Septima Clark: An unheralded stalwart of the Civil Rights Movement

Herb Boyd | 10/24/2013, 11:04 a.m.
Practically everyone knows that Rosa Parks is the mother of the Civil Rights Movement, but not as many know about ...
Septima Clark

Practically everyone knows that Rosa Parks is the mother of the Civil Rights Movement, but not as many know about her husband, Raymond Parks, who introduced her to the struggle against injustice, or E.D. Nixon, the president of the NAACP branch in Montgomery under whom she served. And even less is known about Septima Clark, who taught Rosa Parks the intricacies of civil disobedience when she studied at the Highlander Folk School, noted for its anti-segregationist activism.

Born Septima Poinsette Clark on May 3, 1898, in Charleston, S.C., she was named after an aunt in Haiti, and her name translates to “sufficient peace,” which may not have been the most fitting for Clark, who never tolerated violence and injustice.

That same unwillingness to “go along to get along,” so characteristic of her neighbors, kept her in hot water, and by 1956, she was fired from her teaching job and was immediately “blackballed” in the state. Her membership in the NAACP didn’t help her situation, but it was an employment option; she began traveling around the South, organizing and registering people to vote.

“They considered me a communist because I was following Martin Luther King,” she told Brian Lanker in his book “I Dream a World.” “But anyone who was against segregation was considered a communist,” she said. Becoming a teacher at Myles Horton’s Highlander Folk School added to her radicalism, but this only made the school more attractive to those interested in the fight to overthrow Jim Crow laws.

Clark also possessed a strong feminist outlook and often expressed her feelings about the role of women in the movement. “In those days, I didn’t criticize Dr. King other than asking him not to lead all the marches,” she told Lanker. “Like other Black ministers, Dr. King didn’t think too much of the way women could contribute. I see this as one of the weaknesses of the Civil Rights Movement, the way that men looked at women.”

But her admiration of King was not diminished; in fact, it was bolstered by an episode in suburban New York in 1962 during a fundraiser that featured Sammy Davis Jr. and actor Peter Lawford. King was on stage when a white man approached him and began hitting him. The attacker landed several blows, one of which knocked the minister backward. But King refused to fight back. Clark witnessed the entire incident and was shocked to see how calm and composed King was. “[King] dropped his hands like a newborn baby,” Clark said in Taylor Branch’s “Parting the Waters.” From then on, she said she never doubted that his nonviolence “was more than the heat of his oratory or the result of his slow calculation,” Branch wrote.

Along with preparing her students with nonviolent methods and the tactics of civil disobedience, all of which were quickly absorbed by Parks and her mother at the school, Clark was a superb teacher of leadership skills. She instructed her charges in the best way to convince folks to register to vote and how to stand up for their rights.