Becoming an Organizer Part 1 – Septima Clark

Published on March 1, 2022.

I am often asked, “How did I become an organizer?” And how did I get to where I am today? As you shall see, many people were part of this journey. So I begin with the beginning, about 40 years ago.

Leaving Home

Ku Klux Klan harassment of me grew to a threatening, intolerable level in 1977, so I left North Carolina and moved to Charleston, SC. I was one of the only white women living in the low-income housing projects.

I got a job at an attorney’s office. I noticed that the buses dropped us off several blocks away from downtown Broad Street where many of us worked and I asked my neighbors why. Most of them worked even beyond Broad Street as gardeners, servants, maids or nannies. I was told repeatedly to get in touch with Mrs. Clark if I wanted to do anything about it.

Sitting At Kitchen Tables

Septima Clark

One day I tentatively knocked on Mrs. Clark’s door. I met an elderly woman, who took me under her wing, and taught me organizing, fund-raising and many other lessons. She was so welcoming, she invited me in to share dinner with several other people there. She became my mentor.

At the time I did not know Septima Clark was a famous civil rights hero! In fact, she is often referred to as the mother of the Civil Rights Movement.

Septima Clark taught me about door-to-door work. Her first instructions to me were to go out and talk to people in the community. Ask them about their needs and wishes.

At first, I was afraid to knock on strangers’ doors, but she lovingly pushed me. I soon learned that if people knew I was there to listen to them, they were much more willing to open up their homes and tell me their stories. It not only encouraged people to join our efforts, I made friends and they fed me often! I even became the “go to” person for kids struggling with their math homework. Mrs. Clark also persuaded me to ask for money for our organizing efforts from the attorneys where I worked. That was my next lesson from Mrs. Clark: how to fund-raise.

As a 13th generation Quaker, I was also part of starting a Quaker Meeting in Charleston. There, I became interested in the peace movement, starting with advising conscientious objectors as part of the Meeting. I also began working with a civil rights attorney, Ray McClain, who worked with conscientious objectors and on other civil rights issues.

Another Decision

Gaining experience from organizing and winning (we got buses to drop us off at Broad Street and all the way to the end of the peninsula at the Battery!) I went on to start the Charleston Peace organization. This is where I really cut my teeth at organizing.

Francie Close, an organizer against the Savannah River Site (a nuclear power plant) in South Carolina, showed me that you could make organizing a full-time profession. I was thrilled and decided that I would become a full-time organizer. It was consistent with my values, my dreams and my wish to make change in the world.

But I began to encounter many barriers to becoming an organizer. As a person who grew up in poverty, the daughter of a farmworker, who lacked a college education, I was always made to feel inferior in the primarily white peace movement and feminist groups. I, in turn, believed I wasn’t smart enough or good enough to do this work. I didn’t understand that these were class barriers for many years.

However, I knew from my experience in Charleston that I could work with poor people like myself. Since I often had a hard time with ways that things were taught in workshops for social justice that I attended, I figured others did too. Words and language used in those workshops were not the way I talked. I decided I needed to reach out to people like me and made a decision to go back home and do that in North Carolina.

P.S. I will be continuing to tell of this journey with my blogs this year. I appreciate all of you who have made it possible for me to do this work.

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