Filed Under African American

Persistence: Septima Clark Combats Poverty and Injustice, 1965-1970

Black hospital workers and their supporters protested unequal treatment at the Medical College on Rutledge Avenue. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were great achievements, but other problems remained. As a staff member for the SCLC, Septima Clark continued to fight racial discrimination and economic inequities.

The Medical College of South Carolina was one site where activism continued after the Civil Rights Act. In 1969, Septima Clark and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) supported the hospital workers’ strike here. Workers, primarily Black women, filled the streets along with their supporters, demanding better pay and working conditions. The Medical College president told reporters, “I just don’t believe it’s a civil rights issue.” To Clark and her colleagues in the SCLC, however, supporting the strike was a continuation of their ongoing work fighting for the rights and dignity of Black citizens.

Since 1961, Clark had been on staff at the SCLC as it worked for desegregation and voting rights under King’s leadership. The SCLC shifted focus after the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965. States could no longer legally require citizens to interpret their state constitution to register to vote, and citizenship schools no longer needed to coach students to surmount this barrier. The SCLC got voters registered, encouraged voter turnout, and promoted programs sponsored by President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. People who had been trained in citizenship schools, like Ethel Grimball on Wadmalaw Island, began working in Head Start programs. The SCLC also publicized systemic inequities that prevented individuals from accumulating economic and social capital. As King began speaking out on these matters, some journalists and public officials criticized him, saying he was straying from the cause of desegregation, but King responded that poverty and lack of opportunity disproportionately affected Black Americans.

King called for solutions to poverty in a speech he gave in Charleston in 1967. He was introduced by Johns Island activist Esau Jenkins, who had worked with Septima Clark to develop the citizenship school formula that registered many new voters in the South. Before delivering the speech, King stopped at Septima Clark’s home to confer with local leaders. King then gave a speech to over three thousand people, telling the crowd, “Emancipation for the Negro was freedom to hunger.” The War on Poverty, he said, was so underfunded that “it didn’t even end up a good skirmish.” King contended, “It’s possible to end unemployment, it’s possible to end poverty.” He also denounced the US’s war with Vietnam as “the most unjust war in the modern world and maybe in history.” (A recording of King’s speech is at the Avery Research Center.)

In April 1968, King was assassinated in Memphis, where he was supporting striking sanitation workers. The next month, the SCLC went forward with the Poor People’s Campaign King had helped plan, a mass demonstration in Washington DC calling for more aid to America’s poor. Demonstrators from across the country began traveling to Washington in May. The “Southern Caravan” traveled from Mississippi through the South, including Charleston. Afterwards, the News and Courier’s editorial, “Behind the Marchers,” announced, “Suspicions of Communist influence in the Poor People’s March on Washington has received official attention.” The editorial suggested (incorrectly) that the march might culminate in an attack on the Capitol. Septima Clark's letter to the editor appeared the same day, praising everyone who worked together to keep the event running smoothly and feed the marchers as the caravan came through Charleston. “This was a Southern community problem and Southern community people worked on it,” she asserted.

Community members, including Clark, continued addressing community problems in Charleston, problems that many whites were unaware of. Years later, Andrew Young recalled his experience in 1969 as an SCLC staffer: “It must have come as quite a shock to the white community when a few Black hospital workers attempted to organize a union at the South Carolina Medical College Hospital.” The hospital fired twelve workers they believed were leading the effort, causing 450 more to walk out in protest on March 19, 1969. As Young wrote later, the SCLC came to support the strike because it fit the SCLC’s “desire to combat fundamental economic inequities and was consistent with the long-term aims of the Poor People’s Campaign. In addition, in Septima Clark we had a staff person who knew intimately the personalities and tendencies of black and white leadership in Charleston.”

The strike continued for months. South Carolina’s governor declared a state of emergency and a 9 pm to 5 am curfew, and ordered 1,000 state troopers and National Guardsmen to patrol the city. Workers, family members, and students were arrested nightly at demonstrations held in defiance of the curfew. Coretta Scott King marched with the workers, was arrested, and addressed a mass meeting at Morris Brown AME church. The strike lasted 113 days, until the hospital promised to rehire the fired workers and use a new grievance process for resolving complaints. Some strikers said this was the first time they had received at least some recognition from the hospital. Momentum from the strike also spurred increased Black voter registration in Charleston.

In 1970, in Charleston’s formerly segregated Francis Marion Hotel, Septima Clark was honored with a banquet where the SCLC celebrated her contributions to the civil rights movement. Clark, age 72, was retiring from the SLCC, but was far from finished with her work as an outspoken activist, educator, and leader.

Images

Hospital Workers Strike Historical Marker, 173 Ashley Avenue, 2023.
Hospital Workers Strike Historical Marker, 173 Ashley Avenue, 2023. In May 1969, this block of Ashley Avenue filled with striking workers and their supporters. At that time, Septima Clark was a staff worker for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which came to town to support the strikers.
1965 John's Island - Study of health programs and early childhood deaths. In Septima P. Clark Scrapbook page 31
1965 John's Island - Study of health programs and early childhood deaths. In Septima P. Clark Scrapbook page 31 Children on Johns Island, SC, 1965, where Clark was studying health programs and early childhood deaths. Source: Courtesy Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, College of Charleston, Charleston, SC.
SPC with children
SPC with children Septima Clark with children on Johns Island, SC, 1965. Source: Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, College of Charleston, Charleston, SC.
SPC tenderly guides the hand of a Citizenship Education Program student, Alabama 1966.
SPC tenderly guides the hand of a Citizenship Education Program student, Alabama 1966. Septima Clark guides the hand of a Citizenship Education Program student, Alabama, 1966. Source: Photo by Bob Fitch.
Coverage of 1967 King speech in Charleston
Coverage of 1967 King speech in Charleston King spoke to three thousand people at County Hall in Charleston, where he stated that “It’s possible to end unemployment, it’s possible to end poverty.” A recording of this speech is at the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture. Source: Charleston News and Courier, July 31, 1967, p 1.
News photo of King speaking in Charleston
News photo of King speaking in Charleston Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking before three thousand people in Charleston, SC in 1967. Esau Jenkins, shown in this front-page news photo, introduced King. Before the speech, King stopped for a lunch meeting at Septima Clark’s home on President Street. Source: Charleston News and Courier, July 31, 1967, p 1.
Dr. Martin Luther King at Septima Clark’s home. 1967.
Dr. Martin Luther King at Septima Clark’s home. 1967. Page from Septima Clark’s scrapbook documents King’s presence in her home before he delivered a speech to over three thousand people at County Hall on July 31, 1967. Pictured with King are Clark’s granddaughter, Yvonne Clark, and Adrian Poinsette. Source: Courtesy Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, College of Charleston, Charleston, SC.
Poor People’s March Editorial
Poor People’s March Editorial News and Courier editorial criticizing the Poor People’s March that came through Charleston in 1968, a month after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The SCLC’s march was a caravan from across the country, culminating in a mass demonstration in Washington, DC, to support more aid to America’s poor. “Suspicions of Communist influence in the Poor People’s March on Washington has received official attention,” the editorial announced. Source: The News and Courier, Charleston Thursday May 23, 1968.
Septima Clark’s letter to editor on Poor People’s March
Septima Clark’s letter to editor on Poor People’s March Clark’s letter to the editor commends various community groups for coming together to support the Poor People’s March as it came through Charleston on its way to Washington, DC. Source: The News and Courier, Charleston Thursday May 23, 1968.
News photo depicting march supporting hospital strike
News photo depicting march supporting hospital strike Thousands assembled near the Medical College of South Carolina in support of striking hospital workers on May 12, 1969. The strike protested the firing of Black women who worked at the hospital and were being paid less for doing the same work as white employees. Source: Charleston News and Courier, May 12, 1969, pg 1.
Septima Clark speaking at the Hospital Strike
Septima Clark speaking at the Hospital Strike The SCLC supported the strike by hospital workers in Charleston, SC, since it aligned with the same goal as the Poor People’s Campaign, of combatting economic inequities. SCLC staffers who came to support the march included Andrew Young and Septima Clark, whom Young later described as “a staff person who knew intimately the personalities and tendencies of black and white leadership in Charleston.” Source: Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, College of Charleston, Charleston, SC.
SCLC Marches in Hospital Workers Strike, 1969.
SCLC Marches in Hospital Workers Strike, 1969. Coretta Scott King and members of the SCLC join those marching in support of hospital workers in Charleston. Source: Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, College of Charleston, Charleston, SC.
Correspondence from Septima P. Clark and Bernice V. Robinson, Field Supervisors for the Citizenship Education Program, to "Freedom Fighters" regarding ways to help the SCLC and announcing conference details. 1969.
Correspondence from Septima P. Clark and Bernice V. Robinson, Field Supervisors for the Citizenship Education Program, to "Freedom Fighters" regarding ways to help the SCLC and announcing conference details. 1969. Letter to “Freedom Fighters” from Septima Clark and Bernice Robinson, Field Superviisors for the SCLC Citizenship Education program, 1969. SCLC continued to advocate for voter registration and the needs of poor people in the late 1960s after the 1968 assignation of Martin Luther King, Jr. Source: Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, College of Charleston, Charleston, SC.
SPC Retirement Party at the Francis Marion Hotel 1970
SPC Retirement Party at the Francis Marion Hotel 1970 Clark at banquet in honor of her retirement from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1970. The banquet was at the Francis Marion Hotel. In the 1960s, Black guests were not allowed here. Source: Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, College of Charleston, Charleston, SC.

Location

MUSC on Rutledge Avenue 135 Rutledge Avenue Charleston, SC 29403

Metadata

Julia Eichelberger and Committee on Commemoration and Landscapes, “Persistence: Septima Clark Combats Poverty and Injustice, 1965-1970,” Discovering Our Past: College of Charleston Histories, accessed June 24, 2024, https://discovering.cofc.edu/items/show/65.