Septima Poinsette Clark

Research interview for Who Speaks for the Negro?
Interviewed by Robert Penn Warren, March 18 1964

[Provided courtesy of the Who Speaks for the Negro?" archives, Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities at Vanderbilt University. See Septima Poinsette Clark for background information, the original transcripts, and streaming audio version of this interview. Some errors in the original transcript have been corrected, others have not been corrected. To ensure accuracy, researchers should consult the audio recordings available at the URL listed above. Time stamps are included in the retyped transcripts to aid in this process.]


Early MemoriesArrest, and Attacks on Highlander
SchoolLincoln, Grant, & Lee
Highlander Folk SchoolRace Relations Today
Slavery & Reconstruction   Unemployment
Southern Whites 

Early Memories

Warren: This is Tape 1 of a conversation with Mrs. Septima Clark of March 18, Atlanta, Georgia.

Clark: I'm Septima Clark, born in Charleston, South Carolina on May 3rd, 1898. The thing that I remember most when I was a child attending Sunday school in the city of Charleston, I could remember that on Sunday afternoons when I came from church and went to the corners where we separated from our friends, there was always a policeman there who very rudely told us to, "Get on, get on niggers", and all my life I've carried this thing in my mind wondering what could I do to get better attitudes among policeman or get them actually to protect us as we walked through the streets.

Another thing that I can remember real well was that there was a part of our town called The Rotten Borough. In that part of town the people lived in these rundown shacks. The flies were prevalent because it was very near the river and the marshes and in these shacks lived numbers of Negroes, they had to work hard during the day, in the heat of the day, and the flies were so great that it really covered the floors at times. And as I walked through there sometimes going down to the water's edge to catch shrimps or to crab or to catch fishes, we did as children, I often wondered what could be done to get better housing for people and how could I work so that in time to come there would be something that we could say to the city fathers about this kind of thing.

It's strange to say that I grew up and went over on the island, St. John's Island to be exact, to teach and work there among adults and there is where I started an adult education, an adult education program which has gone now through the South.

But I came back to Charleston and on coming back to Charleston I worked as committee, worked as Chairman of the Committee on Administration in the YWCA and had a chance to work on some of these very things that I hated in my early life. As a member of the YWCA program I was made a representative of the, the whole YWCA program and also of the Community Planning Council and when the census was being taken during one of the years, it was around '48 I guess, or must have been '50, one of my coworkers talked about the terrible slums that she had to go into and she was a white woman, the wife of a Methodist minister, and she reported this thing to the mayor and to the alderman there and now a housing project has been built in that area and it is really good to know that this thing has come about working through the years.

Policemen in Charleston today I must say, we have a very good Chief of Police who will listen to you, I know because I've had a chance to meet with him and to talk to him about alcoholics, about men who were being unjustly treated on the streets, and about boys who dropped out of school, and today we still have a lot of problems and we're still planning to have more meetings, but I can say that we can talk with the policemen and they have started a program of training with policemen in Charleston.

Warren: Are there any Negro police in Charleston?

[Note that in the 1960's South the term "Negro police" had a special and particular meaning. In most cases, it denoted Black men hired to keep other Blacks in line on behalf of the white power-structure. While the specifics varied from one town to another, for the most part "Negro police" were paid less than white cops, often had different badges (or no badges at all), could only work in Black neighborhoods, and were usually not permitted to arrest a white person even if they observed that person commit a serious crime. As a general rule, they were armed with clubs, not guns. "Negro police" could not work with, or ride with, white officers. Nor could they assume any role that might imply social or occupational equality with a white man (female police officers of any race were unheard of). In some jurisdictions, "Negro police" were not considered law enforcement officers by the local judicial system. As a general rule, most Freedom Movement activists of CORE, SCLC, and SNCC did not consider the hiring of "Negro police" to be any kind of victory, but rather a continuation of segregation.]

Clark: We have quite a number of Negro policemen there now and when the Negro policemen were first put on in Charleston, it's strange to say that one of our white club women made the search and found out how they could be used and got the people to agree on this thing and after agreeing upon it, we had, and they came in as policemen, not as a "Negro policeman," but as policemen, able to arrest anyone who, whose conduct needed just that. And two, two or three of them have been promoted to what we call the SLED Division of the police department, so they are detectives and they work throughout the state.



Warren: What people do you remember as having influence on you Mrs. Clark from your childhood or youth?

Clark: In my childhood I can remember so well some of the teachers that taught me. First, Charleston had a sort of peculiar attitude about children going to school and though my mother had very little money, she wanted to start her children at a private school, so I went to a private school where the culture of program was given.

Later on I went to the public school and at all of our public schools during the time that I went to school in 1910 and before that, and even afterwards, all of the teachers were white. And they, I can remember one teacher who taught music and who was exceptionally good and did what I call the "problem" type of teaching in geography which gave me an idea that this was the kind of thing that we needed to do everywhere we went.

I can also remember the, when I went to high school it was not until I was in junior high that we got our first Negro teacher and Negro principal. At that time everybody felt that, "Oh we didn't know what would happen next," but he came in and did so many things and we entered into so many new activities that I really felt very good about the whole question of working and I wanted to be a teacher and so I became a teacher after taking a teacher's examination at that time.


Highlander Folk School

Warren: How long were you at the Highlander Folk School Mrs. Clark?

[The Highlander Folk School is now named the Highlander Research & Education Center]

Clark: I stayed at the Highlander Folk School for seven years working with adults. It was there that I was able to develop the program that is now being taken over by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference called the Citizenship Education Program which is now in the eleven southern states and we have at this moment 595 teachers. We started with one teacher, 14 students and a hundred dollars, and today we have a program that has a 100, 595 teachers, but we've trained 1078, but at the present time, 595 the 1078 are working and they are in the eleven southern states with around 29,000 plus students from their classes and the communities they are in, registered to vote.


Slavery & Reconstruction

Warren: Let me switch to a question Mrs. Clark, a historical question about an opinion, a feeling on your part, in reading [Gunnar] Myrdal's big book on The Negro In America, I came across his passage on what would have been in his opinion the proper policy to pursue in the reconstruction of the South in 1865 on. He has several points to his, what his program, one, compensation to the white slave holders for the emancipated slaves; two, expropriation of plantation land with payment to the planters; the resale of this land — not gift but sale — to the landless emancipated slaves and the landless whites on a very long term easy rate, but a payment, plus those three things, various kinds of educational programs and supervision, but one more thing, a movement of a, of large numbers of Negroes to free land in the West and setting up of communities out of the South with subsidy and supervision to make start, to give a start.

Let me ask you how you would feel about those items one by one. Now we know it couldn't have taken place, it didn't take place, but now I get very different reactions from person to person, some people feel it's actually ... that the fact was, this offered, a compensation would be offered for the emancipation of a slave. Let's start with that, how do you feel about that? Do you have any emotional response to that, automatic emotional response?

Clark: I, I do know that the slaves had nothing, and when I said "nothing," I feel that they had no land and no money, but they did have something, they had a spirit and they had skills of working with the land, the land that had been theirs to work, to mingle their blood and their sweat and their tears with, and I really feel that, I know my father was a slave and I feel that — 

Warren: Your father what?

Clark: My father was a slave. My father was a slave on Joel Poinsette's farm and he came out of that and I really feel that not any of us would have liked a gift, we would rather work and earn whatever we needed to get.

Warren: Now what would you feel automatically about a program which would have paid the slave owner for the emancipated slave, compensation for the emancipated slave?

Clark: I just, when I think about the slave owner and according to the stories that my father told me, many things, they had many things buried that they saved and I don't see where they needed to be paid for an emancipated slave because they took away from the slaves all of the profit motive, they kept the land and every bit of the profit that came from the land. Of course after the war they were supposed to have lost everything, but I don't know just how true it was because I think many things have come since that time and evidently I don't know whether they lost all, but I wouldn't agree to pay them for the emancipated slave.

Warren: Is this on moral grounds or on practical grounds?

Clark: Well, I take my stand as a Christian principle I think and that is on the, you know, moral ground. I just don't see where I would want to morally pay any landowner for a human being, I just can't see it.

Warren: Well suppose, let's explore a little farther, suppose that we could know, as we can know, that such a policy would have guaranteed peace in the South within a generation or so and a reasonably humane society, would have avoided the problems we have had of all the bitterness of reconstruction and the violence and avoided the segregation which became legal at the end, toward the end of the century.

Clark: Well when I think of it from that angle, if we could have avoided this kind of thing by a payment, it's, it's very hard for me to believe that, you know, anything like this could be avoided by payment of the land owners. I haven't seen money as yet actually bring about peace and harmony, but when you put the "if" there, "if" it could have ... [Talking over each other]

Warren: ... [Talking over each other] yes, yes.

Clark: Hmm hmm.

Warren: We don't know.

Clark: Well, yes, if the, when you put the "if" in it, I would say, well yes, "if," but other than that, I would never agree to paying a land owner.

Warren: Well that, that would've been the only reason for doing it would be to establish a stable society.

Clark: Yes.

Warren: You wouldn't feel offended then if you knew you would get a stable society as a result?

Clark: If we could get a stable society, I would not.

Warren: With some decency.

Clark: That's right, yes, with, with the Christian principles and when I say the "Christian" principles I, I mean just that, I mean that doing unto, [audio skips/repeats] I, I mean just that, [audio skips/repeats] I mean just that, I mean that doing unto others as we would like to be done by. This is what I consider the Christian principles that I feel we'd have to take with us everywhere.


Southern Whites

Warren: Let me quote, paraphrase, a statement from James Baldwin, "The southern mob does not represent the will of the southern white majority, that is the crowd on the street, breaking up demonstrations or lynch mobs or, or police in illegal actions, do not represent the will of the southern white majority." Does that make sense to you?

Clark: Yes it does because in my mind, and I have felt this practically all through my years, that there are many good white people throughout the South, even in the state of Mississippi where they are supposed to be, well, actually inhuman. But I do think that there's some white people there also, but I do feel that their fear, that the fear has kept them from speaking out or from acting. I don't think that these things represent the majority, I think that the minority has the loud voice and this is my feeling.

Warren: And the minority bullies the majority, is that it?

Clark: It does because of the great fear.

Warren: Of course some Negroes say that the mere fact of keeping quiet from fear is a form of collusion, a form of, of, we have joined the conspiracy.

Clark: This is, well I, I guess that, I say that too, I say that too many persons, but I do know that there is a real fear when, well I had a very good friend who is the great-grandnephew of Harriett Beecher Stowe, and he lived and worked in Birmingham, Alabama, and when he wrote about the things that he actually saw, how people were burned to the stake, how they were castrated, it was hard for him to do anything else but run and not to speak out any longer but to leave. I guess we'll have to give the people a chance to grow where they don't fear death anymore, but this is what I see, they may be joining the conspiracy, they join it because they fear death.


Arrest, and Attacks on Highlander

Warren: You had a very painful experience in Tennessee [at] the Highlander Folk School, didn't you?

Clark: Yes I did.

Warren: Did you find any voice in Tennessee lifted in favor of the school?

Clark: Yes, I'm very happy to say that the night that I was arrested there were people who were concerned about my welfare and at the trial there were quite a number who came up and spoke for the school. I can remember riding with a taxi driver and you know it's an all-white community.

[In the late 1950s and early '60s, white segregationists who were enraged at Highlander's interracial programs and its advocacy for racial justice charged that it was a "Communist Training School" engaged in creating "racial strife." As part of the harrassment and red-baiting that continued for several years, Highlander teachers were arrested on phony charges. In 1959 Septima Clark was arrested for illegal possession of whiskey, charges that were later dropped. In 1961, the state of Tennessee revoked Highlander;s charter, seizing its land and buildings. The school quickly reopened at a new location as the Highlander Research and Education Center.]

Warren: Yes, I know the community.

Clark: So I had to ride with a white taxi driver when I'd be coming in and going out, and he said for Myles Horton's wife — this is his first wife Zilphia who was a great singer — he said, that [she] was a good woman, said when she first came here she came to our houses and took all the sick people out and carried them to the Folk School and fed them and then filled bags with food when she carried them back home and took this with them and Myles's mother taught us how to make quilts and how to weave until there were many who talked in favor of this school.

Warren: But they had no influence?

Clark: But they had no influence. They were not able to speak loud enough to get, to get above the talk of the rabble-rousers.

Warren: Where did the impulses of oppress the school come from, by your diagnosis?

Clark: I felt that we had to fight three states. We had to fight not only Tennessee, but Arkansas, Alabama and Georgia, because while we were having a meeting in 1957, Governor Griffin of Georgia sent a man, Ed Friend, up there who came in as what he called a water pollution expert to take pictures and spy on the group. We weren't doing anything that we didn't want him to see, but he managed to have a fellow there that they considered, they alleged that he was a communist and every time he would get near one of our speakers he would snap a picture of him, so they made a slick sheet paper of this thing and sent it all around. And Myles was investigated too at Nashville, Tennessee. There were men there from Georgia and Alabama and Arkansas who were sitting up trying to put pressure on the jury I guess at that hearing.

Warren: Was the main question the biracial seminars that?

Clark: When we were in the mountain courts and the local courts with the magistrates and the justice of the peace, and the issue was integration and I think they did that to inflame the jury, but when the case was then carried to the state supreme court, the integration angle was dropped and it became operation of the school for the benefit of Myles Horton, personal benefit of Myles Horton, or the selling of beer without a license.

Warren: Yes, I know the actual charges became that — 

Clark: Hmm hmm.

Warren:  — but those were subterfuges weren't they?

Clark: They were, and well we know that those things were not true, but we were not able to take it further to the Supreme Court because the integration angle was dropped and that was the reason.

Warren: And that was dropped to avoid an appeal at the time?

Clark: Oh yes it was, definitely so, but it's so strange that that state gave him a charter right away to open another school in Knoxville, Tennessee, so Tenn — 

Warren: Yeah, so I, so I understand.

Clark: Yes. Hmm hmm. And if he had been a communist or guilty, I can't see why the state would've given him another charter.


Lincoln, Grant, & Lee

Warren: Mrs. Clark

Clark: Hmm hmm.

Warren: what do you think of Abraham Lincoln?

Clark: I can't help but think that he was a wonderful president. I can remember one thing that I admire him for and that is when he was campaigning and this fellow Stanton was his arch enemy and talked against him. When he got ready to find the Secretary of War, he decided that this was the man to be the Secretary of War and he appointed him. All the members of his cabinet felt that this should not be, but he stood up and said, "Gentleman I've looked over the nation and I know that this is the best man for the job." It wasn't too long a woman stood beside him and said, "Mr. President, you must be losing your mind, this man even talked about your personal appearance," and he said, "Madam, the best way to destroy your enemies is to make him your friend."

And when he died many years after that, many great things were said about him, but the greatest thing that was said was the thing that was said by Stanton the Secretary of War, he said, this was a great man and his name will go down in the ages. So both of them went to their grave as friends and not as enemies.

Warren: What about the pretty well substantiated fact that Lincoln was a racist?

Clark: I never could see just that. I think that in, well, from the studies that I've had about him, in freeing the, getting the slaves freed, I don't know whether or not he did it just because he loved the Negroes, but he wanted to save the Union and this is the same thing I feel today. I feel today that we want to redeem the soul of America, so I still respect Mr. Lincoln for his work, I can't consider him a racist.

Warren: Well despite the things he said?

Clark: I don't know any of the things that he said that makes me feel that he was a racist. I heard of his 10% plan to free the slave. I heard of him going down to Mississippi on a barge saying that when he became a man that he was gonna strike a blow that would stop this slavery cause he saw the slaves chained there on barges. I can't remember any of the things that he said.

Warren: What do you think of Grant?

Clark: Ulysses S. Grant?

Warren: Hmm hmm.

Clark: I consider him also one of the great men of his time. I don't know how well he would fit in with this time today.

Warren: What about Lee?

Clark: Let me see if I can remember too much about Lee. Robert E. Lee is who you're talking about?

Warren: Yes.

Clark: Yes. I don't remember very much about Robert E. Lee.

Warren: Grant held slaves

Clark: Yes and — 

Warren: and Lee emancipated his.

Clark: I think that many of them did, but I still feel that when we go back to think about honesty and integrity I have to think about Jefferson although he held slaves, and Lincoln and Grant, and I don't know about Lee, I don't know whether he had a plantation or not.

Warren: Lee had slaves and emancipated them well before, long before the Civil War.

Clark: Well.

Warren: So you have Johnson

Clark: Hmm hmm.

Warren: Grant

Clark: Grant.

Warren: Who were slave holders — 

Clark: Yes.

Warren: — and Lee who, who emancipated his.

Clark: Freed his slaves. Hmm hmm.

Warren: This makes a rather complicated picture doesn't it?

Clark: It does. It really does. But still I don't know whether I should change unless I could get, do more research to find out more about these men and the way they worked.


Race Relations Today

Warren: Do you feel Mrs. Clark that there's a real change in the general climate of opinion on the question of race in your time?

Clark: Well — 

Warren: And general feeling about the question of racial inferiority and superiority?

Clark: The whole tone of my life from the time I have lived up to now, I think has given to me the real chance to see this thing more than anyone else, I guess, around in this office because I've lived quite, such a long life. And as I see it, I see a great difference in the climate. I know the day and the time when many Negroes felt very inferior, in fact I know of some today who still feel that way. I've had a chance recently to see some Negroes when I'd go into town, who won't even sit and eat with me, they, they still have this kind of a feeling, they let the husbands come and sit and eat with the company and then they go and eat in the kitchen, it's, it's still there and they, that's a carryover I think from the slavery. So this thing is still with us. Now — 

Warren: Now what about the, excuse me.

Clark: Hmm hmm. I started to say, now I've also seen a great difference with white people. My mother had many children and we lived in an integrated neighborhood. Charleston was not a zoned city, it is just becoming zoned and so there was a man with his mother who lived not too far away from us and the mother was elderly and wanted some child to sleep with her every night and this, at that time there was always, to my mind, a kind of inferior thing, they would either want to make you a pallet somewhere, but never to sleep in a bed with them although they wanted you for company. But today you can find many of those same people of that same family who will offer you a bed in the room with them, or in a separate room in their house. The climate has changed all around. I think people felt at one time that we had to have ... but today, it's not true all over now — 

Warren: Yeah.

Clark: — but, but, but you can see the light shining through the wall.

Warren: What's caused this change in your opinion?

Clark: The way I see it, I think that two world wars and the introduction of federal programs. I can remember the first time, and I was teaching on the islands, when the Agricultural Association came and Negro farmers, dirt farmers were going to get loans. Well, before that time white farmers would go into a place and Negro farmers would stand outside, but here after the Second World War, white farmers and Negro dirt farmers lined up in the same room, one behind the other as they came, first come first serve, and made out their slips either for loans or thought about a ... for conservation or whatever it was and that I think changed the people. Then banking laws, right after Mr. Roosevelt came in, banks were closed down, and when we went back into the banks people were served on a first come first serve basis and so that thing has spread.

Well from the alleys, from every rural section of the South and I guess every dive in the North, Negroes were taken to other countries [during the wars] and there they saw another kind of life and they came back home to get some of this democracy that they were trying to save.

Warren: What happened to the white people?

Clark: Well the white people became very [audio skips] ... the 1954 and then of course the new Negro. And why I say he's "new" because there were other Negroes fighting earlier for just this kind of a freedom but there were more of these, there was more people coming — [telephone rings] — they'll catch it. There were more people coming in from the, from everywhere to demand the rights that were actually theirs and there I saw a newer kind of a thing which led into uprisings and as white people became mature, realizing that now these people have saved our lives during the First and the Second World War, then we saw a slackening of these restrictions in some of the large cities, but it hasn't become widespread as yet. Even in the city of Atlanta that considers itself a pretty open city, you can still find many restrictions.

Warren: So I understand.

Clark: It's true, well — 



Warren: How much unemployment is there here among Negroes?

Clark: Unemployment?

Warren: Hmm hmm.

Clark: Oh, I wouldn't be able to give the figures just now other than to say this, that in the, well and when I think about the national average, Negroes represent, the Negro youth represent something like 15% of the national population, but 50% of the Negroes are unemployed, which means that we have a large group of young Negroes unemployed.

Warren: What's the answer to that?

Clark: I have to say it goes back to this vicious circle of education. Automation is coming. Automation is putting numbers of people out of jobs, both whites and Negroes, but the Negroes who have been relegated to the jobs that required little skill are the ones feeling it the most at this time.

Warren: Is there a solution in approaching this on a racial basis?

Clark: No, I can't see it, any solution on a racial basis. I just said that I think we need, need a massive Marshal plan backed by the government. This is what I see that will have to come so that we can do a retraining job as well.

Warren: For all, for all?

Clark: For all, retraining job for all. This is the kind of thing that I think will have to happen, we're gonna have to retrain, retrain those who have been trained and train those who have not been trained and the money will have to be provided while the training is going on, not only for the training, but for the subsistence as well.

Warren: ...[Audio skips] on this.

Clark: Hmm hmm.

[End of Interview]

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