Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Freedom's Teacher: The Life of Septima Clark

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Freedom's Teacher: The Life of Septima Clark

Article excerpt

Freedom's Teacher: The Life of Septima Clark. By Katherine Mellen Charron. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, c. 2009. Pp. [xviii], 462. $35.00, ISBN 978-0-8078-3332-2.)

Biographies abound for many of the pivotal individuals of the African American freedom struggle and the civil rights movement, like Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells, and Martin Luther King Jr. What the historiography of the freedom struggle lacks is biographies of the many individuals who may have avoided the cameras but nonetheless shaped the civil rights movement in organizations and communities. In a moving portrait of Septima Poinsette Clark, Katherine Mellen Charron does much to fill this gap, in addition to framing Clark's story in the context of the twentieth-century freedom struggle with its bursts of activism, periods of stagnation, and debates about what constituted citizenship.

Born in 1898, Clark experienced almost ninety years of the freedom struggle in the South, primarily in South Carolina. Living in Charleston, she understood that power emanated not only from white elites but also from black elites who never completely accepted Clark because of her family background. Intelligent and ambitious, Clark worked her way through the Avery Normal Institute and obtained her first teaching position on Johns Island. Here Clark began her search for the best means for blacks to obtain full citizenship in the United States. From teaching on Johns Island to joining Charleston's NAACP to early experiences in adult education in Columbia, Clark sifted through her encounters and practices, selecting some methods and discarding others. Clark's experiences prepared her for her culminating work in forming the Citizenship Education Program (CEP)--commonly referred to as Citizenship Schools--used by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1961.

In some respects, her personal conflicts mirrored the zigzag path of the freedom struggle. After World War I, Clark confronted the most serious challenges to her personal and professional life. …

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