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Kenneth B. Clark Biography

Mother Sought Opportunity in United States, Excelled Academically, Investigated the Psychology of Segregation


Psychologist, educator, writer

Kenneth Bancroft Clark will remain among the most prominent black social scientists of the twentieth century. For many years a professor of psychology at City College of New York (now City College of the City University of New York), Clark achieved national recognition when his work was cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1954 ruling that racially segregated schools were inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional. That decision was a catalyst for the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and Clark went on to author a series of highly influential books about ghetto life, education, and the war on poverty. After retiring from teaching in 1975, Clark established a consulting firm to assist corporations and other large employers with their racial policies and minority hiring programs. Until his death in 2005, Clark worked diligently to pressure American society to acknowledge the social ills of segregation.

Mother Sought Opportunity
in United States

Clark was born in 1914 in the Panama Canal Zone, the son of Miriam Clark and Arthur Bancroft Clark, a native of the West Indies who worked as a superintendent of cargo for the United Fruit Company. Despite the family's relatively comfortable situation in Panama, Miriam Clark, a Jamaican woman of stubborn courage, insisted that the Clark children should be raised in the United States, where they would get better education and employment opportunities than in Panama. Kenneth and his sister, Beulah, accordingly moved with their mother to the Harlem district of New York City when Kenneth was four-and-a-half; their father, however, refused to relocate to a country where his color would prevent him from holding a job similar to his position with United Fruit. Undeterred, Miriam Clark found work in Harlem as a seamstress and proceeded to raise the children on her own.

In later life, Clark became famous as an uncompromising advocate of integrated schooling, and it is not surprising that his own education took place in the culturally diverse setting of 1920s Harlem. At that time Harlem was home to immigrants of various nationalities, especially those of Irish and Jewish origin, and was also the center of a rapidly growing black population.

Attending classes in New York City schools, young Clark was held to the same high standards as his fellow students, most of whom were white. As he told New Yorker magazine many years later, "When I went to the board in Mr. Ruprecht's algebra class, … I had to do those equations, and if I wasn't able to do them he wanted to find out why. He didn't expect any less of me because I was black." That is a capsule description of the educational philosophy Clark would maintain for the rest of his life: schools must be open to students of every race, and teachers must expect the same performance from each child. In such an environment, some students will naturally perform better than others, but not according to racial categories.

When he finished the ninth grade, Kenneth Clark was faced with a critical juncture in his education. School counselors advised most black youths to attend vocational high school, where they could learn skills appropriate to the limited employment opportunities available to blacks. When Clark's mother heard of this plan she went directly to the counselor's office and told him that under no circumstances would her son go to trade school; she had not come all the way from Panama to raise a factory worker.

Excelled Academically

Instead, Kenneth was sent to George Washington High School, where he excelled in all subjects and grew especially fond of economics. He had thoughts of becoming an economist until he was denied an award for excellence in economics by a teacher who apparently could not bring himself to so honor a black student. Clark remembers this as his first direct experience of discrimination, and it may well have prepared the ground for his subsequent decision to study psychology, particularly the psychology of racism.

Upon entering Howard University in 1931, Clark originally intended to become a medical doctor. In his second year at the all-black institution he took a class in psychology taught by Francis Sumner that changed forever the course of his studies. "What this professor showed me," Clark told the New Yorker, "was the promise of getting some systematic understanding of the complexities of human behavior and human interaction, …the seemingly intractable nature of racism, for example." Clark determined that he would follow the example of Sumner in the field of psychology, and after receiving a master's degree in 1936, he joined the faculty of Howard for a year of teaching.

At that point Clark came to another critical fork in his career. He could have remained at Howard, teaching with either his master's degree or a doctorate, but at the urging of his mentor Sumner and a number of other outstanding faculty members, Clark went on to Columbia University with the express purpose of obtaining his doctorate and teaching at an integrated college. He became the first black doctoral candidate in psychology at Columbia and completed his degree in 1940.

Clark was married in 1938 to Mamie Phipps, a fellow psychology student at Howard who would coauthor many of the articles that later made the couple famous. After graduating from Columbia, Clark taught briefly at Hampton Institute in Virginia, a very traditional black college whose most famous alumnus was Booker T. Washington. Hampton was far too conservative a school for Clark, who left after one term rather than teach a form of psychology based on the subjugation of blacks. Following a two-year stint with the U.S. Government's Office of War Information, Clark joined the faculty of City College of New York in 1942, becoming an assistant professor seven years later and, by 1960, a full professor—the first black academic to be so honored in the history of New York's city colleges.

At a Glance …

Born Kenneth Bancroft Clark on July 24, 1914, in Panama Canal Zone; died on May 1, 2005, in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY; son of Arthur Bancroft (a cargo superintendent for United Fruit) and Miriam (a seamstress; maiden name, Hanson) Clark; married Mamie Phipps (a psychologist), April 14, 1938 (died, 1983); children: Kate Miriam, Hilton Bancroft. Education : Howard University, BA, 1935, MS, 1936; Columbia University, PhD, 1940. Religion : Episcopalian.

Career : Howard University, Washington, D.C., psychology instructor, 1936; Hampton Institute, Hampton, VA, psychology instructor, 1940; worked for U.S. Office of War Information, 1941-42; City College of New York (now City College of the City University of New York), instructor, 1942-49, assistant professor, 1949-1960, professor, 1960-70, distinguished professor of psychology, 1970-75, became professor emeritus, 1975. Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited (HARYOU), chairman of board of directors, 1962-64; Metropolitan Applied Research Center, Inc. (MARC Corp.), president, 1967-75; Clark, Phipps, Clark & Harris, Inc. (consulting firm), president and chairman of the board, 1975-(?).

Memberships: New York State Board of Regents, 1966(?)-1986.

Awards : Rosenwald fellow, 1940-41; Spingarn Medal, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1961; Board for the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest, Committee on Psychology in the Public Interest Award, 1978; Franklin Delano Roosevelt Four Freedoms Award, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, 1985; National Alliance of Black School Educators, Living Legend Award, 1995. Honorary degrees from Columbia University, Johns Hopkins University, Princeton University, and others.

Investigated the Psychology
of Segregation

As a black psychologist, Clark had always been deeply concerned with the nature of racism, and in the 1940s he and his wife, Mamie, began publishing the results of their research concerning the effects of segregated schooling on kindergarten students in Washington, D.C. Between 1939 and 1950 the Clarks wrote five articles on the subject and became nationally known for their work in the field.

In 1950 Kenneth Clark wrote an article for the Mid-century White House Conference on Children and Youth, summarizing his own work and other psychological literature on segregation. This report came to the attention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) during its post-World War II campaign to overturn legalized segregation. In its landmark 1954 decision declaring such segregation unconstitutional, the U.S. Supreme Court cited the Clark report as representative of "modern authority" on the subject.

Clark was intimately involved in the long legal struggle which culminated in Brown v. Board of Education, as the court's 1954 desegregation decision was titled. He testified as an expert witness at three of the four cases leading up to the Supreme Court's review of Brown, and his report on the psychology of segregation was read carefully by the justices. Psychological findings were critical to the NAACP's case, in which they asked the court to overturn its earlier decision (Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896) that "separate but equal" schooling for the two races did not violate individual rights under the Constitution.

In Plessy v. Ferguson, the court had held that as long as separate schools were of equal quality, they did not inherently "deny …the equal protection of the laws" guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. The NAACP challenged the Plessy decision by asserting that, in reality, separate meant unequal for blacks–especially black schoolchildren. In his testimony before one of the lower courts, Clark defined the harmful effects of segregated schooling as "a confusion in the child's own self esteem–basic feelings of inferiority, conflict, confusion in his self-image, resentment, hostility toward himself." Such effects would be felt, Clark and the NAACP argued, regardless of the relative merits of the schools involved; or, as the court eventually stated, "Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

Brown v. Board of Education was not only a milestone in the modern civil rights movement, it also made Kenneth Clark into something of an academic superstar. Clark went on to become the most influential black social scientist of his generation. He received honorary degrees from more than a dozen of the nation's finest colleges and universities, but his larger goal of integrated, adequate schooling for blacks had not become a reality even four decades after the announcement of the monumental court decision.

Studied School System in Harlem

America's schools did not suddenly integrate themselves the day after Brown v. Board of Education; in most urban areas the growth of black ghettoes only reinforced the segregation of black and white schoolchildren. Clark understood that in order to improve the education of students of color, the African American community as a whole needed to lobby for a massive infusion of capital and commitment from the federal government and from private citizens. After sparring unsuccessfully with the New York City Board of Education during the late 1950s over issues of segregation, Clark was given a unique opportunity to effect a wholesale reformation of the school system in Harlem. As part of the "Great Society" plans inaugurated by the administrations of President John F. Kennedy and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, federal funds were provided in 1962 to create Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited (HARYOU), the task of which was to study and suggest remedies for the causes of juvenile delinquency in the Harlem area.

Clark was appointed chairman of HARYOU, which over the next two years produced a 620-page report recommending, among other things, the "thorough reorganization of the schools" in Harlem. This would include increased integration, a massive program to improve reading skills among students, stricter review of teacher performance, and, most importantly, a high level of participation by the residents of Harlem in implementing these changes. HARYOU was the first example of what would later be known as a community-action program.

HARYOU was sabotaged by political power bargaining in New York, and few if any of its recommendations were followed. As Clark commented in the New Yorker, "As it turned out, all we did at HARYOU was to produce a document." Clark's community-based approach inspired many subsequent programs in the "War on Poverty," but with few exceptions they too fell victim to the complexities of urban politics. Although his experience with HARYOU must be counted as a failure in terms of political reality, it did spur Clark to write the book for which he is best known, Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power. In this work, Clark goes beyond his HARYOU research to write what he describes in the introduction as "no report at all, but rather the anguished cry of its author"–an overview of black ghetto life that has become required reading in sociology classes around the country.

In 1967 Clark formed and presided over a nonprofit corporation known as MARC Corp. (the Metropolitan Applied Research Center), composed of a group of social scientists and other professionals who hoped to identify and solve problems of the urban poor. MARC's most significant work was undertaken in 1970, when the school board of Washington, D.C., asked Clark and his associates to design a new educational program for the city's 150,000 schoolchildren, 90% of whom were black and the majority of whom were poor.

In an era of radical social and political experimentation, the Washington, D.C. school system offered Clark the chance to test his theories of education on a large scale and under ideal conditions. Clark outlined a program similar to the HARYOU program for New York, calling for a massive and immediate upgrading of reading skills, teacher evaluation based on student performance, and community involvement in the schooling process.

Once again, however, real life proved far more complex than theory: the Washington, D.C. teachers refused to make their pay and position dependent on the outcome of student tests, and a new superintendent of schools (elected in 1971) refused to cooperate with the plan and even challenged Clark's central thesis that children of the ghetto could and should be expected to perform at "normal" levels. Ghetto life, argued this administrator, was anything but normal, and it would be unfair to hold teachers and schools responsible for the performance of students handicapped by living in the ghetto.

Such a claim flew in the face of everything Kenneth Clark had learned and fought for since he was a grade school student. It also contradicted the findings of Brown v. Board of Education : if ghetto children could not be held to the same standards as other children, then the schools they were attending were obviously not "equal." Clark's defeat at the hands of political reality did not dampen his belief in integrated schooling, however; nor did he cave in to the demands of the politically fashionable black separatist movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He opposed the creation of any organization based on racial exclusivity, including such projects as a black dormitory at the University of Chicago and Antioch College's Afro American Institute. As a result, Clark was attacked as a "moderate" at a time of black radicalism, in some instances receiving personal threats for his adamant rejection of racial separatism.

Continued Working for
Educational Equality

After his retirement from City College in 1975, Clark and his wife and children founded a consulting firm called Clark, Phipps, Clark & Harris, Inc., helping large corporations design and implement minority hiring programs. The firm flourished, attracting prestigious clients such as AT&T, Chemical Bank, and Consolidated Edison, and Clark remained active in the burgeoning field of minority concerns in the 1990s workplace.

Back in 1982, Clark admitted in the New Yorker that the educational outlook was poor for children of color. "Things are worse. In the schools …more black kids are being put on the dung heap every year." His wife, Mamie, was even more frank, stating: "More people are without hope now. … I really don't know what the answer is." Viewing this discouraging prospect eight years later, Clark admitted that even he was beginning to doubt the possibility of racial harmony through integration. "I look back and I shudder," he told the Washington Post, "and say, 'Oh God, you really were as naive as some people said you were.'"

With the commitment of U.S. president Bill Clinton's administration to equalize opportunities for all Americans, Clark continued to voice his outrage over the country's lack of educational progress–in academic, social, and psychological terms–but offered a mandate for change in the nineties. In a 1993 essay for Newsweek titled "Unfinished Business: The Toll of Psychic Violence," Clark commented: "We have not yet made education a process whereby students are taught to respect the inalienable dignity of other human beings. … [But] social sensitivity can be internalized as a genuine component of being educated. This is nonviolence in its truest sense. By encouraging and rewarding empathetic behavior in all of our children—both minority and majority youth—we will be protecting them from ignorance and cruelty. We will be helping them to understand the commonality of being human. We will be educating them."

Clark did not live to see his life's work fulfilled, however. The 2002 Harvard's Civil Rights Project "A Multiracial Society with Segregated Schools: Are We Losing the Dream?" described a resegregation of the nation's public schools, finding that while "the South remains the nation's most integrated region for both blacks and whites, it is the region that is most rapidly going backwards as the courts terminate many major and successful desegregation orders," according to the Antioch Review. Clark died in his home on May 1, 2005, at the age of 90. But his legacy lives on. New York journalist Woody Klein collected Clark's more than fifty years of work in Racial Identity in Context: The Legacy of Kenneth B. Clark. The collection provides behind-the-scenes stories of Clark's studies of black public school children that became the proof behind the Brown v. Board of Education case. Other scholarly works provide insight into Clark's contributions to American society and the field of psychology. He will be remembered as an unwavering voice against racism.

Selected writings

Prejudice and Your Child, Beacon Press, 1955, reprinted, University Press of New England, 1988.

(With Lawrence Plotkin) The Negro Student at Integrated Colleges, National Scholarship Service and Fund for Negro Students, 1963.

The Negro Protest: James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Talk with Kenneth B. Clark, Beacon Press, 1963, published as King, Malcolm, Baldwin: Three Interviews, University Press of New England, 1985.

Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power, Harper, 1965, reprinted, University Press of New England, 1989.

Social and Economic Implications of Integration in the Public Schools, U.S. Department of Labor, 1965.

(Editor with Talcott Parsons) The Negro American, Houghton, 1966.

(With Jeannette Hopkins) A Relevant War Against Poverty: A Study of Community Action Programs and Observable Change, Harper, 1969.

(With Harold Howe) Racism and American Education: A Dialogue and Agenda for Action, Harper, 1970.

(Editor with Meyer Weinberg) W. E. B. Du Bois: A Reader, Harper, 1970.

Pathos of Power, Harper, 1974.

Author, with wife, Mamie Phipps, of a series of articles on the effects of school segregation. Also author of numerous articles published in journals of psychology and sociology.



Clark, Kenneth B., Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power, Harper, 1965.

Clark, Kenneth B., Pathos of Power, Harper, 1974.

Keppel, Ben. The Work of Democracy: Ralph Bunche, Kenneth B. Clark, Lorraine Hansberry, and the Cultural Politics of Race, Harvard University Press, 1995.

Bowser, Benjamin P., and Louis Kushnick with Paul Grant, eds., Against the Odds: Scholars Who Challenged Racism in the Twentieth Century, University of Massachusetts, 2002.

Klein, Woody, ed., Toward Humanity and Justice: The Writings of Kenneth B. Clark. Scholar of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Decision, Praeger, 2004.

Philogene, Gina. Racial Identity in Context: The Legacy of Kenneth B. Clark, APA, 2004.


American Psychologist, January 2002.

Antioch Review, Spring 2004.

Commentary, November 1971.

New Yorker, August 23, 1982.

New York Times, May 2, 2005.

Newsweek, January 11, 1993.

Washington Post, March 4, 1990.

—Jonathan Martin and

Sara Pendergast

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