In 1916, Septima Clark was a young African American teacher looking forward to her first teaching assignment in South Carolina. There, she learned firsthand about the poverty and inequality in segregated schools for African Americans. This experience led to a lifelong dedication to education and civil rights.
Septima had to leave her home in Charleston to become a teacher. The Charleston County School District did not allow African Americans to teach in public schools. Outside Charleston, she found a job on Johns Island, in a school that was in very poor condition. It had only benches for seats and few teaching materials. Many children were not able to attend because they had to support their families by doing farmwork. The students who did come walked up to 10 miles to get to the schoolhouse. A school for white children next door had half the number of students and paid its white teachers more than twice what Septima made. Despite these unfair conditions, she came to love the island community and wanted to help African-Americans on Johns Island, and in the rest of South Carolina obtain equal treatment.
Septima became an activist for equal rights. She gathered over 20,000 signatures on a petition to allow African Americans the right to teach in Charleston County. The petition was successful; laws were changed to allow African-American teachers in schools. In the late 1920s, Septima began working for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or the NAACP. With the NAACP, she fought for equal pay for African American teachers. Because of her involvement with the NAACP, Septima was fired from her teaching position.
During the 1950s, Septima worked at the Highlander School in Tennessee. While she was there, she met civil rights activists like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. Impressed with her work, Dr. King invited Septima to help him with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or SCLC. With the SCLC, Septima worked to educate African-Americans about their voting rights and the importance of participating in politics. Septima retired from the SCLC in 1970.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. credited Septima as a major influence on his work for civil rights. In 1979, she was invited to the White House by President Jimmy Carter to receive a special honor for her service. Septima's work also earned her the state of South Carolina's highest honor, the Order of the Palmetto, in 1985. She died in 1987, after a lifetime of dedication to education and civil rights.