Remembering Septima...

Special to Informer | 4/3/2013, 4:59 p.m.

"We are young at heart when we have a tremendous faith in God and in the future, when we have a sense of exaltation in the sweeping movements of a rapidly changing society and world. We are old when we rise against our times, when we resist all change. We are as young as our dreams, our hopes and enthusiasm. We are as old as our fears, our frustrations, our doubts. We need to feel wanted and to find the joy that grows out of service to others if the last of life for which the first was made is to be a time of happiness for those of us who are growing older."

Delivered in 1971, these endearing comments of Septima Poinsette Clark were spoken in the twilight of her years. They were spoken about her life of service, and in particular, a life of service devoted to providing adult learners with the opportunity to exercise their human rights as citizens of these United States.

During the 1950s and 1960s, thousands of disenfranchised African Americans passed through Citizenship School classes in which they learned to read and write in order to pass the literacy tests required by southern states to register to vote. Beyond preparing adults to gain access to the voting booth, Clark's curriculum taught students how to wield the power of the ballot to transform everyday life. Initially sponsored by the Highlander Folk School, the program spread throughout the South after the Southern Christian Leadership Conference adopted it in 1961. Clark brought four decades of practical experience as a public school teacher and civic activist to bear as she designed the Citizenship Schools.

Clark's work began in the South Carolina and her vision traveled across the country and around the world. In exploring the life of Clark, "Seppie," which produced the vision that manifested as the Citizenship Schools Movement, one finds extraordinary dedication amid social turmoil.

Some report that the initial purpose of these schools was to teach Black adults to read and write in order to pass the South Carolina literacy tests for voter registration, but the more far-reaching goal was citizenship education for democratic empowerment.

How did "citizenship education for democratic empowerment" come to be a more far-reaching goal of Black adult literacy? Part of the answer to this question lies in the intersection of the lives of individuals like Clark, Myles Horton, Esau Jenkins, and Bernice Robinson, as well as organizations like Highlander Folk School, the Southern Leadership Conference, and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. Another part of the answer remains in the lives of the hundreds of thousands of people across the South who were young at heart, ready to rise against their times, and find joy by serving "those of us who are growing older."

The South Carolina was a place of challenges and opportunity. The challenges resulted from the unique experiences of people of African descent born and raised in the United States. The city of Charleston, Clark's hometown, however, had its own unique qualities. In Clark's view, "It was good for [her parents] to be together because [her] mother, with her arrogance, and [her] father, with his gentleness, made her feel "that [she] stood on a platform that was built by both."