Septima Poinsette Clark

Lived:May 3, 1898—December 15, 1987 (aged 89)
Education:B.A., Benedict College
M.A., Hampton University

Septima Poinsette Clark was an educator and civil rights activist who developed a citizenship education program designed to eliminate illiteracy and get people ready to register and vote that played an important role in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

Clark was born on May 3, 1898, in Charleston, South Carolina. Her father was a former slave but her mother, born in Charleston but raised in Haiti, had never been enslaved. After graduating from high school in 1916, Clark worked as a school teacher in a rural school district outside Charleston. She later earned a Bachelor of Arts from Benedict College in 1942 and a Master of Arts from Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in 1946.

While in her first teaching position, Clark taught adults on her own time in the evenings and developed methods to teach adults to read and write based on common household items such as the Sears catalog. The discrepancies in teachers' pay between her school and the neighboring white school also led Clark to become an advocate for equal pay for teachers, which introduced her to the NAACP and the civil rights movement. Clark moved to Columbia, South Carolina, in 1929 and taught high school there. While in Columbia, she participated in a class action lawsuit filed by the NAACP that led to pay equity for Black and white teachers in South Carolina. She returned to Charleston in 1947, teaching in the public school district as well as being active in the YWCA and Charleston NAACP. In 1956, she lost her teaching position—and her pension—when the South Carolina legislature passed a law banning city or state employees from being involved with civil rights organizations, and she refused to resign from the NAACP.

Clark was then hired by the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, where she served as the director of workshops and taught literacy courses. She developed the curriculum for citizenship education workshops that included both literacy and citizenship rights. The workshops spread across the South, and were transferred to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1961 when Highlander was closed. Clark became the SCLC's director of education and teaching, and was the first woman to hold a position on their board.

After retiring from SCLC in 1970, Clark conducted workshops for the American Field Service. In 1975 she was elected to the school board in Charleston, South Carolina. In 1976, the governor of South Carolina reinstated her teacher’s pension.

Clark died December 15, 1987.

“Clark, Septima Poinsette.” The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, 27 June 2018,