Septima Clark

Citizenship Schools were founded throughout the American South during the Civil Rights era. They sought to teach African-Americans the skills that they needed to pass the literacy tests they were required to take before being allowed to vote, thus increasing the effective enfranchisement of African-Americans in the United States.

Septima Clark contributed to the Civil Rights Movement by implementing an approach to social change that fused education with activism. Eventually known as the “Grandmother of the Civil Rights Movement” in the U.S., she founded a network of schools dedicated to teaching unschooled members of the Southern black community the literacy skills that were necessary for them to pass the discriminatory literacy tests that served to disenfranchise black voters. Her ‘Citizenship Schools’ were instrumental in empowering more than 700,000 Southern African-Americans.

Trained as a teacher, Clark first entered the realm of activism in 1919 by working with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) – a group founded to promote equal rights for all Americans – on a successful effort to increase the number of black teachers employed in public schools in Charleston, South Carolina. Decades later, South Carolina passed a law forbidding city and state employees from participating in civil rights organizations. Faced with this challenge, Clark elected to remain involved with the NAACP and lost her job as a result.

After being fired, Clark became involved with the Highlander Folk Center in Monteagle, Tennessee in 1954. At Highlander she participated in the literacy workshops that were the prototypes for the Citizenship Schools. She was soon hired by Highlander as the full-time director of workshops. Clark broadly expanded the program, and it is estimated that by 1961 she had helped establish over 700 Citizenship Schools that went on to register approximately 42,000 voters.

These workshops were effective, they spread throughout the South, and ownership of the program was eventually transferred to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. With the increased resources resulting from the transfer, Citizenship Schools expanded the base of trained teachers who significantly multiplied the number of Southern blacks with the literacy skills and knowledge of the rights of citizenship that would empower them to become voters.

Warren K. Leffler, photographer, courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Her commitment translated into a movement with large-scale consequences for civil rights and political freedoms. The success of the schools linked directly to the broader civil rights movement. Setting up the institutions to help people register to vote enabled a series of micro-activists to increase their individual power and the overall impact of the national effort.

Clark married her spirit of activism to her extensive experience as an educator. This dedication to bringing her expertise to bear in confronting the oppressive political conditions facing her community resulted in the expansion of voting rights for thousands of people. Her will and the will of all those that chose to follow her left an enduring impact on black communities throughout the South and on the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement.

Moving Forward

Voting rights in the United States have eroded. The Supreme Court in 2012 invalidated key parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, effectively rolling back federal protections against redistricting and voter ID laws, significantly disadvantaging African-American voters in various locations across the country. Clark’s legacy and strategies are again relevant to the broader civil rights movement, even as it has morphed and modernized to current contexts.