Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Inspiration in One Photo: Septima Clark and Rosa Parks

Over the course of my blogging career I've come across more than a few really amazing photographs that seem to perfectly capture a moment in time. This is one of those photos. The events that led to having both of these remarkable women together at this point in time are varied and tell an important part of the story of the civil rights movement in America. But what each woman accomplishes AFTER this photo is even more important.

This image was taken in the summer of 1955, when both women attended classes at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. On the left is Septima Poinsette Clark, the "grandmother of the civil rights movement," and on the right is Rosa Parks, the "mother of the civil rights movement." Two incredibly influential women, both credited with birthing a new generation of the movement, in one casual photo taken during the summer of their first meeting. You can see why I love it.

Usually when I look at this photo, I see a pre-bus boycott Rosa Park getting the encouragement she needed to take the next step in her activism. Rosa Parks had long been a member of the NAACP, even when it had been extremely dangerous to attend meetings in Montgomery, Alabama. Before 1955, she'd worked with black women and children, helping the adults get legal advice and teaching after-school classes to help raise the consciousness of the young people.

She wanted to attend the Highlander Folk School to learn more useful techniques for improving the conditions for the black community in Montgomery, as well as to meet other activist from around the South and possibly take home some new strategies for addressing inequality. She learned all this and more during her time in Tennessee, but it is likely that the most important thing she gained was simply the encouragement to continue fighting for justice and equality. Just a few months after this photo was taken, she refused to give up her seat on the bus, and sparked a year-long boycott that then, in turn, sparked similar civil rights actions around the South.

When she talked about her time at Highlander, she didn't talk about what she'd learned in her classes. Instead, she talked about what she had learned from Septima:
"At that time I was very nervous, very troubled in my mind about the events that were occurring in Montgomery. But then I had the chance to work with Septima. She was such a calm and dedicated person in the midst of all that danger. I thought, 'If I could only catch some of her spirit.' I wanted to have the courage to accomplish the kinds of things that she had been doing for years."
But Rosa Parks almost didn't go to Tennessee that summer. She almost didn't meet Septima or any of the other civil rights activists at Highlander. This photo almost didn't happen. Rosa Parks certainly couldn't afford the trip on her meager seamstress salary. She didn't even own a suitcase. Thankfully her friends (and employers) Bill and Virginia Durr knew it was critically important for her to go attended classes, build relationships with others, and to bring home what she learned. They sponsored her trip, and even lent her a suitcase.

Today, while looking at this photo, I'm thinking less about where Rosa Parks went after it was taken, and more about how this meeting may have influenced Septima Clark. While she certainly helped set Rosa on her path to change the future, Septima didn't step back from her own work. When the summer classes were done she returned to Charleston, South Carolina, and resumed both her teaching position as well as her civil rights work at home, like she did every year. But the very next year, 1956, she was elected president of her NAACP branch, which precipitated a cascade of changes that forced her onto a different path.

South Carolina, true to its long racist history, had recently passed a law banning city and state workers from belonging to civil rights organizations. While she may have been able to keep her NAACP membership secret before, there was no way Septima could hide the fact that she was the president of her chapter. When she refused to step down, she was fired from her teaching job. This actually put her in a difficult position financially. As a widow, she was raising her son alone, and needed steady employment. She knew she wouldn't be able to take another public school job, and wondered if she could make a living as an activist teacher.

That summer she returned to the Highlander Folk School, this time not as a student, but as a teacher. The mission of the Highlander Folk School was to help poor rural people throughout the south by teaching them basic skills (literacy, math, etc.) as well as empowering them to organize and implement changes in their community to promote equality. In the 1950s, this meant addressing civil rights issues such as voting and equal access to schools and public services. It was a natural step, even if it was a scary one, combining her love of teaching and her passion for civil rights. It was here that she honed her skills as a educator/ community organizer. She continued to teach her literacy and social activism workshop each summer, and eventually took a position as a director with the responsibility for recruiting students and teachers.

But Septima knew that, while Highlander was an important gathering place for activists, the best way to have the greatest impact would be to reach as many people as possible. That meant branching out. So she, along with her cousin Bernice Robinson, worked to take these literacy/civil rights workshops out into world, setting up small, back-room "citizen schools" in tiny black communities throughout the South, teaching adults to read and helping them pass voting tests while simultaneously empowering them to take this knowledge into other local communities, creating a network of activism. This was her greatest contribution to the civil rights movement. Her citizen schools spread throughout the South, and the project was eventually taken over by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), where Septima worked closely with other giants in the movement.

It's hard to say whether Rosa Parks would have refused to give up her seat that day in 1955 if she hadn't attended Highlander earlier that year and met Septima Clark. I'm sure she would have eventually come to the point of action on her own, but it certainly seems as though Septima had a profound effect on her resolve.

While I can't say their meeting in the summer of 1955 had as profound an effect on Septima Clark, it is clear that she was quickly approaching her own crossroads. I like to think that when she was fired the next year, she looked at what Rosa Parks was doing in Montgomery and found some inspiration to make the leap into the full time job of activism.

I think of this photo and the stories it tells quite often. I keep it in a folder on my desktop so I can look at it frequently. I am continually encouraged by the lives and work of these two amazing women, and knowing that they found support and friendship in each other never fails to inspire me to keep working for justice, and to keep supporting other women (and men) in the fight.

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