Citizenship Schools, Part 1: Roots

I’ve been reading a marvelous book by Katherine Mellen Charron called Freedom’s Teacher: The Life of Septima Clark. Described by Martin Luther King, Jr. as “the Mother of the Movement,” Septima Clark was the architect and creator of one of the most remarkable inventions of the civil rights movement: Citizenship Schools.

To block as many African Americans as possible from voting, most Southern states required voters pass a literacy test. Citizenship Schools were an amazing, massive effort to train African-Americans across the South to read and write in a relatively short period of time. They also served as a means for identifying new grassroots leaders for the Civil Rights Movement.

I think techies who want to democratize technology can learn some really valuable lessons from Citizenship Schools. I’ve already mentioned Citizenship Schools in my framework and several posts I’ve written. But since most techies haven’t heard of them, I’m going to use Freedom’s Teacher to write a series of posts that explain how Citizenship Schools worked and what they can teach us. And since Clark already had decades of experience as a teacher and activist before she created Citizenship Schools, in this first post I’m going to follow Freedom’s Teacher and use Clark’s early history to paint a portrait of forces that shaped the Schools’ creation.

The fight in the South over literacy went back far before when Clark was born in 1898.

Freedmen and -women [i.e., freed slaves] well understood that their future economic and political security depended on securing basic literacy skills and pursued them with equal fervor in both the city and the country. How else could one be certain of the terms of the annual labor contracts he or she signed? How else might one retain the privilege of owning property by identifying the letter in the mailbox as a tax bill? (p. 40) …. More broadly, disfranchised African Americans in South Carolina and across the region viewed education as a primary battlefield in the struggle to undermine white supremacy and to reestablish themselves as citizens. (p. 52)

Schools also eventually became an important site of struggle because of some of their unique properties. In the decades before the 1960s civil rights movement, a direct confrontation with white supremacy, such as multiracial union organizing and/or strikes, was almost always met with terrorist violence and death. In contrast, by the early 20th century, schools were a place where African-Americans could win victories inch by inch without taking on as much risk.

One of several reasons why there was room to maneuver with schools was how Southern white elites treated public schools for African-Americans. They made no bones about the fact that they didn’t want black schools to flourish.

“The objections to negro education arise chiefly from the feeling that it unfits the negro for the place he must fill in the state” as a manual or agricultural laborer, one white South Carolina educational official reported in 1911, “and that the so-called educated negro too often becomes a loafer or a political agitator.” (p. 53)

But there was also an opportunity African American teachers could take advantage of.

From afar and in theory, white concern for black education remained hostile; up close and in practice, it manifested itself as indifference. As long as these circumstances prevailed, black teachers in rural southern schools operated with a considerable degree of autonomy. (p. 69) … [Black schoolteachers] “knew that the supervisor or superintendent only came around every five or six months and when they came everything had to be exactly so,” [Clark] recalled. “Any information we were learning about black people would be set aside and all teachers made sure we were working on the official curriculum.” (p. 70)

But as Clark discovered when she had her first job as a as a teacher in a rural one-room schoolhouse on John’s Island in 1916, to take full advantage of these opportunities, black teachers couldn’t use a standard approach to education. Like many rural African Amercans, most black folks on John’s Island were very poor and had virtually no access to services — there wasn’t even a doctor on the island. Making progress on literacy

required teachers to tap the community’s primary resource, its people. Visiting and listening came first. Only then could teachers motivate children and adults to want to learn and help them devise strategies for applying that learning. (p. 79)

Clark spent several years teaching on John’s Island, and her experiences there shaped many of the ideas behind the design of Citizenship Schools.

Another strong influence on Citizenship Schools were the networks built by black teachers’s organizations and black club women. As Clark experienced through a series of teaching positions and activist work throughout South Carolina,

Over the next few decades, women in a growing number of local clubs built an extensive network that reached into every city, town, and hamlet across South Carolina (p. 134) … Former teacher and Charlestonian clubwoman Mamie Garvin Fields observed, “The point was to have the next generation come up knowing how to organize themselves and take their rightful place in the community” (p. 135).

For example:

In 1931, Modjeska Simkins became a field worker for the South Carolina Tuberculosis Association, charged with the duty of raising health awareness through education. She approached teachers first, addressing them at state and county meetings and parent-teacher association gatherings. Next, Simkins organized a two-day institute in the summer teacher training sessions at South Carolina State…. Simkins’s success depended on tapping into preexisting networks. Teachers who attended county PSTA meetings and summer sessions or who, as Septima Clark had on Johns Island in the 1910s, organized local parent-teacher groups buttressed that statewide infrastructure…. Among black Carolinians, African American teachers and clubwomen helped contribute to a 53 percent decline in the tuberculosis death rate between the wars. (p. 136)

The recurring lesson from this work:

“Real leadership,” Etta B. Rowe asserted, “does not mean standing at the head of an organization—real leadership is that technique . . . that induces others to work and perform in a like manner.” (p. 137)

Clark also spent several decades working with and eventually for the NAACP. The NAACP’s membership “increased ninefold” during World War II, and from the late 1940s through the 1950s it was involved in a series of efforts to desegregate a variety of institutions. Although “the majority of African American teachers chose not to risk their livelihoods by publicly supporting the NAACP” (p. 175), the NAACP was the central player in the fight for the right of black teachers to work in public schools and the fight to inch towards parity between black and white teachers’ salary. By 1956, Clark became the vice president of the NAACP Charleston chapter.

By 1956, southern whites were once again mounting a counter-attack against efforts to win equality for African Americans, triggered this time in no small part by the 1954 Supreme Court Brown V Board of Ed decision. Some of their response was the violence and physical intimidation most of us have heard of.

“Since those nine buzzards on the Supreme Court have abolished the Mason-Dixon line,” one anonymous [KKK] member told an interviewer, “we had to establish the Smith & Wesson line”…. Reflecting on [one] incident, [a] beaten man’s pastor succinctly stated, “Fear covers South Carolina like the frost.” (p. 237)

And some of it was by employing the full force of Southern white elite’s legal and economic power.

Portraying the NAACP as a communist front, southern state legislatures passed laws requiring the association to hand over its membership lists and financial statements to white officials or be shut down (p. 238)…. Banks began to require African American loan applicants to sign statements swearing that they neither were nor planned to become NAACP members (p. 239)…. [In 1956, South Carolina] Governor Timmerman signed into law a bill that that barred city, county, and state employees from belonging to the NAACP (p. 243).

To survive against these brutal pressures, black civil rights activists had to rely on the deep networks that tied their communities together. Even so, many activists paid a high price — when Clark refused to resign from the NAACP, the school district fired from her teaching position and robbed her of her 40 year pension.

After Clark was fired, she eventually ended up at an institution that she’d been trained at several years before and had built a relationship with: the Highlander Folk School. Highlander’s early history is the last piece in understanding the forces that shaped Citizenship Schools.

Highlander was opened in late 1932. It was influenced by a variety of movements, from Denmark folk schools to the efforts in the US at citizenship education.

Clark had been moving in educational circles that specifically addressed matters of “citizenship education” for twenty years. Yet what had in the 1930s been a strategy for fighting fascism became in the 1950s a way to win the Cold War, endorsed by no less than Dwight D. Eisenhower. Beginning in the fall of 1951, for example, Charleston’s city school board launched its Citizenship Education Project in two white high schools. (p. 247)

When Highlander first opened its doors, it was driven by the goals of “educating ‘rural and industrial leaders for a new social order’ and preserving and enriching ‘the indigenous cultural values of the mountains.’ Initially, it focused on the Depression era southern labor movement. But over the next 20 years it began to shift its focus, and by 1953, its board decided to make race relations the center of its work (p. 220).

Highlander gave Clark tools to build on her already impressive work. For example,

Like black clubwomen, [Highlander] defined leadership not as standing at the head of an organization but as assuming the responsibility to get others involved. Yet the [Highlander] concept of leadership emphasized ordinary people—not necessarily self-conscious community leaders—taking part in the decision-making process and devising plans on their own terms and according to their own needs. (p. 216)

Highlander also helped Clark deepen and strengthen her skills as a mentor, and it taught her new strategies for employing data to guide decision making — “Highlander helped me to consider numbers when thinking of memberships, to interview for concrete data, and to survey for reliable facts” (p. 222).

By 1958, Clark had so impressed the Highlander staff that she was hired as the director of education, where she oversaw Highlander’s educational fieldwork. Over the next few years, she developed and implemented the first Citizenship Schools.

Up Next: how Citizenship Schools worked — and why.

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