Kenneth Clark Answers Questions on Plans for the Civil Rights Movement

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Dr. Kenneth B. Clark, a New York psychologist and educator, is shown at a staff meeting of the North Side Center for Child Development he founded, in Harlem, New York City, November 9, 1965.

It is 1967, and Clark has just returned from a "secret meeting" of Martin Luther King, Whitney Young, and other black leaders that was held in Suffern, New York. Reporters are anxious to learn what was discussed in this attempt to "reinvigorate" the Civil Rights movement. Since it was an ostensibly secret meeting Clark is understandably tight-lipped. An attempt is made to probe the split between these elder statesmen of the movement and the younger "Black Power" representatives. Why weren't Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown of SNCC in attendance? Because Carmichael is in jail, Clark notes, and H. Rap Brown is trying to get him out of jail. He claims the press exaggerates the differences between these two branches of the movement, admitting there is "a gap" but that these men can sit down together. He also points out the leaders of SNCC are very young and that the press reports their wildest statements, something it does not do, for example, when covering Mario Savio, leader of the Berkeley's Free Speech Movement. He is then asked about another potential rift caused by King's recently stated opposition to the Vietnam War. Clark finds it a "logical" extension of King's stated policy of non-violence. A lighter note is struck when Clark is asked about the recent substitution of "African-American" for "Negro," with Adam Clayton Powell discarding both and simply referring to himself as "a black man." Clark, who had famous clashes with Powell, expresses surprise, as Powell "…doesn't seem black to me." He ascribes the change to impatience of "younger Negros" and doesn't see it holding any real significance. When asked to use his academic training in human behavior to gauge if there is more hope or despair in the black community, he ruefully answers, "I wish I were that good a psychologist."

Dr. Kenneth Clark (1914-2005) was a major civil rights figure focusing particularly on matters of education. Along with his wife, Mamie Phipps Clark, he conceived and executed the famous test using dolls to illustrate the inherent unfairness of segregated education. As the Encyclopedia of World Biography explains:

Clark and his wife…used four dolls, two that were black and two that were white—all identical, to measure how children felt about the color of their skin. They tested dozens of children in Washington, D.C., New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Worcester, Massachusetts, and rural Arkansas. The majority, both black and white, said the white dolls were nice and they all preferred to play with them. The majority also said the black dolls were bad; most of the black children identified with the black dolls. The couple took the results and published them in a book Prejudice and Your Child in 1953. Clark concluded that black children thought of themselves as inferior due to society devaluing them because of the color of their skin. Clark's research came to the attention of Robert Carter, an attorney who was trying to dismantle segregated schools in South Carolina and was also a part of the NAACP legal team. Clark used the doll test on children in Clarendon County, South Carolina. His results were the same. Carter persuaded Thurgood Marshall, the leading attorney for the NAACP, to use Clark's findings in the case. Many at the NAACP were skeptical, but Marshall agreed. When the ruling in Brown vs. the Board of Education came down that the "separate but equal" doctrine of segregation was unconstitutional, Chief Justice Earl Warren cited Clark's findings as having a pivotal role in the justices reaching their conclusion. He told the Washington Post, "The court saw the issue clearly.… A racist system inevitably destroys and damages human beings; it brutalizes and dehumanizes them, blacks and whites alike."

Clark went on to become the first black professor to gain tenure at the City College of New York (1960), the first black man elected by the New York legislature to serve on the State Board of Regents, and the first black elected President of the American Psychological Association (1971). Yet despite a lifetime devoted to advocating for integration and equality, he was not comfortable with the amount of progress that had been made. Indeed, many years later, he gave the New York Times a much more sardonic answer to one of the questions posed in this interview:

Despite the many honors he won and the respect he commanded, Dr. Clark said he thought his life had been a serious of "magnificent failures." In 1992, at the age of 78, he confessed: "I am pessimistic and I don't like that. I don't like the fact that I am more pessimistic now than I was two decades ago."

Yet as a conscience of New York politics and of the civil rights movement, he remained an unreconstructed, if anguished, integrationist. A decade ago, during one of his last lengthy interviews, he chain-smoked Marlboros in his home, flanked by vivid African carvings and walls of books wrapped in sun-faded dust jackets, as he professed optimism but repeatedly expressed disappointment over dashed expectations about experiments in school decentralization, open admissions at City University and affirmative action.

"There's no question that there have been changes," he said then. "They are not as deep as they appear to be."

Among the cosmetic changes was an rhetorical evolution from Negro to black to African-American. What, he was asked, was the best thing for blacks to call themselves?

"White," he replied.


Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.

WNYC archives id: 5709
Municipal archives id: T2661