The Life of Septima Clark
By Max Hunter, Perkins Center Teaching Fellow
Freedom’s Teacher: The Life of Septima Clark
by Katherine Mellen Charron. University of North Carolina Press, 2009. 480 pages.
Katherine M. Charron’s 12-year research investment in her first book, Freedom’s Teacher: The Life of Septima Clark, rewards readers with a fresh perspective on the civil rights movement.
This well-written book contextualizes Clark’s evolution from a fearless 18-year-old educator who, in 1916, was sent to an impoverished black community on Johns Island, South Carolina, into a daring school teacher who in 1950 aligned herself with Judge Julius Waties Waring and Elizabeth Waring, who were early advocates of integration in the state. It was shortly after this moment of radicalization that Clark was fired from her teaching job for being involved with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
The intrepid Clark then, in 1954, joined the Highlander Folk School, in Monteagle, Tennessee, where she developed her Citizenship Pedagogy — a practical educational approach defined by reciprocity, developing indigenous leadership, meeting students where they were, and appropriated strategies used in the earlier black women’s mission’s movements. Clark sought to link “practical literacy with political and economic literacy” (p. 5). Afterward she would move into mainstream political activism with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where she would work with Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King Jr., and Andrew Young. Charron’s narrative leaves the reader with new ideas about education and activism, the roots of the civil rights movement, and the contribution of black women to that movement.
Beginning around Broad Street
Born on May 3, 1898, Septima Poinsett grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, a city ruled by a paternalistic white aristocracy who lived among their black maids, servants, cooks, and workers in and around Broad Street. Charleston was a city established on a tiered racial caste system in which genealogy played a critical role in shaping both opportunities and activism for black women. The issues that accompanied class stratification (i.e., respectability and snobbery) would create personal and professional issues for Clark.
Charron’s narrative begins by helping the reader develop an understanding of how in the status-obsessed Charleston, “slavery’s vicious pruning disfigured Septima Earthaline Pointsette’s family tree” (p. 19). Moreover, she chose to ignore the marital guidelines for social advancement. When Septima Pointsette married a “stranger and a sailor [named Clark]; [an act that] respectable black Charleston judged neither very highly,” she felt an increased experience of marginalization (p. 83). Life outside the bounds of respectability (as defined in black Charleston) created for Clark a context for identification with those experiencing racial and interracial marginalization.
In 1916, Clark had begun teaching as a young woman who was sent to the poor black Gullah-speaking residents of South Carolina’s Johns Island. During this era, policy makers and philanthropist began to abandon the former missionary approach to educating African-Americans. Their conservatism created the initial challenges that Clark faced in trying to teach over 100 impoverished students in a district with minimal resources. Her white colleague had three students. On Johns Island, Clark learned developed strategies for “getting things done.” And working on Johns Island had another effect: It helped Clark begin to cultivate the skills needed for relating to the local indigenous populations.
Teaching years and the NAACP
In 1918, she was invited to join the faculty at Charleston’s Avery Institute to help accommodate a growing school. The new position coincided with her joining the NAACP’s campaign to promote the hiring of black teachers. In 1920, a burgeoning awareness emerged out of a struggle that led the state legislature to pass a resolution that resulted in the hiring of 55 black teachers and several black heads and assistant heads of school. She also dealt with class issues, again, when her inability to negotiate rivalries among the faculty and accommodate the families led to personal failure.
These successes coincided with trauma and personal failure as well. Following the end of World War I, in 1919 the Red Summer washed over the country with waves hitting Charleston. Then after marrying the young sailor, Nerie David Clark, Clark found that her ill-fated marriage led to her estrangement from both her mother and the black community. Soon thereafter, her husband died. Marital inequalities, deception, and betrayal led Clark to remain single.
The seeds of grassroots activism
In 1929, Clark relocated to the state capital in Columbia, South Carolina. Charron’s thesis about interactions between African-American women’s grassroots educational efforts and activism become more apparent during this section of the book. The role of community and relationships, however, were a critical in Clark’s formation as an grassroots activist.
Once in Columbia, Clark moved into Waverly, a working class neighborhood, where she began to work and live among the black professional class. Black Columbians were less obsessed with ancestral heritage and class status. “Everyone mixed, and the school teacher was considered rather high up on the social latter … the doctor’s wife and the schoolteacher, and the woman working as a domestic sat down together at the bridge table” (p. 121).
Teaching at the neighborhood’s Booker T. Washington High School allowed her to grow as a teacher and provided opportunities for professional development. The segregated school’s teachers were affiliated to the Palmetto State Teacher’s Association (PTSA). The school board’s racial conservatism led them to fight for “retaining black control of black education [and] formed the core of the PSTA’s mission” (p. 129T). The PTSA’s leaders applied a nuanced advocacy that sought to engage the white political power brokers with the intent of securing “curricular improvements and strengthening faculty credentials” in order to “equalize educational opportunity” for African-Americans (p. 130-131).
Moving Beyond Broad Street
Eventually, Clark would join, and study with, Wil Lou Gray, a white progressive reformer, who believed in the psychosocial and political implications of literacy for autonomy. During this period, the reader begins to see a transformation in Clark’s perspective from the belief in “vocational education” to a greater emphasis on “political competence” (p. 147). Charron argues, “Her experience allows us to more fully understand a political training received by thousands of black women educators and civic activists in the segregated South and the organizing tradition that they fashioned from it” (p. 148). This work provided the context for Clark and others to grasp the relationship between “political, economic, social, and educational problems” (p. 148).
Clark’s mentoring and social relationship with Judge Julius Waties Waring and Elizabeth Waring provided motivation for her to go “safely across the doorway of freedom and democracy” (p. 180). This radicalization happened one evening while Clark watched Elizabeth laundering socks. Her mentor, frustrated with recalcitrant black community, shared that they were leaving the South. Clark marked the moment by stating, “[My] tongue became loosened … [and] a new creature had welled up within” (p. 289). This rebirth coincided with courage and a determination to confront her worst fears about the cost of political agitation. Charron explains, “Crossing Broad Street, Septima Clark had stepped over a line. And there would be no turning back” (p. 215). Out of the Warings' frustration, she recognized that few blacks had the educational background to think through the political issues. Consequently, she gained a greater commitment to voter education.
A greater commitment to fusing education and political activism would lead to Clark’s involvement with the Highlander Folk School (HFS). In 1932, Myles Horton and Georgian Don West established the HFS to run residential workshops in which they would empower ordinary people to elaborate democracy.
At Highlander, Clark discovered an egalitarian approach to activism that forced her to confront her own hierarchal understanding of leadership. Horton argued, “We must have leadership rooted in community. By teaching people to train others we are spreading leadership and in so doing are reaching out in a manner that would be otherwise impossible” (p. 221).
An Education in Citizenship
Clark’s earlier work also had implications for HFS. “[Clark], not Horton, recognized practical literacy as a key to political liberation for the black grassroots,” writes Charron (p. 217). It was during this era that, in response to Cold War pedagogy that focused on white students, Clark began to construct an “Education for Citizenship” (p. 246–247). The emergence of a more holistic view coincided with a vision of citizenship that transcended enfranchisement.
Clark was primarily interested in helping her students transform into autonomous, self-determining agents that they dreamed of being. Her work on the Sea Island involved dealing with basic literacy issues to produce political and economic illiteracy. Charron demonstrates that Clark sought to reproduce herself within the community so that she was no longer needed. Even as her relationship with the Warings had provided a bridge for Clark, Charron argues, “Citizenship School graduates crossed over: They went from silently accepting things as they were to raising their voices to influence how things should be” (p.263).
Teaching adult illiteracy to inhabitants of the Sea Islands granted Clark success in “helping people help themselves” and to develop their own political identities (p. 262–263). She, nevertheless, struggled with Horton over his top-down leadership style and strategy. She fretted over the lack of integration in workshop as well. While Clark was deeply concerned about the lack of integration, local officials were concerned about her success.
Fears about integration led white supremacists to label HFS as a communist organization, discrediting their work. The situation became worse when Abner Berry, a journalist for a communist newspaper, showed up at the school’s 25th anniversary celebration and took a picture with Martin Luther King Jr., Horton, and Clark. The photographer, an interloper, took pictures of whites in various social activities.
Local law enforcement raided HFS and arrested Clark on a trumped-up charge of having sold alcohol. She thought it would besmirch her hard-earned good name among her colleagues in the educational and civil rights movement. In the end, the school was forced to close for mismanagement of assets. But that did not stop Clark’s work — the citizenship schools had spread beyond the South.
A growing influence amid more conflict
Charron reports, “By late 1961, Highland claimed that 1,500 adults studied in Citizenship Schools in 40 Southern communities” (p. 274). Clark continued to impact rural and urban black communities by developing indigenous leadership.
Clark and Horton’s volatile relationship would become demeaning when Horton described her as a tool that needed his guidance due to her inability to see the big picture. The root problem involved Clark’s commitment to developing indigenous leadership and context dependent strategies. Even still, Horton and other leaders made decisions about her salary and role in the movement without discussing these matters with Clark. Charron explains, “One of the greatest … hurdles involved making her voice heard and garnering respect for her lived experience, expertise, and her opinions. The crux of the matter was not that she was African-American but that she was a woman operating within organizations where men dominated the decision making” (p. 299).
Unfortunately, Clark fails to confront the class and racial dimensions of her experience of the HFS. Men’s objectification of women seemed the most critical hurdle to overcome. For some unknown reason, Charron chooses not to take the matter up.
Clark stuck to her guns: “The place where things really count and where people really grow is the local community level” (p. 302). This strategy, under the auspices of SCLC, allowed the Citizenship Education Program to spread across the South, impacting activism and political engagement in its wake. Charron explains its enduring impact when writing, “As on the quiet Sea Islands, the program’s success depended on its ability to move quietly into a community and begin to attack the psychological ramparts created by a lifetime of living in a segregated society.” This new-found freedom moved individuals and communities “to risk their lives and livelihoods” (p. 303). This system allowed citizenship school teachers to train hundreds of their colleagues and tens of thousands of students.
Freedom’s Teacher provides a refreshing new image of the civil rights movement that allows the reader to incorporate black women’s educational efforts as central to the movement. Charron’s narrative implies a new chronology that places its inception back to the black women’s missions’ efforts in the South and their Southern successors who struggled to assist black Southerners during the Reconstruction, the redemption of the South, and the nadir period. Clark’s journey exposes the reader to education as activism through the Great Depression and the interwar period. The strength of Charron’s narrative is its weakness: It is a biography of a movement centered on a powerful figure.
Charron skillfully uses Clark’s impressive career, and its unmatched duration, to make an argument about the impossibility of disaggregating grassroots activism from grassroots education — with the aforementioned implications. In the end, Charron makes choices that impede the reader from gaining greater insight in the lives of the masses who are involved perpetuating the educational and political movement. Charron deftly draws on voices marginalized in the master historical narrative. Yet, the traditional center remains.
Often the reader is overwhelmed with the larger story about various movements and their nonfemale leaders. I felt that I could have benefitted from hearing more about Septima Clark and the Gullah inhabitants on St. Johns Island. However, all in all, Freedom’s Teacher is well worth the read. This reader has walked away with a greater appreciation for the power of black women in American history, as well as the cumulative impact of incremental change.
Max Hunter joined the staff of the John Perkins Center at Seattle Pacific University in 2008. While at Harvard University, he studied in the Graduate School of Arts and Science, the Graduate School of Education, and Harvard Medical School. He has an A.M., Ed.M., and the certificate in bioethics from Harvard Medical School.
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