Clark was born in 1898 to a formerly enslaved father and a freeborn mother. After graduating from the first accredited secondary school for African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1916, Clark began her teaching career in a one room schoolhouse. However, because Charleston prohibited African Americans from teaching in public schools her options were limited to rural, underfunded schools.
In 1918, Clark joined the Charleston chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) where she led a petition drive resulting in the overturning of a discriminatory law enabling Black teachers to work in public schools. She then focused on ending the disparity in pay between white and Black teachers and on integrating the public school system. Clark’s activism and membership in the NAACP eventually led to her being fired from teaching.
She created programs to help African Americans learn to read and write and she served as co-coordinator of the Citizenship schools which taught not only basic literary skills but also voter registration, local politics, taxes, and about local school boards in order to empower participants as activists. Students from the citizenship school went on to create credit unions, low income housing, nursing homes, and schools.
In 1961 Clark became the first woman elected to the Executive board of Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) when she became the Director of Education and Training. In her own words she admits that the SCLC, “didn’t respect women too much.” However, Clark confronted and spoke out vehemently against the sexism within the activist community. She also worked to nourish women leaders and teachers. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to her as, “the Mother of the Movement.”
This Black History month IJPC is celebrating women of the Civil Rights Movement. Black women are often written out of history despite being the backbone of many of our systems of care and igniting the spark that creates movements for change. Each week this month we will highlight the work of an important Black woman activist. You can take part in this series through our email, Instagram or Facebook and we encourage you to share something you learned with a family member or friend.