For some people, it is a 28-day reminder (Plus the third Monday in Jan) to commemorate the achievements and contributions of Black icons. For others, it’s a reason to take a paid day off from work. For me? It’s my worldview, my impetus for moving forward, my source of strength, and my constant reminder that we know this place.
History was always my favorite subject growing up. Coming to understand the decisions that led to the world that I inhabited, the people who influenced it, and ways by which I could become a part of something greater mobilized me in ways a graphing calculator couldn’t. But growing up, I hated MLK day programs. Not because I have a particular dislike of Dr. King (he is both brilliant AND Pham, after all), but because school programs, projects, and assignments always focused on the achievements of men like King.
When I was in college, I knew I wanted to join Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated…So when I inadvertently became good friends with the president of the chapter closest to my campus (I went to Hampshire, there is no such thing as greek life there), I found myself obsessed with reading about the women who made up the Sorority. The semester I initially sought (and was denied– a story for another post) membership in AKA, I was enrolled in courses at Smith College like “Feminism, Race, and Resistance” and “Race and Class in Conflict: The Rise of the Black Middle Class,” taught by Drs. Paula Giddings and Riche Barnes respectively. I was a budding feminist scholar, aspiring member of the Black bourgeoisie, and I was done with history canonizing Black men in ways that left Black women who often did the heavy contemporary lifting as historical footnotes. It was in this semester that I learned about Soror Septima Poinsette Clark (1898-1987; Gamma Xi Omega).
My annoyance with the overwhelming focus on men (and the only three** women from the Civil Rights Movement) in schools was yet again realized when I was doing Sorority Girl Research™. I was left breathless when I realized that Soror Clark had earned the title “Queen Mother of the Movement” during the Civil Rights Movement, but that the 1965 Voting Rights Act was uniquely impacted by her organizing and commitment. A founder of the Citizenship Schools, an educational model developed to promote literacy and Black political empowerment, Clark understood well before everyone else that voting and activism that respected differences in experiences due to the intersections of race and gender were critical to the wholesale improvement of the Black community. Despite experiencing sexism at the hands of Black men we’ve immortalized, she continued to organize Black voters and fuse issues facing Black women into conversations about Civil Rights, including physical health and wellness, equal pay, and the right to engage in political activist activities despite employer disagreement.
Septima Poinsette Clark was an educator, Civil Rights activist,, queen mother of the movement and member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.
So, why did it take me 20 years to learn about her?
What if I hadn’t chosen AKA that semester? Afterall, both of my professors were Deltas and one even wrote an extensive history of her organization.
How many other Black and Brown girls are undereducated about the work of our foremothers?
How DID I not know her?
Why doesn’t anyone talk about the ways in which King et. al. used her for her labor but never acknowledged her presence?
I already know some answers to these questions. That said, instead of focusing solely on what has been done wrong to my Soror by our own people (my lack of knowledge before 20 included), I instead choose to lift her up. To say her name. To use the intersection of #J15 and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and acknowledge the ways in which history, like time, is cyclical and Black women remain at the forefront of movements related to using the vote to improve the Black community. I choose to highlight how Black women, by saving ourselves, continue to save the willfully ignorant who surround us.
So here are 10 things you need to know about Septima Clark:
- She directed Highlander’s Citizenship School where she emphasized literacy and civic engagement;
- She fought for and won equal pay for Black teachers in 1945;
- She served as SCLC director of education and teaching;
- In 1975, she became the first Black person to serve on the Charleston School Board;
- Rosa Parks attended one of her Citizenship School grassroots social justice education workshops a few months before the start of the Montgomery Bus Boycott;
- The citizenship school model became a framework for SNCC’s Freedom Schools
- In 1979, then-president Jimmy Carter honored her with a Living Legacy Award;
- Her mantra was “Literacy means liberation,” words to live by in a 45 presidential era;
- She was the first ever keynote at the National Organization of Women NOW Convention and discussed “The Need of Women Challenging Male Dominance,” an experience she knew firsthand through her interactions with people like the beloved Dr. King;
- She holds an honorary doctorate from College of Charleston.
As we celebrate Martin Luther King Day and 110 years of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. sisterhood on January 15, 2018, I give thanks for her legacy, share this post in appreciation for her dedication, and am grateful for her embodiment to service to all mankind. To our Ivy Beyond The Wall, and unsung hero, Soror Septima Poinsette Clark, I give thanks.
** I say this tongue in cheek, but let’s be real… History books, classes, authors, etc. do not do right by Black women. If they did, #CiteASista wouldn’t exist.