Photograph of Septima Clark, ca. 1960, Avery Photo Collection, 10-9, Courtesy of the Avery Research Center.

During African-American History Month, Grassroots Leadership Academy will be highlighting the lives of some of the greatest figures in the fight for civil rights and examining the lessons they have to teach us.

Septima Poinsette Clark isn’t a household name today, but she is often referred to as the “queen mother” of civil rights. Clark made education the centerpiece in her fight for equality.

As a young teacher at a private school in Charleston, S.C., in the 1910s, Clark organized a successful petition drive to get the city to hire black public school teachers.

She remained a dedicated advocate for equality, even when it cost Clark her job. In the 1950s, she began working for the Highlander Folk School, where she launched a Citizenship School program that quickly grew into a movement.

The schools taught math, literacy, civics and other skills, giving African Americans who had been left behind by a segregated school system the education they needed to build better lives for themselves and their families. The classes also helped black citizens pass onerous voter registration tests created to keep African Americans from voting.

Thanks to the work of Clark and others, hundreds of citizenship schools throughout the South empowered African Americans to stand up for their rights. Over the next decade thousands of African-Americans registered to vote because of the workshops.

Clark continued making a difference through education into later in her life. She was even elected twice to the same school board she fought against as a young teacher.

“The greatest evil in our country today is not racism, but ignorance,” Clark wrote. “I believe unconditionally in the ability of people to respond when they are told the truth. We need to be taught to study rather than to believe, to inquire rather than to affirm.”

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