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South Carolina Superheroes: Septima Poinsette Clark

In conjunction with the Hall of Heroes blockbuster exhibition and Women’s History Month, the State Museum is putting the spotlight on South Carolina heroes this month. Check back to get inspired and be sure to visit Hall of Heroes. For this feature we are focusing on one of South Carolina’s historical superheroes: Septima Poinsette Clark.

Septima Poinsette Clark’s motto was “literacy means liberation.” Martin Luther King, Jr. worked with Septima Poinsette Clark and called her the “Mother of the Movement.” He acknowledged her contributions when he insisted she join him in Sweden when he accepted his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Image courtesy the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute.

Septima Poinsette Clark was a dynamic, real-life superhero and pioneer of citizenship education. She was a tireless voting rights advocate and champion for civil rights. She created the popular citizenship school model that taught literacy and political education to thousands of ordinary people throughout the south.

Septima Poinsette Clark was born in Charleston in 1898. Her mother was a laundrywoman raised in Haiti and her father was born into slavery on the plantation of Joel Poinsette. They pushed their children to excel at school despite the barriers placed on young black children, especially girls, at that time. They sacrificed to pay tuition for her to attend the prestigious Avery Normal Institute where she graduated and earned a teacher’s certificate in 1916. She continued her studies under the renowned historian W.E.B. Du Bois in Atlanta, earned a B.A. from Benedict College in Columbia and then an M.A. from Virginia’s Hampton Institute. With her hero’s training, she set out to make the world a better place.

Everywhere Clark went she challenged injustice. When she began as a teacher on Johns Island in a one-room schoolhouse because the Charleston Public School system did not allow black teachers. In addition, the state spent significantly less on schools for black students. Clark decided to take on the heroic task of fighting for equality. She joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and participated in their class action suit for pay equality for teachers. Once, she got 10,000 signature on a petition in one day! She did not back down when, in 1956, the state of South Carolina prohibited city and state employees from belonging to civil rights organization. She lost her job and pension because she refused to resign from the NAACP.

Septima Poinsette Clark with Thurgood Marshall and others at the Highland Folk School in Tennessee where she taught literacy and workshops on political empowerment. Image courtesy of Vanderbilt University.

Clark knew education was linked to political empowerment. She began workshops at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, an education center dedicated to social justice. She taught literacy and trained students to become voters and activists. She inspired them to have pride in their culture, resist racism, and gain knowledge of their rights. Activists like Rosa Parks attended these workshops until the state of Tennessee forced it to close in 1961. Other groups like Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) continued the programs modeled on Clark’s classes. Clark, however, still faced challenges. She recalled that SCLC “didn’t respect women too much” although she said that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “felt that black women had a place” in the civil rights movement.

Septima P. Clark with Rosa Parks. Image courtesy Highland Research and Education Center.

In recognition of her accomplishments, Jimmy Carter presented her with a Living Legacy Award in 1979. The state of South Carolina eventually restored her pension taken from her decades ago. At her funeral in 1987, she was presented with the highest honor of the SCLC, the Drum Major for Justice Award, echoing Dr. King’s earlier praise of her as “a community teacher, intuitive fighter for human rights and leader of unlettered and disillusioned people.” In other words, a true superhero.