By Barney Blakeney
The May 3 unveiling of the marker noting the birthplace of Septima Poinsette Clark was more powerful than I thought it would be. The College of Charleston coordinated the event that included a luncheon and portrait unveiling honoring a woman too few realize was responsible for contributing to much of what America has become over the past 75 years.
The civil rights movement changed this country in more ways than most ever think about. We live a life today vastly different from that of our forebears. We take rights for granted and even abuse the liberties people like Clark risked their lives to acquire.
There was a time when the name Septima Poinsette Clark didn’t ring any bells for me. When I thought about the civil rights movement I thought about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, i.e, programmed history. I can’t remember when I first realized that Clark, a Charlestonian, was a major player in civil rights. My vision of that history was one of demonstrations and riots that always occurred somewhere else perpetrated by people somewhere else. I thought of Charleston as a place where civil rights activities didn’t happen.
However, at some point I learned that the stuff I read by Franz Fanon, Stokely Carmichael, Amiri Baraka and H. Rap Brown was just the tip of the iceberg in a struggle that unfolded on backwoods, dirt roads in Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and South Carolina alike. It took years for me to learn the stories of women like and Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer and Clark.
By the time I met Clark, she was an old lady, more reminiscent of my grandmother than a civil rights warrior. In fact she was somebody’s grandmother. I had become friends with her grandsons Eli and Nerie Clark or Red and Dog as I knew them. I lived the next street over from Clark who lived on President Street in downtown Charleston at the time. By then I had heard stories of her work with Esau Jenkins, both of whom started Citizenship Schools on Johns Island (and across the Charleston area) to teach black residents literacy so they could participate in the voting process.
In those days I’d go by the Clark house to shoot the bull with her grandsons and exchange casual banter with this iconic woman. I had no clue of the depth of her wisdom or how she had woven into the tapestry of American progress, an uncanny ability to do what many women do–teach people how to live. To me she was just ‘Miss Clark’ or ‘Mama Seppy,’ as her grandsons called her.
Nerie shared anecdotes about his trip to Sweden with her to accompany Dr. King when he received the Nobel Peace Prize and spoke of her personal relationships with other icons like Ralph Abernathy and Julian Bond. However, I still had little clue about the impact Clark had on our world and our community. She served two terms on Charleston County School Board as one of the first two African Americans elected to the board. She was close to 80 then.
I learned more about Clark as the years passed. She taught at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee after being fired from the Charleston County school system for refusing to resign her membership in the NAACP. She and her cousin Bernice Robinson taught students at Highlander how to fill out driver’s license exams, voter registration 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. I had the honor of meeting Parks at Clark’s funeral. I even picked her up from the airport.
Education is a lifelong process. Last week’s tribute to Clark was another chapter in my education. The marker unveiling brought together some of our community’s most progressive thinkers, including Aly Lain and Ridgeland Welch, two College of Charleston teaching fellows who were moved to find a way to honor Clark during an education course last year. I think she’d be happy to see that a new generation of young people is emerging inspired to continue her legacy.
What I found most moving were the memories of Clark shared by some of those who were closest to her like her niece Alice who said Clark implored people sort out their emotions to enable them to work out solutions. Her cousin Yvonne noted Clark was a quiet woman, but she spoke truths which have changed our world. Dr. Millicent Brown, who integrated public schools in the city of Charleston in the late 1960’s, offered me the most insight.
She said, “An example of how real this woman was can be found in the fact that she had critics–she was not beloved by all. Not only the political leaders who resisted her efforts, but others who doubted her sincerity as an educated woman, a woman of some privilege, wanting to help people of another social/economic class.”
She went on to say, “Charleston has a long history of confusing symbolic gestures with commitment to change power relationships. Mrs. Clark would never comfortably accept accolades and awards while her beloved community members are undereducated, gentrified, marginalized, patronized, dislocated, disrespected and ignored.”
In conclusion she said, “She would ask you to stop settling for so little and make those systemic changes in public education, housing, economic opportunity, transportation, health care access and all indicators that truly honor her life’s work.”