In the latter half of the 1960s, with the nation’s eyes on unrest in its cities, there arose a role for African American intellectuals in helping white America to understand black urban life. As Daniel Matlin details in On the Corner: African American Intellectuals and the Urban Crisis, these “indigenous interpreters” were left to balance the opportunities afforded by their prominence with the dilemmas and demands of their perceived social obligations. Among them was psychologist Kenneth B. Clark—born one hundred years ago this week—who became known as an establishment figure committed to an integrationist approach to solving the urban crises of the post-civil rights era. However, as Matlin explains below, Clark’s public acceptance of that role both concealed and constrained his sense of race as “merely one manifestation of a much deeper set of problems that confront human beings.”
Civil rights anniversaries abound this year. Media interest has centered on the Civil Rights Act signed into law by Lyndon Johnson fifty years ago, but the summer of 1964 also witnessed the Harlem Riot, an event that inaugurated years of urban uprisings which broke any illusion that America’s racial divisions had been laid to rest. It was sixty years ago that the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education shattered the legal foundations underpinning segregation. And one hundred years ago, on July 14, 1914, the scholar whose name became inextricably entwined with that landmark legal victory was born to Jamaican parents in the Panama Canal Zone.
Histories of the civil rights movement testify to Kenneth B. Clark’s vital contribution in coordinating the expert psychological testimony cited in the Brown ruling. Segregated schools, the Court was persuaded, stigmatized and harmed black children by their very nature, regardless of whether white and black schools were equally resourced. The famous “doll tests” through which Clark and his wife, Mamie Phipps Clark—like him, a psychologist trained at Howard and Columbia Universities—had exposed black children’s marked preference for white dolls still provides perhaps the most graphic and abiding image of the interior, emotional costs of institutionalized white supremacy.
Clark, who died in 2005, remains for historians a “symbol of integrationism,” the civil rights movement’s “reigning academic,” and “the epitome of the establishment social scientist” during the Kennedy-Johnson era of liberal reform. His credentials as a pillar of the postwar liberal establishment are plain to see. A tenured professor at the City College of New York, Clark served as an expert witness before courts and congressional committees and at White House conferences, fraternized with politicians and their advisers, and secured federal and municipal grants to support his research and activism. Those credentials, and his aura of respectability, were only underlined in 1969 when Clark was elected to serve as the first black president of the American Psychological Association, one of the nation’s largest professional bodies.
And yet, the remarkable controversy that ensued during Clark’s presidency is a forgotten story—one that casts his life and thought in a dramatically different light, and reveals much about the pressures and dilemmas that have confronted generations of African American intellectuals. On September 4, 1971, at the end of his term of office, Clark rose to deliver his presidential address at the APA’s annual convention in Washington, D.C. Within days, he had been ridiculed in the national press, denounced by many of his academic peers, and censured by the vice president of the United States.