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.

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.