Septima Clark, Citizenship Education, and Women in the Civil Rights Movement
Civil rights activist Septima Poinsette Clark (1898-1987) is best known for her role in developing the Citizenship Schools. During the 1950s and 1960s, thousands of disenfranchised African Americans passed through Citizenship School classes in which they learned to read and write in order to pass the literacy tests required by southern states to register to vote. Beyond preparing adults to gain access to the voting booth, Clark’s curriculum taught students how to wield the power of the ballot to transform everyday life. Initially sponsored by the Highlander Folk School, the program spread throughout the South after the Southern Christian Leadership Conference adopted it in 1961. Septima Clark brought four decades of practical experience as a public school teacher and civic activist to bear as she designed the Citizenship Schools. This talk focuses on three moments in Clark’s life to show that the roots of the program lay in the organizing tradition forged by black women educators in the segregated South. Given that education had long been perceived as “women’s work,” it also highlights the degree to which the Citizenship Schools represented an important site of black women’s activism and leadership in the Civil Rights Movement.