Read. Write? Vote! Part 2

By Keisha Bell

Remember when it was illegal for slaves to write? Reading and drawing were tolerated, but writing was disallowed.

Black’s Law Dictionary defines “slave” as one who has no freedom of action, but whose person and services are wholly under the control of another.

Could it be that others continue to think of you as a slave? (One could argue that some think of Colin Kaepernick as a slave, as well as Jemele Hill. Why not you too?)


Do you self-identify as a slave?

South Carolina was first to pass laws prohibiting slave education in 1740, making it illegal to teach slaves to write. Its violation carried a financial penalty for the teacher.

Plantation owners feared slave revolts and desperately aimed to restrict slaves’ ability to communicate with one another. Keeping slaves ignorant was necessary for plantation owners who did not want them to be free or question their authority. Examples to maintain control were as follows:

  • In 1831, Delaware passed a law that prevented the meeting of a dozen or more blacks late at night;

  • In 1833, Alabama enacted a law that prohibited any assembly of blacks unless five slave owners were present or an African-American preacher had previously been licensed by an approved denomination;

  • In 1836, North Carolina, a state that previously allowed free African-American and white children to attend schools together, passed a law that strictly prohibited the public education of all African-Americans; and

  • In 1841, the Mississippi state legislature passed a law that required all free African-Americans to leave its state.

Read. Write. Vote. Book Cover, visionaryAs is known, these laws were in addition to other cruel and unusual punishments used during those times intended to instill fear in slaves and free African-Americans so they would not “get out of line.”

Question: Do you fear the consequence of “not acting right” in racially-sensitive situations in present day America?

In 1956, Septima Poinsette Clark was hired as the full-time Director of Workshops by the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. An educator and a civil rights activist, Clark was determined to turn sharecroppers and African-Americans who were unschooled into potential voters via the compressed week’s workshop she developed. Clark was a woman with vision.

After being terminated from employment in South Carolina for refusing to leave the NAACP, Clark found an opportunity that welcomed her talents. By standing by her convictions, she was able to fulfill a greater purpose. Clark could have given up, but instead she persevered.

At Highlander Folk School, Clark was able to again teach literacy courses. This time, however, she did so with the help of her cousin, Bernice Robinson. The two of them were able to expand the lessons to include teaching more students how to complete driver’s license exams, voter registration forms, Sears mail-order forms, and how to sign checks.

Clark’s curriculum evolved into the creation of “Citizenship School”. Citizenship School educated blacks in literacy, state government, and election procedures. It was a response to legislation in Southern states which required literacy and interpretation of various portions of the United States Constitution in order to be allowed to register to vote.

In 1961, Citizenship School was adopted by the Southern Christian Leadership Council. Soon thereafter, it spread throughout the South. It is believed that Citizenship School trained over 10,000 citizenship school teachers, taught more than 25,000 people, and before 1969 enabled about 700,000 African Americans to become registered voters. Notably, Rosa Parks was one of Clark’s students.

Clark’s life experiences —her failures and successes— prepared her to create Citizenship School. As a result, African-Americans were taught how to act collectively and protest against racism. The School served as a way to empower black communities through self-pride, cultural-pride, and via understanding one’s own citizenship rights. It helped countless blacks push for the right to vote. In addition, it developed leaders across the nation who would help push the civil rights movement even after 1964.

A woman with vision, who endured struggle, and was granted an opportunity — Clark reminds us to use every life experience as preparation for our greater purpose to serve others. Understand your power. Read, write, and vote!

Keisha Bell is an attorney, author, and public servant.

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