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

One of her students was the famous activist Rep. John Lewis. Another was Ella Baker, who is almost equally unsung as a heroine of the Civil Rights Movement. It was Baker who connected Clark’s citizenship classes with some of the programs launched by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Eventually, her innovative techniques were emulated all over the South, and nowhere were they better delivered than at the citizenship schools she helped to establish throughout the land of Dixie.

Even in the twilight of her years, Clark retained her feisty attitude and continued to teach. She eventually returned to South Carolina and taught there, particularly in the Gullah region of Johns Island, where she died on Dec. 1, 1987.

There is a famous photo of Parks and Clark sitting together at the Highlander Folk School, sharing a few peaceful moments of reflection. It was as though Parks had found her surrogate mother or sister after whom should would pattern her life. “I am always very respectful and very much in awe of the presence of Septima Clark, because her life story makes the effort that I have made very minute,” Parks told a writer. “I only hope that there is a possible chance that some of her great courage and dignity and wisdom has rubbed off on me.”

It certainly did.


  • Find out more: To understand the full significance of Clark’s work as a teacher requires reading the several biographies of her life. These are readily accessible, and information on her can be retrieved from the books mentioned above, including John Lewis’ “Walking with the Wind.”
  • Discussion: The role of women in the Civil Rights Movement is something Clark stressed. Who are a few women—other than Clark, Parks and Baker—who are worthy of study and discussion?
  • Place in context: Clark lived a long life, but one of the most critical eras for her was the decade from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s and mainly in the South. It will be useful to see how this period of time dovetailed with the emergence of King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Freedom Riders.

This Week in Black History

  • Oct. 20, 1895: Noted actor Rex Ingram, who starred in many feature films, including “The Green Pastures,” is born.
  • Oct. 21, 1950: Earl Lloyd becomes the first African-American to play in the NBA, beating Chuck Cooper and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton by one day.
  • Oct. 22, 1936: Bobby Seale, who cofounded the Black Panther Party with Huey Newton, is born in Dallas.