The recent centennial of Rosa Parks’ birth evoked for me a lesser known but also highly influential woman of the civil rights movement. South Carolina native Septima Clark has been called “Freedom’s Teacher” because of her role in educating others for action, and her example remains relevant today. I became taken with her story through a 2008 exhibit at the Cincinnati Museum Center called Freedom’s Sisters highlighting 20 African-American women from the 18th century to the present who worked for equality. Born in 1898, Septima knew from an early age that she wanted to be a teacher, primarily to help her family financially but it clearly was a calling for which she had a gift. After teaching on remote coastal islands and then public schools, her career took a significant turn in 1956 when she was dismissed from her position in Charleston public schools for refusing to cease her involvement in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In a move to diminish the NAACP, in 1955 the legislature had joined other southern states in passing a law forbidding any state or city employee to belong.
Soon after, she was invited to become the director of workshops at the Highlander Folk School, a unique enterprise in Tennessee where she had previously taken and taught summer courses. From its founding in 1932 Highlander focused on organizing workers throughout the south and opposed segregation in the labor movement as early as 1944, a commitment which made the school an important incubator for the civil rights movement. It was a rare place in the south where blacks and whites could meet and eat together, including sharing dorm and bathroom facilities, a situation that required adjustment on both sides it was so unheard of (and illegal). Rosa Parks attended a workshop at Highlander led by Septima Clark the summer before she refused to give up her seat on the bus. Parks was so shy and reserved that when she took that bold step, Septima was amazed.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Highlander’s efforts to increase voting by black people led to the creation of Citizenship Schools throughout the south. It was Septima’s practical thinking that led to these schools, because she realized that people could not just be registered to vote but had to learn the reading and writing skills that were required by voting laws intended to disenfranchise them. This involved recruiting and training teachers for local areas. Following her keen instincts, Septima adapted the approach based on listening to people. Citizenship Schools came to encompass teaching people about government, empowering them to advocate for change in their local communities.
“I found I could say nothing to those people, and no teacher as a rule could speak to them. We had to let them talk to us and say to us whatever they wanted to say. When we got through listening to them, we would let them know that we felt that they were right according to the kind of thing that they had in their mind, but according to living in this world there were other things they needed to know. We wanted to know if they were willing to listen to us, and they decided that they wanted to listen to us.”
As a result of her work, thousands of people were educated about citizenship, important groundwork for the civil rights movement. Her memoir recounts several instances of confrontation with law enforcement and others who opposed their work, yet she was never afraid, for which she credits the example of her firm and resolute mother, but she also observed how others overcame fear through the process of becoming educated and joining with others in the cause.
“Bullets could have gotten me, but somehow or other they didn’t. I felt very good about going, about talking to people. I knew that people had gotten to the place where they saw the type of meanness that was being shown throughout their little towns. They hadn’t noticed it before, but now they were ready from within to do something about it.” [emphasis added]
The title of Septima’s memoir comes from this highlighted phrase, and I am struck by it. External circumstances alone do not prompt resistance, but there’s an inner aspect that impels the action. Rosa Parks became ready from within to protest segregation on buses. Martin Luther King’s biography indicates such a process occurred for him as a result of his pastorate. And it appears to be happening more and more among Catholics. Women have taken it upon themselves to become ordained. Maryknoll Father Ray Bourgeois has been dismissed from his order and the priesthood rather than recant his support for women’s ordination. Most recently, I am very touched by the courage of Cincinnati teacher Mike Moroski who is accepting being fired from his position as director of student life at a Catholic high school rather than be silenced from expressing his support for same-sex marriage. The same was true for the prophet Isaiah in yesterday’s first reading. After the angel touched his lip, his response to God became, “Here I am, send me!”