HM - Feb. 2014 - Westhoff

The History File

Citizenship Schools and the Civil Rights Movement
Laura Westhoff
Department of History
University of Missouri, St. Louis

Over the past decade historians have drawn attention to grassroots leaders and local organizing efforts during the Civil Rights Movement.  In so doing they have rewritten the narrative that focused on great leaders and key moments, emphasizing instead what Jacqueline Dowd Hall has called the “Long Civil Rights Movement” that began decades prior to Brown v. Board and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.[1] The remarkable story of the Citizenship Schools, the founders Esau Jenkins, Septima Clark, and Berniece Robinson, and the Highlander Folk School staff that worked with them dramatically illustrates this historical scholarship.

In 1954 Jenkins and Clark attended an interracial workshop at Highlander Folk School in the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee.  Myles Horton had opened the adult education center twenty years earlier to support mountain communities and expand interracial labor organizing into the South.  During the 1930s and ’40s it developed a labor education program for the CIO, but its goal of integration was slower to develop in the Jim Crow South.  Still, by the end of the 1940s, it was regularly offering integrated workshops in which participants strategized how to enact desegregation in their communities.  It was these workshops that drew civil rights activists like Jenkins and Clark.

These two veteran activists were no strangers to the civil rights struggle.  Katherine Mellon Charron’s exceptional biography of Clark describes her as an activist educator whose long career began in the 1910s as a teacher, community organizer, and local NAACP leader, first in Charleston, SC and nearby Johns Island, and later as a staff member at Highlander.[2]  Jenkins operated a bus service that transported black Islanders to their jobs in Charleston.  Like Clark, his activist roots reached deep on the Island.  In 1938 he founded the Progressive Club to combat racial violence on the Island.  When he traveled to Highlander, he was a leader in his church, president of the parent-teacher association, and head of the Citizens Club. After losing an election bid for the school board, but earning the votes of 192 out of 200 the Island’s African Americans, Jenkins became especially motivated to help his black neighbors register to vote.  South Carolina’s literacy laws made this difficult.  So on the long bus trips, he had begun teaching riders to read.

Jenkins arrived at Highlander with a vision to expand his ad hoc literacy efforts.  Horton, a white Tennessean, was intrigued by the possibilities, and he spent the next two years visiting John’s Island to develop relationships with black residents. Working with Horton and Clark, Jenkins was able to secure a storage space behind a storefront to serve as a classroom and began recruiting adults who committed to learning to read and write three nights a week for several months.  Clark recruited a teacher, her cousin Berniece Robinson, a beautician whose lack of teacher training didn’t hamper her creativity and classroom success.  Together she and Clark developed the curriculum.  In addition to learning to read to pass the voter registration test, participants wanted to use the bank and write money orders.  They wanted to read and write letters to family members who had moved off the Island or had migrated north, some of whom sent them checks they needed to cash.  Many relied on white employers to help them with such tasks, so learning these skills brought them independence.[3]  As the students began registering to vote, residents of surrounding islands sought help to build their own schools.  Horton then expanded upon Jenkins’ vision of the Citizenship Schools, emphasizing an opportunity for Highlander staff to train leaders of communities to run their own schools.  As Clark explained, “Myles wanted to teach others how to change themselves.”  Developing community leaders, rather than relying on a single leader or someone from outside the community, was Horton’s vision of democratic change.

The demand for Highlander’s training rapidly outgrew its capacity, even with Clark and Robinson on staff at the Center full time.  So in 1961, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference took over administration of the program, renaming it the Citizenship Education Program and employing Clark and Robinson to offer workshops across the South; at least 50,000 new voters were registered by 1964 as a direct result of their CEP classes.  When the Voting Rights Act of 1965 undercut the immediate purpose of Citizenship Schools, Clark and Robinson shifted their focus, helping African Americans to get out the vote in communities across the South and preparing African American women to navigate the new programs built by the War on Poverty.  They helped women across the South use these opportunities to develop community health care and child-care centers, and to establish educational and job training programs.[4]  By 1969 more than 5000 people had attended training sessions.  Jenkins, too, built upon the foundation to expand political education and organizing. Such programs helped African Americans win local elections on the Sea Islands and other areas throughout the South.[5] 

The Citizenship Schools are a powerful illustration of the long Civil Rights Movement that help us rethink the ways we teach this history and Black History more generally.  Jenkins and Clark’s activist careers show the deep roots of the movement, correcting popular ideas that it began with Brown or the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  Their continued political work in Southern communities after 1968 draws attention to the continuation of the Movement beyond Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.  The focus on grassroots leadership development and local organizing efforts of ordinary citizens challenges the narrative of great leaders and reminds students of the intense effort that transformed thousands of lives in ways not always visible in textbooks or histories focused on a national narrative or conventional political change.  And Highlander’s long history of interracial education and organizing illustrates too, that white allies in the South had a vital role to play.  Yet Horton’s caution in approaching African American communities and his conscious decision to scale back the role of the largely white Highlander staff in the movement in the 1960s offer a way to explore the complicated racial dynamics in a region long structured by white supremacy.

[1] Jacqueline Dowd Hall, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and Political Uses of the Past,” The Journal of American History. Vol. 91, No. 4 (March , 2005), pp. 1233-1263.
[2] For more on Septima Clark’s life, see Katherine Mellen Charron, Freedom’s Teacher:  The Life of Septima Clark (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 2009).
[3] Robinson, talk at Highlander Center, November 17-18, 1979; also curriculum materials in HREC papers.
[4] Charron, Chapter 9, “Similar Yet Different.”
[5] HREC Papers, 1965 Board Meeting Minutes, p. 2 Box 12, folder 10.  See also C. Conrad Browne to Friend of Highlander, February 9, 1968.  He reports that six of seven Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party candidates elected to office from Mississippi and twelve of the fifteen successful regular Democratic Party candidates had attended the Highlander Candidate Training School, which had been modeled on Jenkins’ proposal.