To mark Black History Month, here’s the story of a truly Inspirational Woman

Have you all heard of Martin Luther King? Of course you have. Malcolm X? Yes, naturally. Septima Clarke? Fewer of you? 

Septima Clarke was an integral and influential figure in the US Civil Rights Movement. She was dubbed ‘The Mother of the Movement’ by MLK, a man with whom she worked closely, of course; nonetheless, she maintained, he did not rate or respect her that much despite her undeniably crucial contribution to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the proactive, front-line role she played in the advancement of Civil Rights during her career.  ‘The men of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) didn’t respect women too much,’ Clarke said. ‘They just didn’t feel as if a woman had any sense.’

Let’s count Septima Clarke’s achievements. From a father who had been born into slavery, and to a free-born mother who had aspirations and high hopes for her daughter, Clarke went on to train as a teacher. At eighteen, she was teaching poor black children in segregated state schools by day, and illiterate adults by night. She first campaigned for equal working pay and rights upon discovering the inequity in her own profession. While her place of work had two teachers, paid $35 to teach 132 children, the school for white children across the road had one teacher paid $85 to teach 3 pupils.

This campaign led her to join the NAACP, and soon, to become the Vice-President of the organisation’s Charleston Branch. When, in 1956, South Carolina introduced legislation banning state and city employees from being involved in the Civil Rights movement, Clarke refused to renounce her membership. She was subsequently fired from the Charleston City Schools Board, losing not only her job, but a pension based on 40 years of service.

What do you do if you are made redundant after 40 years of service? Channel your anger and disappointment into something positive? Clarke built on the Highlander Folk School project in which she had been working since 1954, teaching literacy skills to adults to help them to complete drivers licenses and mail order forms, sign cheques…and fill in their voter registration forms. She recruited more teachers, and more students: improved literacy levels; mobilised people; empowered black communities; developed future leaders to help push forward the NAACP’s objectives. Her input led to the significant scaling up of her education projects, through the SCLC’s Citizenship Schools; by 1969, 700,000 African Americans had registered to vote in the South, facilitated through the literacy programmes Clarke had helped to set up.

And yet, Clarke claimed, the unequal treatment of women activists in and by the NAACP remained the ‘greatest weakness of the Civil Rights Movement.’

At this month’s UK Automotive Women Awards, Simone Roche reminded us that diversity is the number one driver of the economy. Organisations which are gender and ethnically diverse show profits that are three times higher than those organisations which are not.

It would be disingenuous to talk about Septima Clarke’s achievements purely in terms of gender diversity, because we have to acknowledge that the intersection of gender and ethnicity is another crucial barrier to real diversity in the boardroom. BAME women interviewed about navigating race and gender at work state categorically that they perform better when they don’t have to ‘code-switch’: that is, change their behaviour to ‘fit in’ in a predominantly white professional environment. To quote another female Civil Rights activist, Marian Wright Edelman, ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. What can we do to recruit not just more women into the Automotive and Tech Sectors, but more BAME women?

The UK Automotive 30% Club works with a range of schools to inspire girls of all social and cultural backgrounds to make informed career choices. We aim to open young minds to new opportunities, and in so doing, be true to our values to reach out to attract more women; welcome in and remove bias in recruitment; pull women through the promotional pipeline, and hold on, retaining talented women.

Septima Clarke said that knowledge could empower marginalized groups in ways that formal legal equality couldn’t.” Our network continues to grow, and with it, we hope, our scope for both increasing the ethnic, social, and cultural diversity of our own volunteers, and of the young women we will, in turn, inspire and inform. 


Article by Cathy Walker

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