Septima Poinsette Clark (May 3, 1898–December 15, 1987) was an American educator and civil rights activist. Her work for equal access to education and civil rights for African Americans several decades before the rise of national awareness of racial inequality has led her to be known as the "Queen mother" or "Grandmother of the American Civil Rights Movement" in the United States.
Clark was born in Charleston, South Carolina. Her father, Peter Poinsette, was born a slave on the Joel Poinsette farm between the Waccamaw River and Georgetown. After the Civil War, he got a job as a caterer. Her mother, Victoria Warren Anderson Poinsette, was born in Charleston but raised in Haiti. Her uncle took her and her two sisters to Haiti in 1864. She returned to Charleston after the war and worked as a launderer.
Clark graduated from high school in 1916. Due to financial constraints, she was not able to attend college, but began work as a school teacher. As an African American, she was barred from teaching in the Charleston, South Carolina public schools, but was able to find a position teaching in a rural school district, on John's Island. Clark recalls the gross discrepancies that existed between her school and the white school across the street. Clark's school had 132 students and only one other teacher. As the teaching principal, Clark made $35 per week, while the other teacher made $25. Meanwhile, the white school across the street had only three students, and the teacher who worked there received $85 per week. It was her first-hand experience with these inequalities that led Clark to become an active proponent for pay equalization for teachers. It was in 1919 that her pay equalization work brought her into the movement for civil rights.
In 1919, she returned to Charleston to teach sixth grade at Avery Normal Institute. In Charleston, she began attending meetings of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Her first task with the NAACP was to knock on doors and ask people to sign petitions. One of the causes she petitioned for was to allow blacks to become principals in Charleston's public schools. The NAACP wanted to bring 10,000 signatures to the legislature. With the permission of the principal at Avery, Clark took her sixth graders out of class one day to help her collect signatures. In 1920, Clark enjoyed the first of many legal victories when blacks were given the right to become principals in Charleston's public schools.
In May 1920, Septima Poinsette married seaman Nerie Clark. The couple had a daughter who died one month after birth and a son, Neri Clark, Jr. The three moved to Dayton, Ohio, but after Nerie Sr. died of kidney problems in December 1925, Clark, struggling to support her son, stayed with Nerie's relatives in Dayton and Hickory, North Carolina. She settled in Columbia, South Carolina in 1929, and accepted a teaching position that year. During this time, Clark had trouble providing for Nerie, Jr. In 1935, she decided to send him back to Hickory to live with his paternal grandparents.
During summers, Clark began studies at Columbia University in New York City and at Atlanta University in Georgia with the landmark figure in the racial equality movement, W.E.B. Du Bois. Between 1942 and 1945, she received a bachelor's degree from Benedict College, Columbia University and a master's from Hampton (Virginia) Institute (now Hampton University). In 1947, Clark returned to Charleston to take care of her mother who had had a stroke. While caring for her mother Clark's role as an educator and activist did not subside. During this time, she taught in the Charleston public schools, she was active with the YWCA, and served as membership chairperson of the Charleston NAACP. In 1956, Clark obtained the position of vice president of the Charleston NAACP branch. That same year, the South Carolina legislature passed a law banning city or state employees from being involved with civil rights organizations. Clark was upfront in her refusal to leave the NAACP, and was thus fired from her job.
Around this time, Clark was active with the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. She first attended a workshop there in 1954, and before long she was teaching courses there. She and Bernice Robinson formulated an adult literacy program. They taught students how to fill out driver's license exams, voter registration forms, Sears mail-order forms, and how to sign checks. Clark also served as Highlander's director of workshops, recruiting teachers and students. One of the participants in her workshops was Rosa Parks. A few months after participating in the workshops Parks helped to start the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Clark had helped establish "Citizenship Schools" teaching reading to adults throughout the Deep South. The project was a response to legislation in Southern states which required literacy and interpreting various portions of the US Constitution in order to be allowed to register to vote. These laws were used to disenfranchise black citizens. Citizenship Schools were based on the adult literacy programs Clark and Robinson had developed at Highlander. Septima Clark hired her niece, Bernice Robinson, to be the first teacher. Bernice was also a Highlander alumni. In addition to literacy, Citizenship Schools also taught students to act collectively and protest against racism. They ultimately spread to a number of Southern states, growing so large that, upon the recommendation of Myles Horton and Martin Luther King, Jr., the program was transferred to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), in 1961. Clark came to national prominence, becoming the SCLC's director of education and teaching. Andrew Young, who had joined Highlander the previous year to work with the Citizenship Schools, also joined the SCLC staff. The SCLC and other organizations formed the Voter Education Project in 1962.
During her career in service organizations, she also worked with the Tuberculosis Association and the Charleston Health Department. She was also an active member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. Clark retired from active work with the SCLC in 1970. She later sought reinstatement of the pension and back salary that had been canceled when she was dismissed as a teacher in 1956, which she successfully won. She was later to serve two terms on the Charleston County School Board.
U.S. President Jimmy Carter awarded Clark a Living Legacy Award in 1979. In 1987, her second autobiography, Ready from Within: Septima Clark and the Civil Rights Movement, Wild Trees Press, (1986), won the American Book Award.
Septima P. Clark died December 15, 1987, in a eulogy presented at the funeral, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), described the importance of Clark's work and her relationship to the SCLC. Reverend Joseph Lowery asserted that "her courageous and pioneering efforts in the area of citizenship education and interracial cooperation" won her SCLC's highest award, the Drum Major for Justice Award. She is buried at Old Bethel United Methodist Church Cemetery in Charleston, South Carolina.