Septima Clark, Freedom’s Teacher

It is night. A lone black woman walks through a cornfield in South Carolina. The stars wink above her. Crickets and cicadas grow quiet as she passes and then resume their orchestral humming, now punctuated by the sound of rustling leaves a little farther off. She moves toward an unpainted one-room building. When she gets there, she will have to rely on oil lamps for light. A group of African American adults will be waiting, eager to learn what she has come to teach them. It could be 1863 or 1916 or 1935. She could be a slave from the big house whose mistress taught her to read, a recent graduate of an American Missionary Association teacher training institute, or an instructor in the New Deal-era adult education program. Instead, it is 1964, and she is a Citizenship School teacher.

There are hundreds like her conducting classes in the southern states. Each one has received a week’s worth of training in a program designed by Septima Poinsette Clark. . . . Their training has taught them that grassroots civil rights activism remains inseparable from grassroots education. In this process, Clark has guaranteed that each Citizenship School teacher carries forward an organizing tradition forged by countless southern black women activist educators before her.

So begins the introduction to Katherine Mellen Charron’s book Freedom’s Teacher: The Life of Septima Clark. Clark was born 112 years ago today, on May 3, 1898, in Charleston, South Carolina. Charron’s biography of Clark places the educator and civil rights activist in the long tradition of African Americans in the South who took up the cause of educating fellow blacks in the Jim Crow era, tracing Clark’s life from her early time as a student, teacher, wife, mother, and community member in rural South Carolina, through her growing involvement in the NAACP during the 1940s and her increasing radicalization as an activist in the years that followed. Charron argues that Clark’s later activism was a logical extension of her earlier life and career, providing a way for her to channel her lifelong dedication to education into something larger.

To see the Table of Contents and read the full introduction, click “view inside” on the widget at left. If you are a librarian, a professor, or a graduate student, you are eligible to view the entire book online, thanks to the Publishing the Long Civil Rights Movement project. Visit LCRM’s page for Freedom’s Teacher to request access.

Happy birthday, Septima. And thank you.

–ellen