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Black Educator, 89, Wrote the Book on Civil Rights

May 04, 1987|ITABARI NJERI | Times Staff Writer

Her slender wrinkled fingers have felt the press of time, her right eye has a lid that droops so low it is almost permanently shut, suggesting too much sorrow seen. But her frail frame carried a bright red dress, more telling of her soul than the marks of her 89 years. "Chaos," Septima Poinsette Clark said, "is a good thing. Change is what comes of it."

Clark, an educator who played an essential if little-recognized role in the civil rights movement, has been changing the world and herself in big and small ways most of her days.

After decades as a teacher in South Carolina, she developed Citizenship Schools throughout the 11 Deep South states, teaching blacks to read, write and comprehend the basic structure of government so they could register to vote. Her work, for which she was recognized here during the last several days, helped to lay the foundation of the civil rights movement.

'Most Effective Things We Did'

"The importance of her role has not been studied in a scholarly fashion, but the citizenship training programs were one of the most effective things we did," said the Rev. J. M. Lawson, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a leading strategist for the movement and a close associate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Citizenship Schools became a program of the SCLC in 1961. But Clark developed the idea in 1957 at the Highlander Folk School, run by a white Southerner named Myles Horton, in the mountains near Chattanooga, Tenn. For decades, Highlander was the only place in the South where whites and blacks could meet to discuss philosophies and strategies for social change. Clark became the director of workshops there in 1956, the year she lost her teaching job in South Carolina because of her membership in and outspoken support for the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.

"Myles told me that Septima Clark could not be discouraged by anything. She decided that segregation could not be overturned until black people could vote. The way the law was written in many Southern states, blacks had to be able to read parts of the state constitutions in order to register to vote. Mrs. Clark concluded that she would just have to get busy and teach black adults to read," said Cynthia Stokes Brown, editor of "Ready From Within," the recently published, first-person narrative of Clark's role in the civil rights movement.

Someone else might have been discouraged by the task, said Brown, an associate professor of education at Dominican College in San Rafael, Calif. In 1955 only about 25% of voting-age blacks were registered in the 11 Southern states, according to Brown. More that 3.5 million weren't registered, and many of them couldn't read. Working with others, Clark figured out how to teach them to read in only two or three months. "And she didn't just teach them to read," Brown said, "she taught them how to stand up for their rights. She trained hundreds of other teachers to teach them, and by 1970 nearly 2 million more black people were voting than had been in 1955."

Said Clark in "Ready From Within": "People thought I had newfangled ideas. Myles thought I had newfangled ideas. But my newfangled ideas worked out. I didn't know they were going to work out though. I just thought that you couldn't get people to register and vote until you teach them to read and write. That's what I thought, and I was so right."

Last week, "Ready From Within" won the 1987 American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. Little known, but highly regarded among book critics, the prize recognizes outstanding work on subjects of cultural and political importance usually considered out of the mainstream. The book was published last year by Alice Walker's Wild Tree Press in Navarro, Calif.

Clark was in Los Angeles last week to promote "Ready From Within," speak at several schools including UCLA and attend the weekend-only performance of "Voices of a Sit-in" by Angeline Butler at the Church in Ocean Park in Santa Monica. The play explores Clark's influence on Butler and other leaders of the student sit-in movement of the 1950s and '60s.

Because of her work and her affiliations with the NAACP and SCLC, Clark was considered dangerous in the South.

Clark taught adults to read by using words that were important to them, Brown said. "Not just some textbook . . . or phonics," she added. "They were adults and had to be treated in a different way from kids."

Seated in playwright Butler's kitchen in West Los Angeles last week, Clark, who speaks softly and pauses for stretches to recall the past, enjoyed a late breakfast of croissants, eggs and sausage while she spoke.

Changed by Women's Movement

Her views of the civil rights movement and of herself have been changed by the women's movement over the past 20 years. She sees as one of the civil rights movement's great failings its unwillingness to share equally the pain and rewards of struggle.

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