Septima P. Clark 1898-1987
By Bill Steverson
Vol. 10, No. 2, 1988, pp. 12-16
I WAS BORN IN CHARLESTON, S.C., the same place where I am living now. My father was a slave on the Joel Poinsette plantation. He came out of slavery not feeling one bit of violence. I’m glad that he gave to me a lot of that, because I have never felt angry with the people who really shunned me or did any kind of thing to make me feel that I was not worthy of things that they enjoyed. I still have that feeling, however, that my life is a life that’s different from theirs, so I don’t have that hate in my heart and I’m sure that I’ll never have it anymore.
Now my mother was different. My mother was a strict disciplinarian. Her mother was part Indian, and there were three sets of children in her family. My father, too, had a number of children, but he was Joel Poinsette’s Great Fellow. He took the children to school; he stayed with them when the mother and father were having their fun. He saw to it that they were bathed and dressed, and he grew up loving those kids. I’m glad for him, because as I had to work, I felt that the nonviolence that he gave to all of us is worthwhile. My mother was raised in Haiti and came back here to South Carolina to live. She had an altogether different attitude from that of my father.
In South Carolina when I was around 18, I knew that there were no public schools for black children. The missionaries from Boston, Massachusetts, came down here and they started what we call Avery Institute, but it was not a public school. We had to pay. We only paid a dollar and a half, but the economy was such that my parents did not have that much money a month to pay for me to go to school. So I worked with a dressmaker across the street from where I lived at that time, and there I helped take care of her children while she sewed, and I worked at others in sewing, then I was able to go to Avery Institute with that dollar and a half she paid me every month I could get my work in high school.
Those people did an excellent job. We had things in the languages–Greek and Latin and French and Spanish along with the English and social studies. When we finished, we took an examination from the state, and after taking that, examinations in eleven different subjects, it made us qualified to go over on the island on the east coast of Charleston and teach. We couldn’t teach in the city of Charleston; segregation was at its height. And no black teacher could teach in the city of Charleston although we had a Menninger Normal School for whites and they had the same kind of training that we had for blacks. But they taught the black children as well as the whites, and we could not go to those schools; nor could we teach at all. That was the way it was 1910-1919.
No matter what you wanted to buy, you couldn’t try on a dress in any of those rooms in the stores. You had to go into a broom closet to try on whatever you wanted. And then when I got to the place where I would go down to the tax office to pay taxes on my house, I would have to stand back of the wall until every white person had paid and then I could pay my taxes. It was really something to think about. And on the street on which I lived, it was integrated-that is-there were German families, and Irish families and Italian families all on that street. And when we got our skates at Christmas time we couldn’t skate past their door. We had to go on the outside of the street to skate. That’s what we had to do. We really had real segregation.
IN 1919 I CAME FROM THE ISLANDS and felt, well, there was an artist here, Edwin Halston, who told us about a thing called the NAACP. I thought that was a good thing to join, and I did join. When I joined up, I heard about black teachers not being able to teach in the city of Charleston, so I took my class that I was teaching at Avery Normal Institute and went from door to door to see if black parents
wanted their children to teach black children in the city of Charleston, and I found that they did, so we got their signatures, some of them on little pieces of paper bag. And after getting those signatures, we gave them to the president of State College in Orangeburg-Tommy Miller. He took them to the Legislature and in 1920 we got black teachers in the school, and in 1921, they got black principals in the schools in Charleston.
When I taught on the islands at that time, I had 132 children in my class and in my school. I was a teaching principal; there was one other teacher with me. We were paid $25 a month. We paid board out of that and taught the children as well. We had a schoolhouse with no indoor nor outdoor toilets. We had a bucket where we could get some water from somebody down the road from where we were. They did give us a board on the side of the wall painted black. We used that board to write our lessons on, and this is the way we taught. But you’d be suprised to know that I have a young man living there in New York who paddled across (to the island) to come to that school, and he is one of the highest paid lawyers in the United States.
During the (Depression) when we had no money whatsoever, and food was being given, the only thing the people could do was to be sure whatever ground they had in front of them and plant vegetables so that they could have some vegetables to grow and to eat. We really didn’t know what we could do about meat. I can remember standing in line for quite some time to get a can of hash. That can of hash would have to last a family all day long. I do know that we could buy-we didn’t call them hotdogs at that time, but sausage, and cut them into little pieces and with a plate of grits you were able to eat that little piece of sausage with a whole plate of grits. I can’t say we didn’t have any real troubles. On the islands, we didn’t have babies immunized. We had sixty-eight babies to die in a short time, and then after that we had people who suffered because they didn’t have vegetables and meats, and because of that, pellagra took over, and we lost a lot of people on account of pellagra. It was around the last part of the 1920s into the ’30s.
I WENT TO COLUMBIA in 1926 to work, and I worked there as a teacher for nineteen years. There I made a little bit more money. I got $62.50 a month and paid my board out of that.
We found that white teachers were being paid so much more money than black teachers. In fact, when I was on the island, the white teacher that had her school there across from the one where I was teaching, was getting $85 a month while both of us were getting just $50 a month. So when I went to Columbia, I thought it would be a good time to try to see if we couldn’t do something about equalization of teachers’ salaries.
I went (to Columbia) to teach the third (grade) at the C.A. Johnson High School. All grades were together at that school. And, I must say that I felt that the supervisor of that school-Mr. C.A. Johnson-was an excellent person. He came around monitoring the rooms, and when you failed to teach the children as he thought it should be done, he had two meetings a week: a professional meeting and a building meeting in that school. And so, we would be there on Tuesdays and Thursdays until around five o’clock listening to Mr. Johnson teach teachers how to teach. Sometimes it would be to figure addition for the little children; another time it might be social studies for the bigger ones. But whatever it was, that’s the way he worked.
But we still had segregation and we still had the unequal salaries. So Benedict College and Allen University had meetings, and with those meetings we learned something about the political side of life and what we needed to do to sit where we needed to sit on buses, to go into the restaurants and eat, to go into the five ten cent stores and be able to sit down and eat as well as buy toothpaste and other things. Those were the things that you couldn’t do. And the hospitals. We had a time with babies and hospitals. The black babies were really sort of discriminated against, but you know, there was a white doctor who came to some of those meetings to tell us how about how those black babies were suffering, and we were able through Dr. Manse (a black doctor), we started a hospital there. I can’t remember the name of the hospital now, but most of us gave something like fifty dollars apiece to get that hospital started. And in that way, we were able to get people to see the needs of a big city like Columbia, and get Columbia going so that we could have our rights.
Of course we walked at nights from one place to another with equalization of teachers’ salaries.
And Thurgood Marshall came down and we showed him our checks, and with those checks we went to the statehouse, and after a discussion of quite some time, they decided that the National Teachers’ Exam should be given and black teachers would then be able, after taking that test, to try to qualify to get the same type of salary. About forty-two of us decided that we would take the test. We took the test, and we made good. Salaries raised. They tripled, not doubled. ‘Cause from $62.50 it went up to $175 and I felt so wealthy that I decided I would go back (to Charleston). You know I didn’t have a bachelor’s degree then. I taught in the mornings and went to Allen and Benedict at night. And when I finished Benedict in ’42, I went to Hampton and got a degree in’46.
IN JANUARY 19,1957, the South Carolina Legislature passed a law that no city or state employee could be a member of the NAACP. The Clarendon County teachers decided they would say that yes, they were members. Most of our teachers wouldn’t say yes. Forty-one teachers in Clarendon County decided they were members of the NAACP and because they said “yes” they were hauled to Charleston and Anthony Williams was the judge and he claimed that we did not-he did not have enough facts in the case-so he closed that thing down that day. When he did that, the next day the Legislature opened up and said, “Change the wording from ‘no city or state employee could be a member of the NAACP to list your affiliations’.” And those who listed their affiliations were dismissed also.
They took away my job and my pension and everything. Over my name went 726 letters to black teachers, and those black teachers were afraid, of course. And they had to be, because about 169 teachers came from Virginia and Washington to get our jobs. But you know the people in Clarendon County refused to board them. Anyway, they sent me a letter June 8,1956, that I could not teach in Charleston any
longer, so I couldn’t. That’s when I went to Highlander Folk School.
I had put in money in my retirement pension-the letter’s right there-but I could not get them to say that I should have my retirement. Four per cent of my monthly money had to go to the retirement, and when I received an award down in Miami, in 1975, the Governor of South Carolina then decided I should have some of my money, and also he sent me a letter with $3,600. Later on, in 1981-25 years afterwards-they sent me a part of my money. They owed me $72,000. ‘Cause it’s $5,000 a year, and they owed me $72,000 but they wouldn’t give it to me. They gave me $20,000. It was good because I was able to pay the mortgage off on my house. Right now I’m working for my current pension. I’m supposed to get $5,000 a year until I die, but I haven’t gotten it. I’m still working on it-I’ve got some people working on it now. I never did get back to teach any more in South Carolina, but I was a member of the School Board for eight years.
When we went down to the hearing at that courthouse, Judge (J. Waites) Waring was the (federal) judge here. When we down to that hearing, some of those white people didn’t want us to sit in the seats, and Judge Waring said “Why they’re the people that are supposed to sit in those seats. They’re being tried.” Then we sat on those seats.
Judge Waring played a great part in South Carolina. One night we had a testimonial for him after he opened the Democratic Party, and he said that night that you know a judge has to live with his conscience. Judge Waring said, “I have to live with my conscience and I can see white fellows that I know are bums come into that court and being treated like first class gentlemen, and I see black people come into that court who I know are great men, and they’re treated like bums. I couldn’t bear to see that go on.”
Of course, you know he was terribly harassed. His wife was going to speak at the YWCA. That night some white men surrounded the house and took pieces of cement and threw through her window. She was sitting on the couch, but they didn’t hit her, thank goodness. Another time he had to have guards when he went to the barber to get his hair cut; men had to stand on both sides of him. Mrs. Waring went on Broad Street to get a paper written and the woman refused, she decided that she couldn’t do it for her. And then she invited some people to a tea at her house, and they had some people coming all the way in here from Florida, but the black people in Charleston were afraid, and they wouldn’t go. Just a few of us. Mrs. Waring differed from Judge Waring. She called them decadent and low-down when she spoke at the YWCA. She really blessed them out, but he never would do a thing like that. He just said to the reporters, now here are the papers, if you want something to print, here it is.
HIGHLANDER FOLK SCHOOL was really a school for problems. People were afraid of Highlander, but Highlander did an excellent job getting attitudes to change and making social change as we went along. I went in 1954. I felt very good about the Highlander Folk School, and then I felt that I would try to get some of the people off the islands to come to the Highlander Folk School. While up there, we got them to meet northern whites and southern whites, northern blacks and southern blacks. They slept in the same room. They washed dishes together, and held their conferences in the library together.
Esau Jenkins was one of the fellows. He decided it would be good if he could come back home and get his people registered to vote, so they could have a better life on the islands-on Johns Island in particular at that time. And so, that’s what they did. We didn’t have a place. A minister wouldn’t let us have any meetings in their churches-they were too afraid. So we bought a building with the help of some people in the north; they sent us some money through the Highlander Folk School through Myles Horton (founder and director of the school) to buy a building. We started the Citizenship School there. We found out that they didn’t want teachers who were certified teachers to teach them, so we found people who could read well aloud and write legibly to teach in those schools.
WE DIDN’T HAVE STORES over on the islands, so we had to teach them how to fill out applications, how to write out money orders for things that they wanted. Some wanted to read the Bible-those who were living on plantations and having those Wednesday night meetings. There were others who wanted to read the newspaper. And those are the kinds of things that we did. We listened to them, and so we found out just what they needed, what they wanted. We worked on that, ’cause when we found out when they learned a word from the paper they could use it with the Bible, they could use it in other ways. That’s the kind of thing that we did.
Then the Marshall Field Foundation came in and they gave us some money and we were able to get people together. When it was a busy time for them on the farm, we paid them to come to school at nights. And when we paid them to come to school, it was surprising to see them feeling so good about being able to buy a new pair of jeans, or whatever they could. [This was on Johns Island]. The teaching-we started with thirty-seven women in 1957, and then when we were teaching them for three months, we were able to get them to come to Charleston to go up to try to register to vote. But you know South Carolina had that silly law where they had to read and say “I am not guilty of miscegenation, wife beating, larceny or anything against the election laws.” Now when they could read that, they could get a registration certificate. And when we were able to get through quickly, Esau taught them in the buses when he brought them over to the places. The men worked at
nights on the wharf and so the women in turn had to teach their husbands how to memorize that part of the election laws. That’s the way we did it.
Anyway, after we were able to get them to say that, the law was changed. Well, the Voting Rights Bill came and they did not have to read that section of the election law. I don’t know if you know it: Georgia had thirty questions and they had to answer twenty-four of those correctly. Louisiana had twenty-four questions, and one question was “I am not the father of an illegitimate child.” Even though she was a woman she had to say that. All of those things have been wiped out with the Voting Rights Bill in 1965.
Alabama-it’s real funny. We had a man with a Ph.D. there, teaching at that Tuskegee, and he was teaching there and he could not answer that registrar. The question was, what is a thief? And he never could tell that man what is a thief. He found out when he came to Highlander that he should have said: “A thief is a nigger that steals.” As long as he did not say that, he could not get a registration certificate, although he was a Ph.D. fellow.
In Mississippi we had twenty-four questions that they had to answer, and then there were questions after that that were given by the registrars. Those questions-they wanted to know how-something about living in Mississippi. As long as they couldn’t tell how well off they were in the state of Mississippi, they could not get a registration certificate. But you know, it’s suprising, after the Voting Rights Bill when they didn’t have to do all of that, Mississippi sent the first black man to its Legislature, by the name of Robert Clark.
HIGHLANDER WAS CLOSED DOWN in 1959. I was arrested, you know, in August of 1959. They had a court trial-teaching an integrated group. They really said I was serving whiskey but they found out that I was teaching-it was against the laws of the state of Tennessee to teach an integrated group. I had sixty blacks and twelve whites in class, and Myles (Horton) was in Monaco at the time, taking this American citizenship education over there, and these people didn’t like it, so they surrounded us one night when we were having a workshop. They surrounded the school house, and we were showing a film that I had from the Southern Regional Council-“The Face of the South”-and it was telling how the Southern people failed to give black children education and the like.
They came in. They wanted to know, where’s Septima Clark. I said: “Here I am.” They put me in a car. The moving picture was still going on. The man told some of the people to turn it off, and they said, well, you have arrested Septima Clark and we don’t know how to work this machine, so they just jerked it out of the wall. Those people started (singing) “we will overcome.” Two or three white boys were there at that time, and one started strumming on a guitar, and they put all three of them in that car with me. When we got to the jail, I asked them if I could make a phone call. I was gonna call a lawyer in Nashville, but they said “No.” I said that I know I have the right to make one phone call, but they wouldn’t let me make it. About two o’clock that morning, two white missionaries came to take me out. When they came, they would not let them use a check. They had to get cash money. And Esau said it was suprising to know that those people all came together and found $500.
THE FIRST TIME I MET Martin Luther King was in 1957 when we had that 25th Anniversary [Highlander had been founded in 1932.] Mrs. Roosevelt came too. So Dr. King and Mrs. Roosevelt and a fellow from North Carolina- the fellow that did the evaluation of my book, Echo In My Soul, he came at that time too.
I thought well of (King). He spoke so well for a young man, and I was very happy to hear him talk about this nonviolence that he found was so great. That’s when he talked about (how) the South is going to really go ahead of the North, and that integration and registration and one other kind of -gration he says, with laborization, was going to be the things that would help the South to become the kind of thing-I always felt that the South would out do the North too. At that meeting, we had a black fellow to come from New York who was related with the communists. We had another white fellow to come in on the bus who was also related with the communists. And when Dr. King and those left they put those great big billboards on the road, and under that, they put “Communist Training School.” Put them all up through Tennessee-from Georgia to Tennessee. I can’t figure that man’s name that came, but…this was a white fellow that was working with the governor in Atlanta, Georgia, at the time.
Right after the hearing-after we had that court trial- the school was closed down, but we stayed on there and we worked right there. We had a big workshop of people from the foothills of Missouri. Lots of them were afraid, but they came. Then we had some people from the Appalachians we were trying to get to do something about milk…and their section at the time. They became afraid so they left, but the black people came on, and then we started our schools throughout. We started workshops, and we started schools in the eleven deep South states.
Rev. (Ralph) Abernathy’s wife gathered together quite a number of women who came from the (Montgomery) Improvement Association. I can’t think of quite a few of those ministers’ names who came up one night, but we had lots of big workshops-fifty or more at a time would come, and when they came up, we talked about the government under which they were living and tried to get them to see that they needed to change the kind of government that they had so that things would be better. That’s when we started branching into those various states, and starting affiliate groups
throughout the eleven deep South states, and also starting the schools-teaching them to read and write. You know in some places they had to write their name in cursive writing [in order to vote].
IN 1957 I HAD A LETTER from Mrs. (Virginia) Durr telling me about Rosa Parks. She wanted to know if Rosa Parks could come to the Highlander Folk School, and would we be able to send for her so that she could come free of charge. So, we sent her money to ride on the bus, and also money to eat on the way, as she was coming. I was really impressed with this woman. She kept the faith, saying, she had no qualms whatsoever about being arrested because she would not give up her seat to a white man who came into the bus after she had been seated. And so, she was arrested. And after being arrested, fingerprinted, and Mr. Nixon from Montgomery went down there and took her out.
At the Fiftieth Anniversary (of the Highlander Center) she was there in Tennessee. So. Rosa Parks turned a lot of things around from refusing to give that seat in Montgomery, Alabama. Well, it has been good to know her.
IN COLUMBIA, S.C., WHEN I was teaching there, there was a woman named Fleming who got on that bus and refused to go to the back. And that bus driver thought that he was going to be very much of a hoodlum, I guess, and he was going to put her off that bus, but she fought back. Of course, we had quite a case there with Fleming and that bus driver, but that wasn’t the first time for South Carolina. I was on that bus on one of the main streets and a white man pulled the coat off of a black man because he was getting in the bus ahead of him. You know what I did, I rode all the way down to the bus station that day, and I told them that this man had paid his fare just like that other fellow, and he didn’t have to wait for a man. He could wait for women, but he didn’t have to wait for a man to get on the bus. He could get on the bus in front of a man, and he couldn’t understand why that man had that kind of feeling.
They brought in a man from Atlanta who spoke to us and got us stirred up about that thing. I can’t think of his name now but he was over there at one of those universities, and we all became concerned, and we decided that we were not going to let anybody tell us where to sit on those buses. We didn’t get any result until the Rosa Parks affair, we really didn’t get any results. We always had somebody fighting.
(Many people in South Carolina) didn’t think about using the courts. They were going try to do it themselves- violently. That’s when we had a number of meetings at Benedict College, with Herman Long, and a number of meetings when Thurgood Marshall came down. Those are the kinds of things that we did, but we really didn’t feel as if we could do any nonviolent work at all. We were going to fight that thing out ourselves. But we didn’t have success, because over and over again those things were happening- you know-fussing and fighting on buses. We weren’t going to sit to the back if we didn’t have to.
We didn’t feel as if we could listen to the people who were really feeling that they had to work nonviolently. We didn’t feel that way. Not only Columbia, but I know we had the same thing in Atlanta with Stokely Carmichael. He didn’t feel as if we needed to work nonviolently. Dr. King had him at his house one Sunday afternoon and then that Monday I had him and he brought six boys and I fed them all at a restaurant there on Auburn Avenue, but he still didn’t feel as if we should be nonviolent. So, he took me home that night and he told me that, “Miss Clark, I’m not gonna let anybody hurt you. But I’m not going to feel that Dr. King has the right idea.” And I said, “Do you think its well to have boys to knock out the windows of the merchants on the street?” He said, “Well, if they don’t do right, we just have to do that.” Anyway, he left us and he went to England, and I happened (in 1972) to go to Washington and when I got into that Martin Luther King Center there, he was speaking. He saw me coming in the door, and he said, “Here comes the lady who helped me to be nonviolent.”
But you know he came here two years ago, and I bet you 600 policemen surrounded that church in front of that Piggly Wiggly. They’re still afraid of Stokeley Carmichael. Nevertheless, Stokeley spoke that night, and I said everybody else could take over the city because the policemen were all there.
We had numbers of people who didn’t feel as if nonviolence was the thing. They really didn’t. They thought you were foolish to be non-violent. Stokeley thought so, too. He thought I was foolish to try to tell them not to fight. They were going to fight.
THE ONLY WAY YOU CAN GET (change) to happen is to get the people to see things like you see them. If you don’t get them to organize themselves within and see what’s happening to them, you don’t get anything done. Don’t try it by yourself. See how many people you can get to realize what you would like to have done, and this is the way you can get change.
When I first started, I thought that I would be able to just tell people (to change). I thought I could tell teachers that you just tell the people that you’re going to be a member of the NAACP and that would solve the problem. It didn’t happen that way. They didn’t have that same feeling, so they wouldn’t do it that way. When we got them, got all of the illiterate people ready to register and vote, then we were able to let them see how far behind they were with jobs, how far they were behind with money, and how far they were behind with everything else. That was the way we got them to come together. If change is to come, we’ve got to get groups together who think about the things that need to be done, otherwise you don’t get change to come.
Septima Poinsette Clark died December 15, 1987, at a nursing home on John’s Island, S.C. She was 89 years old, and during her long, productive life had been involved in many of the most significant civil rights struggles of the century. Her words below are excerpted from an interview recorded in 1983 by Worth Long and Randall Williams for the Southern Regional Council’s Civil Rights Radio Documentaries Project.
Edited by BILL STEVERSON