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Septima Clark Public Charter School

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Continuing the Legacy of Mrs. Septima P. Clark

The Septima Clark Public Charter School continues the legacy and work of its namesake, Septima P. Clark, a great African American educator. With her unyielding belief that education could free her people, Mrs. Clark, along with other teachers, taught thousands of illiterate Carolina Sea Islands adults to read sections of the South Carolina constitution, a Jim Crow roadblock to register to vote. For the illiterate adults of the Carolina Sea Islands, learning to read proved the catalyst to a transformative movement. The vote meant unparalleled freedom for hundreds of thousands of African American people. An education that enabled adults to read translated into a social revolution and the opportunity to participate fully in our democracy. Our philosophy is simple: Education is freedom. Every student deserves an exceptional education that prepares him for academic mastery and achievement. An unrelenting focus on excellence—personal and intellectual—ensures our students will have the crucial tools to build the future of their dreams.

Brief History of Mrs. Septima P. Clark and the Citizenship Schools

Citizenship Schools (1954-196?)

Excerpt from

Started by Esau Jenkins on Johns Island, SC, in 1954 with the assistance of Septima Clark and a $1500 loan from the Highlander Center, Citizenship Schools initially focus on teaching adults to read so they can pass the voter-registration "literacy tests." The first school is hidden from whites in the back room of a small Black-owned, grocery store. Mrs. Clark's cousin, Bernice Robinson, is hired as the first teacher.

The school uses voter registration forms and newspapers as reading material and the students write about their daily lives. Soon it expands into economic empowerment starting with how to fill out money orders, use a bank account, understand payment slips, and operate a sewing machine. School discussions focus on the "big" ideas — citizenship, democracy, justice, power, and the right to vote. Out of the first class of 14 adult students (three men, eleven women), 8 manage pass the voter-registration test.

With Mrs. Clark recruiting new teachers and training them at the Highlander Center, Citizenship Schools steadily expand across the isolated Sea Islands along the coasts of South Carolina & Georgia. Most of the teachers are unpaid volunteers who hold classes in the evenings and on weekends. It takes three years for the white power structure to discover the hidden schools and figure out how so many Blacks are managing to register, and by that time the program is too deeply entrenched to suppress. By 1961 there are 81 teachers running 37 schools on the islands and nearby mainland, a significant number of Blacks have registered to vote, and they have started a credit union, nursing home, kindergarten, and low-income housing project.

As the Freedom Movement heats up across the South, Tennessee authorities attempt to close down Highlander Center because of its support for integration and economic justice. In 1961, the Southern Christian Leadership Conferance (SCLC) agrees to take the Citizenship Schools under its wing so that if Highlander is destroyed the program will still survive. Mrs. Clark leaves Highlander and becomes part of the SCLC staff.

With the financial and organizational backing of SCLC, the Citizenship Schools expand across the South. Eventually, close to 10,000 teachers are trained — most of them unpaid volunteers — and as many as 200 schools conduct classes in churches, kitchens, and beauty parlors, on front porches, and beneath shady trees in the summertime and around wood-burning stoves in the wintertime. Under the innocuous cover of adult-literacy classes, these schools teach democracy and civil rights, community leadership and organizing, practical politics, and the strategies and tactics of resistance and struggle. Said Mrs. Clark:

"The basic purpose of the Citizenship Schools is discovering local community leaders. [It is important that the schools have] the ability to adapt at once to specific situations and stay in the local picture only long enough to help in the development of local leaders ... It is my belief that creative leadership is present in any community and only awaits discovery and development. ... The teachers we need in a Citizenship School should be people who are respected by the members of the community, who can read well aloud, and who can write their names in cursive writing. These are the ones that we looked for ... We were trying to make teachers out of these people who could barely read and write. But they could teach."[1][2]

The fundamental connection between the Citizenship Schools and leadership development for the broader Freedom Movement is revealed in the evaluation questions they use to measure their progress:

Has the graduate been instrumental in getting others to vote?
Has he or she signed petitions?
Attended community meetings?
Engaged in demonstrations?
Become more effective in community action?
Worked for an unselfish cause?

And the proof of their success is that in the years to come, many of the Movement's adult leaders — most of them women — including Fannie Lou Hamer and Victoria Gray and hundreds of unsung local activists in Black communities across the South attend and teach Citizenship Schools, and in so doing they lay the secret foundation of the mass community struggles to come.

1954 Quotation Sources:
Ready From Within: Septima Clark and the Civil Rights Movement, Septima Clark, Cynthia Brown.
I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle, Charles Payne.

© 2009 Septima Clark Public Charter School

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