In 1950 Clark prepared the report "Effect of Prejudice and Discrimination on Personality Development" for the Mid-Century White House Conference on Children and Youth, summarizing his and his wife's work, and reviewing available literature from other researchers on the psychological effects of segregation. The material became the basis for his first book, Prejudice and Your Child. The Clarks were soon recognized as experts in the field, and were called upon by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund to testify in several court cases challenging segregation in public schools.
Clark and others prepared a paper titled "The Effects of Segregation and the Consequences of Desegregation: A social science statement," used by NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall in 1954 in his arguments before the Supreme Court in the consolidated desegregation cases collectively known as Brown v. Board of Education. Marshall's strategy was to prove to the court that actual harm was being done to schoolchildren who were subjected to legal segregation. The court cited Clark's study as the "modern scientific authority" and concluded that segregation "generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect the children's hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone." It was a decision that changed the lives of African-American students for generations, and propelled Clark into a wider community of influence.
Clark was appointed by the Kennedy administration to head the Harlem Youth Opportunities project, a forerunner of the War on Poverty program. His planning document, "Youth in the Ghetto: A Study of the Consequences of Powerlessness and a Blueprint for Change," received national press attention. But political complications in funding that usurped control of the project led Clark to resign in disappointment. His two years of work on the project, however, also led to his 1965 book, Dark Ghetto, which Clark called "a study of the total phenomena of the ghetto."
In 1966 Clark served as the only black member of the New York State Education Department Board of Regents, where he continued as a member until 1986, working to assure equal educational opportunities for all children. He was founder and president of the Metropolitan Applied Research Center, an organization that served as an "advocate for the poor and powerless in American cities."
Clark was a prominent activist in the Civil Rights movement and helped to bring Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in 1967. Many in the leadership of the APA strongly opposed the idea, but equivocation on issues of racial equality were not long to be tolerated. In 1970 Clark was elected President of the Association, and during his year tenure he helped to move the APA toward more social relevance in every facet of its work. At the December 1970 meeting of the Board of Directors, Clark urged the members to give highest priority to determining "ways in which psychologists and psychology can integrate the imperative for social responsibility as a dominant theme of this science and profession." His concerns led to the creation of the Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology, the forerunner of the Board for The Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest.
Clark has received numerous awards, including the APA Gold Medal Award, The Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedom Award, the NAACP Spingarn Medal, and honorary degrees from nine colleges and universities, including a 2004 honorary degree from Earlham College awarded to both Phipps-Clark and Clark to mark the 50th anniversary of their "historic contributions to the cause of equal rights for all Americans."
In April 2000, The Kenneth B. Clark Center, dedicated to "using social research to help poor communities share in the benefits of the new information economy," opened at the University of Illinois, Chicago. At the opening celebration, John Hagedorn, Associate Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice, read Clark's challenging words that illustrate the passion and ethical commitment that have been the touchstones of his life.
It is argued that detachment and objectivity are required for the discovery of truth. But what is the value of a soulless truth? Does not truth require meaning? And does not meaning require a context of values? Is there any meaning or relevant truth without commitment? How is it possible to study a slum objectively? What kind of human being can remain detached as he watches the dehumanization of other human beings? Why should one want to study a sick child except to make him well?
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