Septima Clark: The Grandmother of the Civil Rights Movement

Many phenomenal African American women remain unrecognized for their contributions to the progression of the Civil Rights Movement.

These women were behind the scenes working just as hard as men for little to no acknowledgment.  

Septima Poinsette Clark, often referred to as the “grandmother of the civil rights movement,” was an advocate for education. The legendary humanitarian fought tooth and nail to make sure that black educators in South Carolina received the justice they deserved.

Clark is perhaps the only woman to play a significant role in educating African Americans for full citizenship rights without gaining sufficient gratitude.     

Born in Charleston, S.C., Clark was the second of eight children. She and her family struggled to pay for her high school education, but she graduated from Avery Normal Institute in 1916. She married a Navy seaman, Nerie Clark, in 1919.

The couple’s first child died infancy. A son was born in 1925, but Clark’s husband died shortly after.  

By teaching in segregated schools in various locations, she earned a bachelor’s degree from Benedict College in 1942. She obtained her master’s degree from Hampton Institute in 1946.

Clark not only taught young students, but also held informal literacy classes for adults as well.  

She also pushed an education and equal rights agenda in numerous organizations such as the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), Federation of Women’s Clubs, Council of Negro Women, and, most importantly, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

In 1956 when South Carolina banned membership in the NAACP, Clark lost her teaching job and pension when she refused to comply.  

Hired by Myles Horton, Clark became Director of Workshops at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee.  

When this program was adopted into the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Clark and her cousin Bernice Robinson created the first citizenship school to educate blacks in literacy, state government, and election procedures.

Traveling throughout the South, Clark trained teachers for citizenship schools and assisted in SCLC marches and protests, working with Martin Luther King, Jr., and Andrew Young.  King acknowledged Clark when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 by insisting that she accompany him to Sweden.

During her career in service organizations, she also worked with the Tuberculosis Association and the Charleston Health Department.

Septima P. Clark died Dec. 15, 1987. In a eulogy presented at the funeral, the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) described the importance of Clark’s work and her relationship to SCLC.

  • Simone Stovall Contributor