and joined the staff of the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, and later the staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Atlanta, Georgia. Clark drew from her experiences at Highlander to work with her cousin Bernice Robinson and Johns Island native Esau Jenkins to develop Citizenship Schools starting in the 1950s. The first Citizenship School began at the Progressive Club on Johns Island in 1957, and this community education model soon spread throughout the U.S. South. Citizenship Schools encouraged African Americans not only to register to vote, but also to obtain empowering literacy skills, knowledge about legal rights, and information on how to manage property and finances. These skills helped galvanize local communities to participate in the larger national civil rights movement. Leaders like Clark who focused on local grassroots organizing proved crucial to the movement, as Dr. Martin Luther King, founder of the SCLC, asserted in 1959, “The hope of the future rests upon…women of integrity, honesty, and courage like Septima P. Clark.”

Esau Jenkins (center) in front of the Citizen’s Committee bus, accompanied by Reverend Willis Goodwin (right) and Alfred Fields (left), ca. 1950s and 60s, courtesy of the Avery Research Center. 

Esau Jenkins (center) in front of the Citizen’s Committee bus, accompanied by Reverend Willis Goodwin (right) and Alfred Fields (left), ca. 1950s and 60s, courtesy of the Avery Research Center. 

Bernice Robinson (standing left) and Septima Clark (standing right) lead a Citizenship School teacher training workshop, ca. 1961, courtesy of the Avery Research Center.

Septima Poinsette Clark (standing, right) and Bernice Robinson (standing, left) at a Citizenship School teacher-training workshop, ca. 1960s, courtesy of the Avery Research Center.