Septima Clark

Originally published in Ready From Within: Septima Clark and the Civil Rights Movement

See Southern States Try to Destroy NAACP for background & more information.

By the time that Rosa Parks refused to get up and give her seat to a white man, I had gotten into some trouble of my own back in Charleston (SC). I began to realize that I might be dismissed from my position as an elementary teacher because I belonged to that same organization Rosa Parks did — the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP.

Let me go way back and tell you how I first heard about the NAACP. It started in 1909 in New York City, but I didn't hear of it unti1 1918. I was about twenty years old, and I was teaching on Johns Island, one of the islands off the coast of Charleston. That Presbyterian convention came to Johns Island, and I went down to the meeting. The man started talking about an organization that was to help people unjustly treated. It was just a dollar a year, so I joined while I was there on Johns Island.

Soon after that something happened that really led me to the NAACP. It was in the summer time, and I was working here in Charleston. We had a Jewish woman on King Street who had a watch in her apron pocket. We didn't have frigidaires then, and a boy was putting ice in her icebox. She thought he took her watch out of her apron pocket, and she had him arrested. The artist who was the head of the NAACP in Charleston found about it, and when we searched we found that her watch had gone to the laundry in her apron pocket and that boy was unjustly arrested. We got together, and we told her what big harm she had done to this boy. We said that somebody would call him jailbird and perhaps cause him to fight and that he had lost many weeks by spending that time in jail.

I felt real bad about that incident. I said; "Well, I must really get into that organization because we've got to see that things like this won't happen again." I became very fond of the NAACP, and from that time on I worked with it.

There weren't too many black people who considered the NAACP worthwhile. They were still afraid, you know, so it was a very small group at first. But after many years of work by its lawyers, the United States Supreme Court ruled, in 1954, that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. After that decision, the school authorities in South Carolina passed out questionnaires to every teacher requiring us to list all the organizations we belonged to. I refused to overlook my membership in the NAACP, as some of the teachers did. I listed it.

The next year the South Carolina legislature passed a law that said that no city or state employee could belong to the NAACP. You see, our legislature was joining others across the deep South in a systematic campaign to wipe out the NAACP.

Our supervisor of Negro teachers was terribly concerned about it. She knew that she was going to lose her job because she was a member, and she did not want to give it up. She just got terribly ill in her mind. She became senile soon, and she died not too long after that, before they took her job away.

It wasn't too long before I got my letter of dismissal. The Board of Education wrote me that it would not be renewing my contract to teach remedial reading at the Henry Archer School. My goodness, somehow or other it really didn't bother me.

But it bothered my family. My sister said that when people called her she felt like she had something in her stomach, just like butterflies, working around. She was teaching then. I said, "You just let me answer the phone and tell the people I'm a member and I've been dismissed. I don't mind at all."

My mother had died by the time I was dismissed, but I know she would have said, "I told you so." She never joined the NAACP, nor my sister Edith. My brother Peter hasn't either. They weren't fighters. They didn't feel as if they could fight for freedom or for justice. They just didn't have that kind of feeling.

One hundred and sixty-nine teachers came from Washington and Baltimore to get our jobs, and there weren't but forty-two of us dismissed. Those teachers came down here because they had to have one year experience before they could teach in Baltimore or Washington. They came thinking they could get those jobs.

But they didn't get them. Other people already here got those jobs. Most of those forty-two teachers who were fired went to New York and Boston and other places in the North. A few of them came back and were able to get jobs teaching. I never did try. I felt that they never would let me have one anyway because they considered me a Communist because I worked with the Highlander Folk School. I had been to Highlander two years before I was dismissed here. I know they felt that I was really a Communist then. I was too much of a head woman, a controversial leader, and I couldn't get any job here.

I feel the big failure in my life was trying to work with the black teachers to get them to realize, when that law was passed in South Carolina, that it was an unjust law. But there were such a few jobs that they didn't see how they could work against the law. I had the feeling that if all of them would say, "We are members of the NAACP," that the legislature would not have said, "All of you will lose your job," because that would mean thousands of children out on the streets at one time.

But I couldn't get them to see that. I signed my name to 726 letters to black teachers asking them to tell the state of South Carolina that it was unjust to rule that no city or state employee could belong to the NAACP. If whites could belong to the Ku Klux Klan, then surely blacks could belong to the NAACP.

I don't know why I felt that the black teachers would stand up for their rights. But they wouldn't. Most of them were afraid and became hostile. Only twenty-six of them answered my letter, and I wrote them that we should go and talk with the superintendent. Eleven decided that they would go to talk to the superintendent, but when it was time to go, there were only five of us. The superintendent did everything he could before he would see us. He was writing out some plans on a board. Finally he talked, and the only thing he did was to let us know that we were living far ahead of our time. That's what he said.

I considered that one of the failures of my life because I think that I tried to push them into something that they weren't ready for. From that day on I say, "I'm going to have to get the people trained. We're going to have to show them the dangers or the pitfalls that they are in, before they will accept." And it took many years.

You always have to get the people with you. You can't just force them into things. That taught me a good lesson, because when I went into Mississippi and Alabama I stayed behind the scene and tried to get the people in the town to push forward, and then I would come forth with ideas. But I wouldn't do it at first because I knew it was detrimental. That was a weakness of mine that I felt I had to strengthen. The people in the masses, though, do better than the teachers. They come out. They're willing to fight anyhow.

You know, I had to go away for twenty years from Charleston. I couldn't get a job here, nowhere in South Carolina. Not only that, but the black teachers here, my sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, gave me a testimonial. Alpha Kappa Alpha is an organization of black women college graduates. Do you know that at that party my sorors would not stand beside me and have their picture made with me? If they had, they would have lost their jobs.

I can't say that I kept from being frightened about this whole episode. For three solid months after I took a new job at Highlander Folk School I couldn't sleep. Night after night I stayed up listening to the tape of the workshop that we had conducted during the day. One morning, it must have been a September morning, I felt a kind of a free feeling in my mind, and I said, "Now I must have been right." I was able to fall asleep and to sleep after that. I decided that I had worried about the thing enough.

Copyright © Septima Clark. 1990

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