Updated: May 13, 2019
Septima Poinsette Clark is an important historical figure who is being featured during Women’s History Month and the 110th anniversary of the NAACP. In this article, we will share with you this educator and civil rights leader's significant contributions to America and to African-American culture. While not a widely known name, she was, nonetheless, a teacher extraordinaire, an activist and a courageous player in the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)--so much so that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called her "The Mother of the Movement."
Poinsette was born in 1898 in Charleston, South Carolina (SC). She was the second of eight children of Peter Poinsette and Victoria Warren Anderson Poinsette. While her father had been enslaved on the Poinsette plantation in Charleston, her mother was from Haiti and never experienced enslavement.
Septima Poinsette graduated from secondary school in 1916 and after passing the teachers’ examination the same year, she began teaching at a segregated school on John’s Island, SC.
In 1920, Poinsette married Nerie Clark. Their union resulted in two children: Victoria Clark, who passed away just a month after birth, and Nerie Clark Junior. Just five years into the marriage, Nerie Clark Senior died of kidney failure. Following his death, she moved with their son to Columbia, SC where she continued teaching and, during summer breaks, continued her education. In 1937, she studied under W.E.B. DuBois at Atlanta University. In 1942, she received her B.A. from Benedict College and in 1946, she received her M.A. from Hampton University.
During this time, Poinsette Clark also joined the local chapter of the NAACP. At the same time, she began working with Thurgood Marshall on a 1945 class-action lawsuit that sought to equalize black teachers’ pay with that of their white counterparts. They won that case. Poinsette Clark described that victory as her "first effort in a social action challenging the status quo."
In 1947, she began teaching in Charleston. In 1954, the United States Supreme Court issued the Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation decision, a case in which Thurgood Marshall, head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, served as chief attorney for the plaintiffs. Two years later, in1956, South Carolina passed a statute that prohibited city and state employees from belonging to civil rights organizations. Poinsette Clark refused to resign from the NAACP and, after 40 years of teaching, she lost her job and her pension. But not for long.
She went to work for Tennessee's Highlander Folk School. It was an institution that supported integration and the Civil Rights Movement. Poinsette Clark had previously worked there during her summer breaks. It didn’t take long before she began directing the Highlander's Citizenship School program. This program helped people learn how to instruct others in their communities in basic literacy and math skills. This was important because many states used literacy tests to disenfranchise African Americans, so this teaching was instrumental in allowing more people to be able to register to vote.
In 1961, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference took over this program and established the Citizenship Education Program. Clark then joined the SCLC as its director of education and teaching. Under her leadership, she created more than 800 citizenship schools. She continued this work until her retirement in 1970 and, by that time, it was estimated that over a million African-Americans had been registered to vote in the South.
In 1976, Poinsette Clark fought for and won reinstatement of the teaching pension and back pay. President Jimmy Carter honored her with a Living Legacy Award in 1979. In 1982, she received the Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina's highest civilian honor. In 1987, Clark's second autobiography, Ready from Within: Septima Clark and Civil Rights, won an American Book Award (her first autobiography, Echo in My Soul, had been published in 1962).
Poinsette Clark died at the age of 89 on Johns Island December 15, 1987.
Her legacy: she helped many African Americans begin to take control of their lives and discover their full rights as citizens. One of her early students was Rosa Parks.
Submitted by Anita Fleming-Rife, Ph.D., Edited by Janice Lintz
Anita Fleming-Rife, Ph.D., Author
Janice Lintz, Editor