Activist, Septima Clark
In 1916 she finished 12th grade and, unable financially to attend Fisk University as her teachers had hoped and, as an African American, forbidden to teach in the Charleston public schools at that time, Poinsette took the state examination that would permit her to teach in rural areas. Her first job was on John’s Island, South Carolina. The racial inequity of teachers’ salaries and facilities she experienced while there motivated her to become an advocate for change.
Clark left John’s Island in 1919 in order to teach and to campaign for a law allowing black teachers in the Charleston public schools. The same year that the law was passed (1920), Septima Poinsette married Nerie Clark, a navy cook. The marriage ended five years later when Nerie Clark died of kidney failure. The couple had two children; one died in infancy. Clark returned to teaching on John’s Island until 1927, when she moved to Columbia, South Carolina. There she continued to teach and to pursue her own education, studying during summers at Columbia University in New York City and with W.E.B. Du Bois at Atlanta University in Georgia. She received a bachelor’s degree from Benedict College in 1942 and a master’s degree from Hampton Institute in 1945. During this time she was also active in several social and civic organizations, among them the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) with whom she campaigned, along with attorney Thurgood Marshall, for equal pay for black teachers in Columbia. In an effort to diminish the effectiveness of the NAACP, the South Carolina state legislature banned state employees from being associated with civil rights organizations, and in 1956 Clark was forced to leave South Carolina for a job in Tennessee when she refused to withdraw her membership from the NAACP.
In Tennessee she helped found citizenship schools that were designed to achieve literacy and political empowerment within the black community. Clark joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1961 as director of education and teaching. In 1962 the SCLC joined with other organizations to form the Voter Education Project, which served to train teachers for citizenship schools and assisted in increased voter registration among African Americans. A decade later the first African Americans since Reconstruction were elected to the U.S. Congress.