Literacy and Liberation
by Septima P. Clark
(Director, Citizenship Education Program, SCLC)

Originally published in Freedomways, 1st Quarter, 1964

[Artist unknown]

See Citizenship Schools Started for background & more information.
See also Citizenship Schools for web links.

The teacher wrote "Citizen" on the blackboard. Then she wrote "Constitution" and "Amendment." Then she turned to her class of 30 adult students.

"What do these mean, students?" she asked. She received a variety of answers, and when the discussion died down, the teacher was able to make a generalization.

"This is the reason we know we are citizens: Because it's written in an amendment to the Constitution."

An elderly Negro minister from Arkansas took notes on a yellow legal pad. A machine operator from Atlanta raised his hand to ask another question.

This was an opening session in an unusual citizenship education program that is held once each month at Dorchester Center, Mcintosh, Georgia for the purpose of helping adults help educate themselves. In a five day course, those three words became the basis of a new education in citizenship for the Negroes and whites who attended the training session. Each participant left with a burning desire to start their own Citizenship Education schools among their own communities.

The program now being sponsored by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference has resulted in the training of more than eight hundred persons in the best methods to stimulate voter registration back in their home towns. Their home towns comprising eleven southern states from eastern Texas to northern Virginia. The program was transferred to SCLC from The Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee.

I learned of Highlander in 1952, but attended my first workshop in 1954. In 1955 I directed my first workshop and did door to door recruiting for the school. Unable to drive myself I found a driver for my car and made three trips from Johns Island, South Carolina to Monteagle, Tennessee. On each trip six islanders attended and were motivated. They became literate and are still working for liberation.

In 1954 in the south, segregation was the main barrier in the way of the realization of democracy and brotherhood. Highlander was an important place because Negroes and whites met on equal basis and discussed their problems together.

There was a series of workshops on Community Services and Segregation; Registration and Voting; and Community Development. Then it became evident that the south had a great number of functional illiterates who needed additional help to carry out their plans for coping with the problems confronting them. Problems such as the following: Six-year-old Negro boys and girls walking five miles on a muddy road in icy, wet weather to a dilapidated, cold, log cabin school house in most of the rural sections of the south. In cities like Charleston, South Carolina children of that same tender age had to leave home while it was yet dark, 7:00am, to attend an early morning session and vacate that classroom by 12:30pm for another group in that same age bracket which would leave 5:30pm for home (night time during the winter months). These children would pass white schools that had regular school hours and fewer children enrolled. The Negro parents accepted this for many years. They did not know what to do about it. They had to be trained.

Highlander had always believed in people and the people trusted its judgement and accepted its leadership. It was accepted by Negroes and whites of all religious faiths because it had always accepted them and made them feel at home. The staff at Highlander knew that the great need of the south was to develop more people to take leadership and responsibility for the causes in which they believed. It set out on a program designed to bring out leadership qualities in people from all walks of life.

Adults from all over the south, about forty at a time, went there for the specific purpose of discussing their problems. They lived together in rustic, pleasant, rural surroundings on the top of the Cumberland plateau in a number of simple cabins around a lake, remote from business and other affairs that normally demand so much attention and energy. Though of different races and often of greatly contrasting economic or educational backgrounds, they rarely felt the tension that such differences can cause and if they did, as it occurred sometimes, it was never for long. They soon became conscious of the irrelevance of all such differences. Each person talked with people from communities with problems similar to those of his own. Each discussed both formally and informally the successes and difficulties he had had in his efforts to solve these problems in various ways.

The participants of the workshops included community leaders and civic minded adults affiliated with agencies and organizations. They had a common concern about problems but no one knew easy solutions. The issues then as now were among the most difficult faced by society. The highly practical discussions at the workshops challenged their thinking which in turn helped them to understand the difficulties and in most cases steps were suggested towards a solution. They found out that it was within their power to take the steps necessary to meet with members of school boards. In Charleston County they asked for new schools and buses to transport their children. They staged a boycott to get rid of double sessions. They won! The immense value of a willingness to take responsibility and to act becomes clear when one sees what others have done, apparently through this willingness alone.

Prior to the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 the Negro communities of the South would have been characterized as uncoordinated, made up of groups whose interests diverged or conflicted. Today one can say that the school integration issue has served to mobilize and unify the groups. The present psychological health of Negro leaders is good. Such things as an official ballot handed to Negro leaders in Alabama, on which is engraved a rooster crowing "white supremacy' will not weaken their determination nor courage to be free. They have amassed funds, sent men to the Justice Department and took their gerrymandering cases to the courts. Today they are registering to vote. The registrars are not hiding in the bank vaults any more. Literacy means liberation.

Lines of Communication Open

The Negro leaders accepted their role with dignity and poise. They have been helped by receiving the admiration and respect of people in their own communities, a support which they have not always had. They have also been helped by the opportunity to go to a place like Highlander where they met southern and northern white people, Indians, Africans, Europeans and Asians. There were many from Trinidad and islands of the Far East.

The lines of communication are open now in many southern states. The supreme court decision on school integration and the ferment among the Negroes are held responsible. Communication in Atlanta, Savannah and Macon, Georgia; Charleston, Greenville, Spartanburg and Columbia, South Carolina; Charlotte, Durham, Greensboro, and Asheville, North Carolina; Nashville, Chattanooga, Memphis and Knoxville, Tennessee; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Miami, Florida, is on the basis of mutual respect rather than on the paternalistic basis of the past. Literacy means liberation!

Into one of our workshops a large number of people came from the human relations councils. They were interested primarily in the promotion of law and order in connection with integration in the public schools, in voter education, care for the indigent sick, housing, merit employment and juvenile delinquency. They felt that professionals needed to be more involved in the civil rights struggle. So they had to prepare themselves to speak out to the power structure which in most cases was not the most learned but held the purse strings to county treasurers and influenced the already biased attitudes of the local officers. Mrs. Alice Spearman, executive secretary of Human Relations Council in South Carolina, brought together biracial groups to discuss each issue mentioned above and these groups appointed committees to present their findings to the proper source.

Other participants were mostly new volunteer leaders, many with little formal education. They had been doing the leg work to increase registration and voting and wanted to find improved ways of combatting the apathy found in southern communities. They acquainted each other with the facts of local restrictions, often unknown outside a small area, and at the end declared their intention of going home to work for increased registration. They would work to counteract through education the deliberate confusion of issues by newspapers, to explain the use of voting machines and to make registration and voting more convenient and pleasant.

Still another group were former Highlander students. They came to give reports of the work done in their communities: developing leadership, working on literacy in adult schools and on recreation and health. They wanted help on specific problems, from other communities and from the staff at Highlander.

One group told of a new community center. They built it with volunteer help and donations. They wanted a place so that their children could stay in the community at nights. They were taken twenty miles every day to the nearest school. Everyone discussed ways of getting maximum use out of such buildings and also the techniques of passing on to other communities their knowledge and skills in organizing for action. Another group wanted to know how to encourage parents to send their children to newly integrated schools. It was suggested that parents who had already lived through this experience could best encourage other 'parents to do the same.

We next planned a workshop for the two groups of parents. It was a great success. The next year more eligible parents in Nashville responded. Nashville was working on the grade-a-year plan. Others were interested in a credit union to combat the practices of loan sharks. Information was gotten from state and regional credit union representatives, then presented to a teacher's group in Charleston. When the banks refused to let teachers have money over the summer because of the 1956 law prohibiting teachers from being members of the NAACP, the credit union did. It flourished and expanded. Here was a case of people with degrees who had to become literate economically.

Legal and administrative barriers to voting have forced the Negroes, especially, to realize their lack of educational opportunities. Former Highlander students had started an adult school on Johns Island, SC, and many members of that community learned to read and write, thus being enabled to pass the reading and writing tests for voter registration. Then leaders from neighboring islands came to Highlander to learn how they could establish adult schools.

So it was with all the workshops. They came with many problems. They carried most of them back home but they became eager to work on them and had many new ideas, as well as the example and encouragement of others to help them.

The basic purpose of the citizenship schools is discovering and developing local community leaders. One of the unique practical features of the concept is 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. These are trained to carry on an ever growing program of community development. The secret stems from the emphasis and the reliance on local leadership. It is my belief that creative leadership is present in any community and only awaits discovery and development.

Southeastern Georgia Crusade for Voters

The Southeastern Georgia Crusade for Voters comprised of the First U.S. Congressional District (18 counties) of Georgia, was organized in April, 1960 and became an affiliate of SCLC in September, 1961. The objective was to coordinate the political abilities of the eighteen counties by organizing a Crusade for Voters League in each county.

The types of programs fostered by the respective Crusades for Voters were naturally determined by the needs and resources of the individual counties. In the past year the Southeastern Georgia Crusade for Voters has conducted the following:

The Chatham County Crusade for Voters has been the most effective county organization in Georgia. Through its political action program the following facilities have been integrated in the city of Savannah and the county of Chatham:

Municipal golf course City civil service examinations
Municipal airport City voter registration lists
Public library County voter registration lists
Savannah's police department City voting polls
City and county water fountains    County voting polls
City and county rest rooms County tax return lines
Seating in city police court Seven city boards, commissions & committees
Seating in county police court Fire department
City auditorium  

The Chatham County Crusade for Voters' Political Action Program was responsible for the upgrading of Negroes in the following positions:

One detective to sergeant One laborer to water pump operator   
Two patrolmen to corporals    One laborer to water meter reader
Two laborers to foremen  

The Crusade for Voters was not only responsible for Negroes being appointed to the following governmental boards, commissions and committees but named the appointees:

Savannah Recreation Commission    Savannah Public Library Board
Bacon Park Commission Advisory Committee to the Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission
Civil Defense Commission Savannah Auditorium Committee

The Crusade for Voters conducted a major Direct Action Program against segregation this summer. This program was under the direct leadership of Hosea L. Williams, president of the Crusade for Voters, who was assisted by Benjamin Van Clark, director of the Crusaders' youth Program. Activities of the Direct Action Program consisted of daily morning training workshops, noon downtown marches and speeches, nightly mass meetings, nightly mass marches (after nightly meetings), daily sit-in demonstrations and daily picketing of certain segregated establishments.

During the period of demonstrations many Negroes were beaten by police. At least four Negroes were shot by whites. Demonstrators were frequently gassed by the police department and Georgia state troopers. Demonstrators were housed in disbanded jails without beds or toilet facilities. In some cases juveniles were held in custody for more than 25 days. Many Negroes lost their jobs, cars and in some few cases, their homes.

Although there are many demonstrators yet to come to trial (and it is feared they will not be able to be bonded out because the solicitor will accept only property bonds) integration of the hotels, motels, theaters and bowling alleys has taken place.

Literacy means liberation. There are many ways to communicate injustices to the American public. These dramatic confrontations were necessary to educate white people in Savannah, Georgia and to make Negroes free enough to vote wisely and speak out.

South Carolina

July 1, 1962- June 30, 1963 was a year showing maturity in South Carolina. Communication between the races opened up and barriers came down.

The voting strength of Negroes increased tremendously. The Negroes attended citizen schools, joined civic organizations, formed new Improvement Associations and listened to new leaders who mushroomed in communities (mostly young people). The white people, observing the courage, spirit and persistency of demonstrators plus the arduous work of citizenship school teachers, decided that the best thing to do was to adhere to law and order.

In July, 1962 there were 40 citizenship schools in South Carolina. Today there are 80. Seventeen new ones have started since the August, 1963 workshop. The Negro voting strength increased from 57,000 to 150,000.

The supervisor of citizenship schools has held two district meetings. The first in Newberry, brought in 15 teachers, 83 students and 25 yisitors from 5 counties. The second held in Winnsboro, had over 100 teachers and students. In each case the film "Government Is Your Business" was shown and the program rendered by the students showed learnings in six categories; preparation for citizenship, united effort, registration, community help, Negro history, and how our government works.

The supervisor and students in six counties visited county registrars and won longer hours and more days for registration books to be opened each month. State senators, mayors, and sheriffs were invited to civic meetings. They spoke and promised to help open books in four additional counties.

Staff members gave assistance to the South Carolina Council on Human Relations in many ways. They spoke to college groups at assembly programs, council groups, community groups and committee groups studying Bible courses. They also recruited students to attend the Sharecroppers Conference at Frogmore, South Carolina. These students wanted financial help as farmers. After attending the conference and another meeting they were able to get farm loans.

Workers Wanted! Space Needed! For Continuing Education

Continuing education used to be merely a good and worthy thing for the individual, only that. But today it is one of this nation's chief wealth-producing resources. For meeting challenges posed by our explosive growth of knowledge, for coping with increasing complexities in our society and for adjusting to changing needs of each individual, continuing education as never before has become a vital force in the lives of every one of us.

Our world is changing at a staggering rate. Each scientific and technical breakthrough seems to produce a chain reaction of new knowledge, new opportunities and new problems. Today we must learn more in less time, and throughout life meet these challenges, in order to insure our security, our productivity, and our adaptability to accelerating changing conditions.

In Hattiesburg, Mississilppi I worked with Negro men and women fresh from a plantation culture, 40-81 years of age, who want to register and vote and though they have been sent to the poor schools provided for them by the power structure of yesterday, or to no school at all, they must now read, write and interpret the Constitution of Mississippi to the satisfaction of the registrar. This group labored for hours, in a church's educational building acquiring the skills to attempt to qualify. The SCLC is offering service to every one but especially to those who went to school prior to 1950.

Consider the awesome responsibility that science and technology are creating for the citizens of a democracy. Only through continuing study can we discover how to make decisions about changes in the structure of the government and all phases of life that are required if our democratic government is to survive and be the model for the new nations recently born.

Remember, we are talking about a closeness between economy, urgency, education and action — unique problems of adults — distinct and different to be resolved by adults. In all of Mississippi the changing landscape is evident. Cotton fields are now pasture lands and herds of cows are seen roaming the hillsides. Unwilling plow hands and hoe hands have left the ill-constructed shacks; great big weatherproofed, electrically equipped barns house the cows that have changed the crop farms to dairy farms. The uneducated of today and tomorrow must be educated and trained to become qualified members of a productive private economy. In the September Bell Telephone News, Governor Russell of South Carolina says, "We must not, we cannot tolerate a situation that denies to such a large portion of our people any real chance."

Community Level Counts Most

The demand for adult education is on the increase. The number of people working in the field of adult education is growing. The 1962 Gallup Poll and statistics from the office of education say that the increase has climbed from two to twenty per cent. It has been maturing through legislative enactment also, when one thinks of the 1962 Manpower Development and Training Act which established a three year program to retrain the unemployed in new skills demanded by our complex industrial society. The act represents an effort by the federal government to meet some of the problems posed by automation, increased technology, and school dropouts.

But the place where things really count and where people really grow is at the local community level. This means newer knowledge of state legislation, local rules and regulations, state appropriations, and local allocations. This is where the Citizenship School Program sponsored by SCLC continues to grow.

We should continue our own education. We must learn to become action-research minded. We must take a look at where we are and where we want to be. We need to get so excited about our programs that we even participate ourselves. Mr. Hosea Williams, of Savannah, Georgia, has done just this. Send to the Southeastern Georgia Crusade for Voters, 416 W. Park Street, Savannah, Georgia, and get a questionnaire that he has prepared for himself and his citizenship school teachers on local, state and national governxnent and you will find yourself doing a type of research that was never given in any college but will prepare you to live in your complex Georgia community.

On Johns Island in a Voter Education Internship Workshop we established a few bench marks after discussing the Albany, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina and Greenwood, Mississippi movements. It became the consensus of opinion that:

Appropriate people must be involved in determining the goals; we must marshall all resources; ask ourselves: how well have we done? What level of success have we attained? what contributed to our success? why did we fail in some instances? how can we improve?

To these questions came the following suggestions:

"Today's facts may be tomorrow's fallacy," says Edgar Dale. "Knowledge does not keep any better than fish," says Alfred Whitehead. Modern society does not live by asking, "Is everybody happy?" but rather, "Is everybody learning?" Continued learning is the basis for being richly alive. There is no room for the apologetic or the "can't be done" attitude. We are now living at a time when the question is, "Who's going to do it and when"; not "can it be done."

The American churches entered a new phase in their response to the struggle for civil rights in recent months. Their national assemblies and their national leaders have for many years said the right things about the principles involved, especially since the Supreme Court decision in 1954, but now the national denominations and the National Council of Churches are engaged in decisive action.

Many may say that these actions in the summer of 1963 are belated. This is true but they show that when an issue is clear and when events have limited the alternatives, it is possible for the church to act.

The General Synod of the United Church of Christ, after long debate and in spite of substantial opposition, voted in favor of the policy of withholding funds from agencies of the church that practice segregation. This was action and identification with the Negroes in this struggle for civil rights.

Dr. Blake of the United Presbyterian Church wrote to 9,000 ministers suggesting that they meet him in Washington on last August 28th [the March on Washington].

Negro maids and custodians in the Atlanta schools asked the Atlanta board of education for a raise in pay. It was such an audacious step for them to take that the superintendent of schools put an article in the November 9th, Atlanta Constitution entitled "Maids Ask City Schools for a Raise." The article further states that the maids said "discriminatory practice in promotions and holidays are noted." The maids and custodians have only three days during the Christmas season while other employees have two weeks.

They said, "We have had several meetings and stand firmly and united seeking to have these grievances dealt with. We have elected a chairman among us."

Maids receive $30 a week and custodians $234 to $288 a month. According to the standard today they said, custodians should receive a minimum salary of $350 a month and maids $200.

Copies of the letter were sent to the mayor and two members of the board of education, one of whom is a Negro.

Literacy means liberation.

Copyright © Septima Clark, 1964.

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(Labor donated)