Clark (May 3, 1898 - Dec. 15, 1987) was born in Charleston, South Carolina. She graduated from high school in 1916, but due to financial constraints, she was unable to attend college and began work as a school teacher. Blacks were not permitted to teach in Charleston public schools at this time, so she worked in a rural school district on John's Island, SC. She taught children during the day and adults at night.
As the principal at her school of 132 children, Clark made $35 per week. The white school across the street had only three students and the teacher received $85 per week. Her experience with these inequalities brought Clark into the movement for civil rights. In 1919, she returned to Charleston to teach at a private academy for black children and became involved in the NAACP. Through the organization, she successfully petitioned to grant blacks the right to become principals in Charleston's public schools.
During summers Clark studied at Columbia University and at Atlanta University in Georgia with W. E. B. Du Bois. She received a bachelor's degree from Benedict College and a master's from Hampton University in Virginia. In 1947, Clark returned to Charleston where she taught in the Charleston public schools. In 1956, she obtained the position of vice president of the Charleston NAACP branch. That same year, the South Carolina legislature passed a law banning city or state employees from being involved with civil rights organizations. Clark refused to leave the NAACP and lost her pension after 40 years of employment.
Clark then became active with the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. She was teaching literacy courses that taught students how to fill out driver's license exams, voter registration forms, and checks. Just months before the launch of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Rosa Parks participated in one of her workshops. The literacy campaign Clark headed, which taught reading skills to adults throughout the Deep South, transferred to the SCLC in 1961 and became known as "Citizenship Schools." The citizenship school project trained over 10,000 citizenship school teachers. They served as an essential grass-roots base for the civil rights movement. Clark later became the SCLC's director of education and teaching.
In 1976, the governor of South Carolina reinstated Ms. Clark's teacher's pension after declaring that she had been unjustly terminated in 1956. Her work and dedication granted Clark the title the "Grandmother" of the American Civil Rights Movement.