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Obituaries : Septima Clark; Pioneer in Civil Rights Effort

December 17, 1987|From Times Wire Services

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Septima Poinsette Clark, daughter of a former slave, a little-recognized but legendary pioneer in the civil rights movement and a devoted educator, has died at the age of 89.

Mrs. Clark, who campaigned for the hiring of black teachers as long ago as 1918 and had remained active in the civil rights movement most of her life, died Tuesday at a nursing home near here.

Born in Charleston to former slaves, Mrs. Clark was recognized for her work in civil rights and in 1964 accompanied the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Norway when he was presented the Nobel Peace Prize.

Honorary Doctorate

Mrs. Clark attended Avery Institute in Charleston, earned a bachelor's degree from Benedict College in Columbia and a master's degree from Hampton Institute in Virginia. In 1978, the College of Charleston awarded her an honorary doctorate--the first black the college had so honored.

She began her long teaching career at a black public school on John's Island and in 1918 accepted a teaching post at Avery. At that time, she was instrumental in getting about 20,000 signatures on a petition to have black teachers hired by the Charleston County School District.

Mrs. Clark moved to Columbia in 1927 to teach, and there she helped in a campaign to equalize teacher salaries.

In 1956 she was fired from a teaching job in Charleston for being a member of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.

In the late 1950s, she worked at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee and developed Citizenship Schools throughout the Deep South to teach blacks how to read and write well enough to pass voter literacy tests.

The schools later became an integral part of King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and she and King became close friends.

She lectured around the country and later became a director of the school as well as a teacher training supervisor for the leadership conference.

When the Highlander school was closed by the state of Tennessee in 1961, Mrs. Clark worked throughout the South with the leadership conference recruiting teachers to start Citizenship Schools.

Her autobiography, "Echo in My Soul," was published in 1962, and her struggles in the civil rights movement were reported in 1986 as a first-person narrative in "Ready From Within," which won the 1987 American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. (The prize recognizes work on subjects of cultural and political importance.)

Elected to School Board

In 1974, Mrs. Clark was elected to the Charleston County School Board and later said she tried to be "the conscience of the board."

"I have a feeling that you're not working with a piece of clay that you can mash and figure and fix your way," she said.

"You're working with a human being who has a mind of his own and who you have to try to see that he thinks in the right direction."

In 1979 she was among 17 elderly black Americans to receive a Living Legacy Award from President Jimmy Carter and in 1982 she was given the Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina's highest civilian award.

Earlier this year a play devoted to her calming influence during the sit-ins of the 1960s was staged in Santa Monica.

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