Septima Poinsette Clark’s background is found in the second part of Ready From Within, you can read more about the first on her life and work here. Once again I found myself bumping against my own unconsciously contained ideas of identity. The editor Cynthia Brown noted her own surprise when she saw Rosa Parks let her hair down and it fell below her waist… Rosa Parks smiled at her, and said kindly she was part Native American. How had I never heard that before? Septima Clark’s background is just as wondrously complex — exactly the complexity that the U.S. brand of racism strips away by reducing everything to the absurdity of a drop of blood defining a status that whites have long tried to hold forcibly down at the bottom.
Clark writes that her mother was born free, and that she:
…had three distinct sets of brother and sisters. The first set was mulatto, two girls with soft curly brown hair. then came three ginger-colored boys with soft black hair. Then came three girls including my mother, Victoria. They were medium-brown with soft straight black hair. Their father was Indian, from the Muskhogean tribes who lived on the sea islands from Charleston to Savannah, Georgia.
My mother was born in Charleston but reared in Haiti…those three little girls were sent to Haiti to be raised by their older brothers, who were cigar makers there. (89)
Her mother was very proud of this claim, that she never was in slavery. Very unlike Clark’s father who was freed by the civil war as a teenager, and remembered this freedom as a worrying time. His surname Poinsette came from his former master, a botanist for whom the Poinsettia is named.
I think about the connections between language, culture and place embodied in the intertwinings of this single family’s history — and the simple identity assigned to Septima Poinsette Clark fairly boggles the mind. How soon can we leave these damn binaries behind us?
There are also fascinating insights here into the early traditions of education and how they play into these complexities. There was a local public school, but Clark would have been one of 100 students for the one teacher. Her mother worked to get her into a private school:
There were lots of black women who had little schools in their homes–in their kitchens, in their dining rooms, or in little shed rooms. (98)
These schools ran on their own hierarchies — and this whole story of education resulted in a class pride that Clark had to work hard to undo through the rest of her life in struggle. She remembers that her teacher:
didn’t take just anybody who had the money for tuition. She chose her pupils from the blacks who boasted of being free issues, people who had never been slaves. These people constituted a sort of upper caste. (99)
From there she went on to the Avery Institute, getting her teaching certificate in 1916. The Avery Institute is hell of fascinating — itself emblematic of the complexities of identity and the immense possibilities opened up by Reconstruction. Francis Louis Cardozo founded it, his father the Jewish editor of a newspaper, his mother half black and half Native American. They sent their son Francis to school in Europe; after his return he became the first black Secretary of State for South Carolina during reconstruction. (101)
The racist laws against marriage meant Cardozo’s parents never officially married — two such interracial families lived on Clark’s street while she was growing up, but her mother always looked down on them for living together outside of wedlock. Not everything was nice and friendly back in the day.
Clark’s first job was on Johns Island, part of a network of islands along the South Carolina coast. It took nine hours in a boat to get there from Charleston. She talks about the prevalence of African words, Gullah. She taught how that idiom as spoken related to ‘correct English’ (de to be written down as the…). She worked there several years, and then moved back to teach in Charleston.
How did she become fully radicalized? It took a little while:
I want to start my story with the end of World War II because that is when the civil rights movement really got going, both for me personally and for people all over the south. After World War II the men were coming home from fighting in Europe and Africa, and they weren’t going to take segregation any more. (23)
It was still some time before a fellow teacher introduced her to Highlander, the kind of space that encouraged her to step into her full potential and change the course of the growing civil rights movement. From there she never looked back, and never lost her faith in the ability of people to develop:
You know, the measure of a person is how much they develop in their life. Some people slow down in their growth after they become adults… But you never know when a person’s going to leap forward, or change around completely. (103)
One of my favourite quotes from her, and I’ve used this once already, is on growing old, and the opportunities that change and chaos bring:
But I really do feel that this is the best part of life. It’s not that you have just grown old, but it is how you have grown old. I feel that I have grown old with dreams that I want to come true, and that I have grown old believing there is always a beautiful lining to that cloud that overshadows things. I have great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking. I consider chaos a gift, and this has come during my old age. (125)
Maybe if more righteous elders were like her and celebrated such things, we would be in a better place. To end, the one thing we all have to remember:
The only thing that’s really worthwhile is change. It’s coming. (126)
Septima Poinsette Clark… words cannot express how happy and humbling this tour of freedom fighters and popular educators has been making me. I only hope I have within me an ounce of their courage, and that my life could have a fraction of their meaning. I believed I could make a difference by writing, I am trying to continue a tiny piece of their legacy and remember their example when I face this academic article (and book) writing with fear and trembling, because I do not feel it is an audience of my people though I know some of my people are out there.
Anyway. This is short, wonderful, and everyone should read it. Cynthia Stokes Brown helped Septima Clark bring it together, and the introduction is her narration of how they met, how this book came about. In it she quotes part of a speech given by Rosa Parks at a dinner given by the East Bay Friends of Highlander where Mrs Clark was also present:
However, I was willing to face whatever came, not because I felt that I was going to be benefited or helped personally, because I felt that I had been destroyed too long ago. But I had the hope that the young people would be benefited by equal education…
I actually did not think in terms of non-violence and Christian love in connection with the Movement (we didn’t call it the Movement–we just called it survival) until Dr Martin Luther king came to Montgomery… (17)
These words shook me, regrounded me. Reminded me of the reality that all of this work was grounded in — survival.
I felt that I had been destroyed too long ago.
This is still where change has to start, where people are at. Septima Clark might have fought hard to do things the way she thought would be best, but it didn’t mean she closed herself down to change. Rather it meant opening up to a collective way of changing:
But I changed, too, as I traveled through the eleven deep south states. Working through those states, I found I could say nothing to those people, and no teacher as a rule could speak with them. We had to let them talk to us and say to us whatever they wanted to say. When we got through listening to them, we would let them know that we felt that they were right according to the kind of thing that they had in their mind, but according to living in this world there were other things they needed to know. We wanted to know if they were willing then to listen to us, and they decided that they wanted to listen to us.
…I found out that I needed to change my way of thinking, and in changing my way of thinking I had to let people understand that their way of thinking was not the only way. We had to work together to get the changes. (53-54)
She talks a lot about how she had to change her thinking about middle-class people, poor people, white people… but I’m getting ahead, because Mrs Clark fully came into her own with some help from Highlander, and this was a process the way getting rid of our prejudices is always a process.
She was a teacher, and a colleague recommended Highlander to her. They offered free room and board for those attending the workshops (it’s clear this was important, it’s not at all clear how they funded it). Clark writes:
Myles used to open the workshops by asking the people what they wanted to know, and he would close it with, “What you going to do back home?” (30)
I liked that particular practice of questions, as much as the importance of music to the experience, and the singing that always went on there. When Clark lost her job as a teacher through the Southern push to destroy the NAACP and the mass firing of teachers who wouldn’t abjure their membership, she was hired on to Highlander’s staff.
An aside — Mrs Clark remembers Rosa Parks attending her first workshop while all the time fearing that someone would report her presence there back to the community and she would lose her job, even be in danger. No idle fear. Three months after that, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus.
While at Highlander, Clark was instrumental in helping set up the citizenship schools. She herself had been a teacher on Johns Island in South Carolina, so she knew a great deal about the situation there when Esau Jenkins came to talk to her and Myles Horton at Highlander about setting up a school to teach adults literacy there. He was a bus driver among other things, and had begun educating people about the constitution so they could qualify to vote while driving his route. But he couldn’t teach literacy while driving the bus.
Highlander provided the funds to buy a building. They set up a cooperative grocery in the front rooms to disguise what they were doing from the white people of the island — this also allowed them to make enough money to pay Highlander back for the cost of the building and created a loan-fund. They used this to rebuild a woman’s house after it ‘got burned out’ (no mention of how, why), to help people through sickness and etc.
Cooperative efforts and mutual aid within communities are a running thread throughout all of these stories of social change and struggle. So is respect. You’d think that would be easy, but everyone knows it can be pretty hard for some. Like Horton, she emphasises the importance of finding someone who could teach with respect for their students:
‘We wanted to find a person who was not a licensed teacher, one who would not be considered high falutin’, who would not act condescending to adults. (48)
They settled on the amazing Bernice Robinson, and the schools grew and grew with wildly success. A few more thoughts on her work at Highlander and the white supremacist actions to shut down it’s challenge to the establishment through charges of interracial gatherings, the illegal selling of alcohol, and communism. This hodgepodge contains the real reason, the fabricated reason, and the fear-mongering reason for Tennessee’s hate, highlighting the particularly long-standing tradition of red-baiting to shut down all attempts at social change. This deep-rooted hatred of socialism has been, and continues to be, an effective demonising label for anything that troubles privilege and promises change. Clark writes:
But anyone who was against segregation was considered a Communist. White southerners couldn’t believe that a southerner could have the idea of racial equality; they thought it had to come from somewhere else. (55)
Shit, imagine being so limited of vision and spirit. You’d think anyone could look around them and think shit, we must be able to do better than this. So how do we do it?
There are some light moments in here. For all her radical politics, she’s that fierce church/mother figure in her disapproval of alcohol (and by extension all that goes with it), though you love her just the same. I love it too, so much, every time she mentions Stokely Carmichael’s ‘black power boys’. That phrase will never leave me. You can love her for it, because she always stayed in conversation with those black power boys. Saw them sharing a struggle, even if she disagreed with everything they said.
Then there’s that memory of Harry Belafonte (swoon) coming to Highlander and teaching them ‘Michael Row Your Boat Ashore’, and a return to harsh reality when she talks about singing it to keep her spirits up after being arrested as part of that effort to destroy Highlander. One thing Myles Horton never quite got into was the racism Septima Clark faced every time she set foot in Sewanee, the nearest town to Highlander. She had to do without so much while she worked and lived there — like shopping at the store, or being welcome in church. Such ugliness. You realise this, and then it is followed by her arrest while Horton is away. She’s fierce all right, but I can’t imagine her not terrified when the cops took her the long way round to jail.
That must have made it easier when she, Horton and King decided to spin-off the citizenship schools to the SCLC to ensure they weren’t affected (and a few more reasons, they were already getting bigger than Highlander wanted to manage). Clark moved with them, though remained tightly connected to Highlander.
So she moved house (though never fully left the street she grew up on in Charleston — but more about that in the next post) and started a centre called the Dorchester Cooperative Community Center in McIntosh, Georgia. There they held five day trainings for people from local communities who wanted to go back and open up citizenship schools. They also increased recruitment of teachers. They had only three qualifications: teachers had to be respected in the community, had to be able to read aloud, and they had to be able to write their names in cursive writing.
Back then in the South, whites made sure your signature didn’t count unless it was your name in cursive. I don’t know why that detail alone makes me so angry.
Clark describes a back and forth and a flexibility, people wanting literacy teaching for various reasons beyond voting. They tailored programs to local needs — like teaching people to write checks. They got a grant so were able to compensate poor tenant farmers for their time studying and allow them to come.
Even then we didn’t have too many to come. There was so much pressure from the whites in the community that too many of them were afraid. Those who came had to feel that we could get away with it or that we didn’t mind if we had to die. (65)
More grounding.This was about power, and whites never did yield power easily.
‘But before we could send anyone to Congress, the white people tried some of everything.’ (71)
White supremacists killed thirty people engaged in the civil rights work of registering people for the vote from northern Virginia to Eastern Texas. You want more grounding? Clark remembers arguing with white volunteers, who would sneak out after work to see the town and run back home scared after threats or worse. She would tell them:
“Well, I tried to tell you not to go out at night. it’s bad enough to try to go out in the day, you know.” (72)
I don’t know how well I’d do myself in that kind of claustrophobic environment and under that kind of pressure. I guess you never know until you’re in it. Septima Clark understood as well as anyone that the people she worked with in these towns were facing this for life, not just the little while they were stepping outside their own reality to volunteer for a cause. But she didn’t much care for the high-falutin’ folk who refused risk, not when she saw so many others stepping forward… She talks a lot about class, about middle-class preachers and teachers too afraid to risk their standing, and in preacher’s cases their traditions of accepting gifts from white businesses in return for their mediations with Black community. It was mostly the other members of the community who pushed through, some giving their lives to do so. But together they managed to form 897 citizenship schools between 1957 and 1970. In 1964 alone there were 195, and Fannie Lou Hamer and Hosea Williams both entered the movement through their participation in them.
Even more than class, Clark talks about the sexism:
I was on the executive staff of SCLC, but the men on it didn’t listen to me too well. They liked to send me into many places, because I could always make a path in to get people to listen to what I have to say. But those men didn’t have any faith in women, none whatsoever. they just though that women were sex symbols…That’s why Rev. Abernathy would say continuously, “Why is Mrs. Clark on this staff?” (77)
I feel that tickle of rage here. Imagine anyone not respecting this woman. Imagine it. She went right ahead and spoke her mind anyway, and she didn’t hold back any punches.
I think there is something among the Kings that makes them feel that they are the kings, and so you don’t have a right to speak. You can work behind the scenes all you want. That’s all right. But don’t come forth and try to lead. That’s not the kind of thing they want. (78)
Of course, she didn’t see herself as a feminist at the time, but looking back she saw the intertwining of the women’s rights movement and the civil rights movement, one did not come out of the other.
This is a slim volume, too slim for such a life! And curiously split in two parts, the second dealing more with her growing up and her family. So I’ll talk about that in a second post.