1955: Septima Poinsette Clark

freedom school

After being fired from her job as a teacher for refusing to renounce her membership in the NAACP, Septima Clark became the Director of Education at the famous Highlander Center in Tennesseea training school for civil rights activists and trade unionists. There, she began her work of establishing “Citizenship Schools” to teach literacy to and politically empower African-Americans in the South. These schools not only educated people in response to racist voting registration laws that included literacy tests, but became a core network from which to recruit leaders for the civil rights movement. Ultimately, the program became so large that it was brought under the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and trained more than 10,000 teachers to lead citizenship schools throughout the South. Hundreds of thousands of men and women registered to vote as a result.

Rosa Parks recalled working with Clark at the Highlander Center:

At that time I was very nervous, very troubled in my mind about the events that were occurring in Montgomery, but then I had the chance to work with Septima. She was such a calm and dedicated person in the midst of all that danger. I thought, “If I could only catch some of her spirit.” I wanted to have the courage to accomplish the kinds of things that she had been doing for years.

Parks returned from Highlander to Montgomery having gained from Clark a newfound sense of conviction and self-confidenceand used it to step into history.

“I just tried to create a little chaos,” Clark once said. “Chaos is a good thing. God created the whole world out of it. Change is what comes of it.”

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