Septima Poinsette Clark

By: backHer

For Black History Month, backHer is spotlighting one woman each week who helped change the course of history. This week we are honored to feature Septima Poinsette Clark. Clark played a monumental role and became known as the "Queen Mother" or "Grandmother" of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

Born in South Carolina in 1898, Clark was the second oldest of 8 children. Her father was a former slave, and her mother was a laundress. Although her family had immense struggles paying for education, Clark was able to graduate high school. She then married a navy seaman and got pregnant twice. Unfortunately, only one child made it, their son. Her husband, Nerie Clark, passed away shortly after their son was born. 

Clark had been passionate about education from a young age. Her parents always instilled her with a love of learning, and they made sacrifices to ensure she had a proper education. Clark continued to study until she got her teacher's license. Due to the segregation in her hometown, Charleston, she wasn't able to teach there. However, that didn't stop her. Clark literally went door to door collecting signatures of black parents who wanted their children to be educated by back teachers. Sure enough, one year later the ban on black teachers was overturned in Charleston, thanks to Clark's efforts. 

Clark didn't stop at teaching elementary kids-she went above and beyond to push for equal rights. Clark was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). After joining the NAACP, Clark began to fight for higher salaries and equal pay for black teachers. Finally, 20 years later, after Clark still hadn't given up, black teacher pay was equalized. At the age of 60 years old, Clark was fired from her teaching job after she refused to comply with disconnecting her membership in the NAACP. It was more important to her to be a part of the NAACP and fight for her people than to stay at her job. 

That wasn’t the end of her teaching career, though- shortly after, Clark found a school in Tennessee where she educated black students on citizenships and civil rights. When Clark had to leave this school, she worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself. She went on to train hundreds of teachers for citizenship schools and attended many protests and marches during this time. Her passion for education can be seen in her quote- “I believe unconditionally in the ability of people to respond when they are told the truth. We need to be taught to study rather than believe, to inquire rather than to affirm.”

If you would like to learn more about Clark, she wrote two autobiographies about her nonviolent philosophy in changing history. They are called Echo in My Soul (1962) and Ready From Within (1986).

Septima Clark and Rosa Parks

Image from Highlander Research and Education Center