Sea Islands

Esau Jenkins, 1964
Photographer: Robert Yellin

In the late 1950s, Highlander helped develop a Literacy Citizenship School program on Johns Island. The island had a majority black population but Jim Crow voter registration laws kept people from voting. Esau Jenkins brought the story to Highander. He asked for help in creating citizenship classes to enable people to pass the literacy test. Highlander staff member Septima Clark had taught school on Johns Island many years earlier.

A native Charlestonian, she had more recently been fired from her job as a South Carolina school teacher for belonging to the NAACP. Along with Esau and the Highlander staff, she developed an empowering literacy and citizenship program which would eventually spread throughout the sea islands and later across the South. Bernice Robinson was chosen to teach the first citizenship school because she respected the people and, having had no teaching experience, would be nonjudgmental and experimental. Singing familiar songs enlivened the long evenings and blended with the joy of learning.


Citizenship School class, late 1950s
center (l-r): Alice Wine, Septima Clark, Bernice Robinson
Photographer: Ida Berman

Singing sea island folk songs, spirituals, and freedom songs helped build the group's consciousness and boosted morale as together they tackled the difficult task of learning to read and write. Guy was both Septima's driver, carrying her to the many classes in the islands, and the songleader in the literacy classes.

In 1961 the citizenship school program was transferred from Highlander to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, enabling it to be multiplied across the South, in many ways sustaining the Civil Rights Movement.

Sea Islands: Page 2 of 4

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Originally designed by UCR / California Museum of Photography