You might have a favourite teacher who comes to your mind. A figure who connected with you, inspired you, gave you the confidence to push your ability. Septima Clark was that teacher, but for a whole movement.
The Literacy Test
To provide some context for this piece; although technically black men were ‘able’ to vote from 1870 following the 15th amendment, very few could exercise this right. States put in place a poll tax and a literacy test, as further barriers black men had to overcome.
The literacy test was 30 questions, to be completed in 10 minutes, with no room for error. An example of a question was; ‘1. Draw a line around the number or letter of this sentence.’ https://allthatsinteresting.com/voting-literacy-test. Deliberately confusing, with the correct answer being altered to ensure people didn’t pass.
Black men couldn’t afford to take the test, let alone afford to fail the test.
The Right to Teach
Septima Clark continually combatted challenges which she faced as a black woman in Charleston, South Carolina. Her voice was integral in the pursuit of getting the city to progress and hire black teachers. The campaign was a success, and Septima practiced as a teacher for 37 years .
Nonetheless, in 1956 Charleston made it illegal for public employees to belong to civil rights groups. Although she was losing her job and her pension, Septima was not going to be silenced on her involvement in the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People).
As a result of her experience in the education system and her awareness of how it impacted communities, Septima was invited to the Highlander Folk School, a grassroots education centre where she led summer workshops with an aim to develop local leaders.
Despite being arrested for her involvement at Highlander, this did not deter Septima from wanting to expand the teaching of her classes. Yet she knew that she alone couldn’t teach the number of people she wanted to reach.
Instead, she looked for people in the community who were charismatic, well liked and passionate about the movement. Picking individuals who were bus drivers, hairdressers. These people were not necessarily well educated but she could see their potential.
They attended a week-long training course where Septima demonstrated her classes and teaching techniques, each of them embodying Septima’s outlook: do what is doable and do what is needed.
Before you knew it, hundreds of black people were being taught, by their neighbours, how to read and write. Now with the knowledge to pass the literacy test, the aim grew to getting people involved in direct action. Particularly, Septima wanted women to feel empowered to create change.
“The Mother Of The Movement”
Septima’s work nourished the seeds of future great activists. Dr Martin Luther King was an attendee to her early classes, coining the reference “The Mother of the Movement”.
In addition to this, Rosa Park had also attended Septima’s session a couple of months before the Montgomery bus boycott. This acts as a great example of someone gaining the confidence from the programme, knowing that they had the support of their classmates/community behind them.
The Power of Black Votes
In 1965 the Voting Rights Act passed, prohibiting racial discriminations within the voting system. This meant the abolishment of literacy testing! By 1968 in Mississippi 60% of African Americans were registered to vote, compared to only 5% in 1960. (https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/black-history-milestones)
Further impact that the Black votes had can be seen from changes such as; the Fair Housing Act 1968, which prevented racial discimintion within the sale of property. To cases like; Griggs v. Duke Power Co. 1971 (abolishing unrelated tests in job applications) and Baston v. Kentucky 1986 (preventing all black jurors being deselected in a case with a black defendant).
Septima’s life was spent encouraging black citizens that their voices and votes were powerful. I’d like to take this time to reiterate that message over 50 years later. As I’m writing this, Breonna Taylor’s case has been reopened, Minneapolis calls to reform its public safety system, and all four of George Floyd’s killers have not escaped our scrutiny. None of this would have happened if it were not for the Black Lives Matter Movement.
How does this relate to us in the UK?
I hope from reading this, you have been inspired by Septima Clark as much as I have. It is unfortunate that her name doesn’t appear in our textbooks.
If you are interested in supporting the appeal for black history to be taught more expansively in the UK here are some petitions you can sign: