Honoring the Legacy of Septima Clark & Other Unsung Heroes in the Fight for Equity

“It was time that Negroes were treated equally with whites, time that they had a decent school, time for the students themselves to do something about it. There wasn’t any fear. I just thought — this is your moment. Seize it!”-Barbara Johns, Civil Rights Activist, 1935-1991

Equity has been a central theme in the education of American students since the earliest times. Well before the landmark, Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, there were many others who expressed concern and raised awareness that separate was inherently unequal. This advocacy was carried by many educators and other external stakeholders who elected to become active participants in the fight for educational equality. Today, as America faces an increasing number of segregated schools, educators have a new opportunity and moral obligation to honor those who carried the fight for equity long ago, for the sake of the country’s children. In Alexander Nazaryan’s, March 2018 Newsweek article titled, School Segregation In America Is As Bad Today As It Was In The 1960’s, he notes:

“Charlotte, [NC] in 2018, looks like most other American cities, where schools are nearly as segregated as they were before the 1954 Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education, which declared separate but equal schools to be unconstitutional. Some cities, like New York, never really integrated their schools, hiding for decades under the guise of Northern liberalism. Many others complied with court orders, but did so unwillingly and incompletely, without ever convincing people that integration was a public good.”

The advocacy of educators has been central in bringing about change to the American educational equity landscape. If educators like Septima Clark and Sue Cowan Williams Morris had not seen themselves as having a key role to play in bringing about such change, the change that eventually was ordered to occur based on the 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education may have been delayed or possibly could have not occurred at all. Their bravery, courage, and conviction is to be admired, but most of all educators must honor their legacies by becoming advocates themselves.

Sue Cowan Williams Morris began her career as a teacher in Little Rock Arkansas in 1935. In March of 1941, a petition was filed with the Little Rock School Board demanding equal salaries between Black and White teachers. When the board failed to make changes, Morris became the plaintiff in the lawsuit, Morris v. Williams in 1942. The suit requested a balancing of the salaries between Black and White teachers. Morris lost that case, but went on to appeal the decision. In 1945 the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, Missouri overturned the initial case ruling and decided in her favor. Morris was then fired as was the principal of her school. Seven years later in 1952, she would get her teaching job back, but only after a call from then-superintendent Harry Little, asking if she had “learned her lesson”. She taught in the Little Rock School District until 1974, when she retired.

Septima Clark was a South Carolina educator and civil rights activist. She began her teaching career in 1916 on Johns Island in South Carolina. Motivated by the racial disparity between the salaries of Black and White teachers and school facilities, she became an advocate for change. She went on to teach in Charleston, South Carolina and played a key role in changing the policy that prevented Black teachers from working in public schools. In 1919, Clark joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and worked tirelessly to get the city to hire African-American teachers. In 1945 Clark along with the NAACP, was represented by Thurgood Marshall in a case that sought equal pay for Black and White teachers. When the case was won, her salary increased by three times as much. Clark’s internal urging to challenge the status quo did not end here. When South Carolina made it lawfully illegal for public employees to belong to civil rights groups like the NAACP in 1956, she refused to rescind her membership and was fired. Her advocacy didn’t end there although her teaching career had been brought to a halt in the Charelston County School District. She went on to labor tirelessly as an educator at The Highlander Folk School which later became known as the first citizenship school because of its centralized efforts on literacy and voting. Highlander’s Citizenship School program helped people learn how to instruct others in their communities in basic literacy and math skills, and as a result more people were able to vote, despite the literacy tests that many states used to disenfranchise African-American voters. Clark is often described by various scholars as calm, yet unafraid, and fiercely brave in her advocacy for equity.

Today’s educators have a moral and professional obligation to channel the courage of heroes like Clark and Morris and work tirelessly to bring equity to America’s schools. A perpetual discussion on the achievement gap should not exclude the importance of educators who advocate for equity. There is a false narrative that the gap is a sheer result of low expectations and minimal efforts. Conversations abound about how educators must not make excuses, but be held accountable for the performance of ALL students. This accountability focus, however, must be a comprehensive and shared one. Educators have a duty to bring this conversation to light about how segregation is still negatively impacting the academic achievement of Black and Brown children. This is not a simple exercise in raising expectations and rigor. Access and opportunity are central to providing ALL students with the education they deserve and in closing the achievement gap output that is often highlighted while the inputs of such remain in the shadows.

We honor the legacies of folks like Clark and Morris when we raise our awareness, we speak up, and we commit to serve in ways that help change the educational equity landscape in this country. Clark and Morris did not wait on those who set the policies and developed the law to change them. They saw themselves as instrumental in bringing about change. Today’s educators must start by seeing themselves in the same way and only then will we honor the legacies of those who came before us.

Until next time-be you, be true, be a hope builder!



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