Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. statue in Washington, DC

Septima Poinsette Clark

Septima Poinsette Clark (1898-1987) helped to launch and lead the Highlander Folk School, which is now open by reservation as the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tennessee.

An Innovative School Concept

A “Citizenship School,” where the civil rights activist and literacy advocate was also a teacher, this distinct type of institution is best described by southernculture.org: “From the beginning, the Citizenship Schools served as more than voter registration classes. Every teacher came from the community in which she taught and began class by asking her neighbors what they wanted to learn. Thus, they relied on a curriculum that was both specific, in terms of preparing students to register, and flexible enough to meet local people’s other educational desires. As students gained practical, political, and economic literacy, the schools became all-African American sites of mobilization and allowed people to define the Movement in their town in terms of how they applied their new knowledge. Graduates put what they had learned into practice by influencing others to register and vote, by assuming leading and supportive roles in local Civil Rights campaigns, and by joining existing organizations or establishing new ones to tackle community welfare needs.”

The concept had high appeal for Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr., and became under the umbrella of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). In Clark’s words: “I was arrested in 1959, and padlocks were put on the doors at Highlander Folk School. When they arrested me, Myles [Horton, who founded Highlander in 1932] knew that next thing was they were going to close down the school, because we were working against the laws of the state of Tennessee; they still had segregation. So he had talked with Dr. [Martin Luther] King. Dr. King said he would like to have me come, that he would like to have the program that we started at Highlander come to Atlanta. I was sent to Atlanta to carry out the citizenship education program. In transferring the program, Dorothy Cotton [educational consultant for SCLC] and Andy Young [King’s administrative assistant at SCLC and later Executive Director of SCLC] were placed in that grant along with me.” https://www.southerncultures.org/article/i-train-the-people-to-do-their-own-talking-septima-clark-and-women-in-the-civil-rights-movement

The Highlander Now

Today, the Highlander Folk School has evolved into a research and educational center in a town that continues to have a small population. Read about the Center here: https://www.highlandercenter.org/our-story/mission.

More Information

For more information about Septima Poinsette Clark, read her autobiographies: Echo in My Soul (1962) and Ready from Within (1986). A brief biography can also be found at blackpast.org.

The Highlander is the seventh stop on the Tennessee Author Adventures Trail.

Patricia Smart