The writings of Richard Kluger
THE ATLANTIC COAST LINE Railroad in those days ran half a dozen trains daily out of New York that stopped at Charleston, South Carolina. The only convenient one, though, for the three black men who boarded it together on Wednesday, May 23, 1951, was the Palmetto, the overnighter that left Pennsylvania Station at 1:30 in the afternoon and was due at the City Market station in Charleston at 8:00 the next morning.
The top two attorneys for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Thurgood Marshall and Robert Carter, would have flown to Charleston, but their traveling companion did not relish the prospect. “Thurgood and Bob tried to convince me,” recalls Kenneth B. Clark, a slender, fastidious man of high though carefully controlled intensity, “but I just wasn’t flying in those days. I told them to go on ahead, but they said no, we’d all go down by train. It turned out to be a fascinating trip.”
It also turned out to be the pivotal moment of Kenneth Clark’s career. A thirty‑seven‑year‑old social psychologist who was then an assistant professor at City College of New York, Clark would become the best‑known and most highly regarded black social scientist in the nation, the first black full professor at City College, a militant member of the New York Board of Regents that oversees public education throughout the state, and the author of many works, Dark Ghetto the best known of them, that would become assigned reading in sociology, anthropology, and black studies courses at almost every American university. But on that spring afternoon in 1951, Ken Clark was not yet any of those things, and Thurgood Marshall was plainly taking a chance on him.
If he was apprehensive to start with, Marshall was not entirely put at ease by the box that Clark lugged onto the train with him and stowed out of the way in the overhead rack. The box contained the tools of Clark’s particular trade: dolls. There were four of them, each about a foot high and sexually neuter. Dressed only in diapers, they were identical except for one thing: two of them were pink and two of them were brown. They had cost fifty cents each at a five‑and‑ten on 125th Street, where Clark had bought them himself. He and his wife, Mamie, who was also a psychologist, had used the dolls for several years in developing a series of projective tests that disclosed how early in life black children came to understand that success, security, beauty, and status all wear a white skin in America. The effect of that realization on the self images of the colored youngsters tested was profound, the Clarks had discovered. It was just such findings in clinical psychology that the Legal Defense Fund needed as it prepared for the rescheduled trial of Briggs v. Elliott, directed now at overturning segregation itself and not merely winning equal schools for the black children of Clarendon County.
“I told the staff that we had to try this case just like any other one in which you would try to prove damages to your client,” recounts Thurgood Marshall. “If your car ran over my client, you’d have to pay up, and my function as an attorney would be to put experts on the stand to testify to how much damage was done. We needed exactly that kind of evidence in the school cases. When Bob Carter came to me with Ken Clark’s doll test, I thought it was a promising way of showing injury to these segregated youngsters. I wanted this kind of evidence on the record.”
Carter, who had done graduate work in law at Columbia, had gone first to an established star in the field of race studies – Columbia’s Otto Klineberg, whose work debunking the “selective migration” theory of performance on intelligence tests by northern Negroes was well known to the NAACP lawyer. Advised that the NAACP’s case would rest on the theory that school segregation itself contributed heavily to the psychic damage of black children, Klineberg directed Carter to the young black psychologist who had earned his doctorate at Columbia. It was Kenneth Clark’s specialty. And his life….
…To pinpoint the nature and development of the damage that racism caused, the Clarks worked out a pair of test techniques. One was the doll test. There was nothing very subtle about it. They showed black children in the three‑to‑seven‑ year‑old range four identical dolls, two of them brown and two white, and to test the children’s awareness of their negritude, asked them to (1) “give me the white doll,” (2) “give me the colored doll,” and (3) “give me the Negro doll.” Three‑quarters of the children correctly identified the dolls. Then came the emotionally loaded questions. The children were told: (1) “Give me the doll you like to play with” or “the doll you like best,” (2) “Give me the doll that is the nice doll,” (3) “Give me the doll that looks bad,” and (4) “Give me the doll that is a nice color.” The majority of the Negro children tested – in such varying communities as Philadelphia; Boston; Worcester, Massachusetts; and several cities in Arkansas – indicated “an unmistakable preference for the white doll and a rejection of the brown doll.” That was true even of the three‑year‑olds.
In addition to the doll test, the Clarks worked with a coloring test that produced equally disturbing findings. The subject child was given a piece of paper with outline drawings of a leaf, an apple, an orange, a mouse, a girl, and a boy on it and a box of twenty‑four colored crayons that included black, brown, white, yellow, pink, and tan. If the child correctly colored the leaf, apple, orange, and mouse, he or she was asked to color in the two children. If the child was a boy, he was told, “See this little boy? Let’s make believe he is you. Color this little boy the color that you are.” After he was done, the boy would be told, “Now, this is a little girl. Color her the color you like little girls to be.” The Negro children with very light skin pigment tended to color the drawings white and yellow. But 15 percent of the children with medium brown skin and 14 percent of the dark‑brown children also colored the figures of themselves with white or yellow crayon or an outlandish color such as red or green. When asked to add the colors they preferred in members of the opposite sex, 52 percent of the children crayoned the drawings white or in a bizarre or apparently irrelevant color.
“We were really disturbed by our findings,” Kenneth Clark recalls, “and we sat on them for a number of years. What was surprising was the degree to which the children suffered from self‑rejection, with its truncating effect on their personalities, and the earliness of the corrosive awareness of color. I don’t think we had quite realized the extent of the cruelty of racism and how hard it hit.” The interviewing and testing proved a moving and shaping experience for Clark. “Some of these children, particularly in the North, were reduced to crying when presented with the dolls and asked to identify with them. They looked at me as if I were the devil for putting them in this predicament. Let me tell you, it was a traumatic experience for me as well….”
…In Washington, the dining car was put on the train. Almost every black man working on it knew Thurgood Marshall. His father had worked the trains as a waiter for many years before landing his job at the Gibson Island Club, and young Thurgood had come to know the men and the work. To help pay his way through college, the then lanky Thurgood took summer jobs in the dining cars of the Baltimore & Ohio. The pants they gave him when he first reported for work ended midway up his shins. He complained of the poor fit to the head steward. “Boy,” said the steward, “we can get a man to fit the pants a lot easier than we can get pants to fit the man. Why don’t you just kind of scroonch down in ‘em a little more?” Added Marshall, telling the story long after: “I scroonched.”
Over dinner, Marshall and Carter pointed out to Kenneth Clark that, thanks to the Henderson decision of the previous June, they and any other Negroes on interstate trips no longer had to eat at tables curtained off at the end of the dining car. “We joked a lot on that ride,” Clark remembers, “but it’s a mistake to think of Thurgood as a comedian. He had this unique capacity to deal with profoundly serious matters and then alleviate the mood with a remark that cut to the human predicament at the core of the problem.” A black lawyer who worked with him for many years cites an example of just such a quip. The legal talk had become very heavy one afternoon and the others around the table were feeling stymied when Marshall fell back and said, “I wonder if a colored man can claim denial of equal protection if he’s turned down by a white prostitute.” Such a musing served as a kind of emotional thermostat and prevented NAACP skull sessions from becoming deadended. It also said something serious about both race and sexual relations in America.
After dinner, the train pulled into Richmond, where Marshall’s group was joined by a blade‑thin young Negro of a color lighter than any of them. His ascetic looks and soft‑spoken manner suggested that he was more scholar than advocate, and there were those who said even then that Spottswood W. Robinson III, the NAACP’s thirty‑four‑year‑old lawman in Virginia, would someday make an outstanding law‑school dean or federal judge. In time, he would become both.
Robinson shared a compartment with Carter, and Thurgood Marshall and Kenneth Clark retired for the evening to a nearby room. “For the first time,” says Clark, “I saw the battle fatigue in Thurgood. I had known him on and off for ten years, and till then I had always thought he was inexhaustible and that he would just naturally keep on fighting. But he said to me then, ‘You know, Kenneth, sometimes I get awfully tired of trying to save the white man’s soul.’ I said something innocuous back, like, ‘You have no choice.’ And he said, ‘I’m not so sure.’ He was resolved, of course, to see the segregation case through – ‘and then I’ve got to rest,’ he said. I sensed the complexity of the man for the first time then.”
“No one else could have survived,” says a former member of the Legal Defense Fund staff in tribute to Marshall’s generalship. It was not only the physical burden of the work, of course, but its psychological demands as well. Marshall was a man on a mental tightrope. “I think he had an awful lot of veiled hostility toward whites, but he kept it under control,” adds his ex‑associate. “He never lost track of where he was, once he set foot inside a courthouse. I remember one time when the head clerk of the Supreme Court the United States brought in sandwiches for the white attorneys during the lunch break in a case Thurgood was arguing. We looked in through the door and saw the white tablecloth being spread out, we saw that nice linen, and then we had to pile into cabs and go over to ‘The Indian Reservation’ to eat – that was what we called the black part of town. We were angry and hurt, but there was nothing to do but shrug it off.”
That ability to absorb such psychological punishment kept Thurgood Marshall in one piece. “I ride in the for‑colored‑only cabs and in the back of the street‑cars – quiet as a mouse,” he told interviewers. “I eat in Negro cafés and don’t use white washrooms. I don’t challenge the customs personally because I figure I’m down South representing a client – the NAACP – and not myself.” Since his client was paying him a less than princely annual salary in 1951 of $8,748.30 for his extraordinarily taxing labors, it is not unreasonable to surmise that Thurgood Marshall had come to think of the NAACP cause as identical with his own. And the way he best served both was not to strive for premature martyrdom….
…Their first stop was the office of the superintendent of schools for School District No. 22, H. B. Betchman, whom local blacks viewed as the mean‑talking henchman of the white‑supremacist power structure in the area. “Betchman started being palsy‑walsy with me,” Clark recalls, “talking about our having something in common because he’d spent a summer session studying at Columbia, and then remarking that we both knew that the little black fellas around there couldn’t compete with the whites. On the way out the door, he pointed out some loose masonry to me, as if to show that the white school wasn’t in any better shape than the colored one. Then suddenly, and right in front of me, in a tone totally different from the sort of man‑to‑man one he’d been using with me, he turns to [local NAACP leader] Gene and says, ‘Montgomery, didn’t I tell you I didn’t want to see you around here any more in this county? I’d hate to have to get my boys to do something to you.’ It was the first time I had even heard anyone threaten another person like that, so openly and matter‑of‑factly. I thought that he must be joking, it was so unreal. In fact, if he’d pulled a gun out and shot Gene on the spot, my reaction probably would have been, ‘Now what a dumb thing that was to do.’ When we got back to the car to drive over to the Scott’s Branch school, I asked Gene if Betchman had been kidding. ‘Hell, no,’ he said, `he’s threatened me a lot of times.’”
At Scott’s Branch, the combination Negro elementary and high school just beyond the railroad tracks and the Summerton town line where the DeLaine and Briggs families lived, the colored children had been prepared for Clark’s visit. Thurgood Marshall had telephoned down to Harold Boulware, the able and strong‑willed black attorney in Columbia who had been the local legal operative in the Briggs case from the start, and told him about Clark and his doll tests. He added, “He’s also the smartest damned man I know.” Boulware passed the word to Montgomery, who then made the testing arrangements with the local black school people under the order by Judge Waring of the United States District Court. Sixteen children had been arbitrarily selected from the classroom rosters and stood by now as the light‑brown professor from faraway New York arrived with his dolls. “When I got through testing the first youngster,” Clark recounts, “I heard some light commotion down the hall. I looked out of the classroom and here came two big Negroes in overalls leading a little six‑ or seven‑year‑old child between them to my door. They told me they had been assigned the responsibility to make sure that nobody and nothing interfered with the testing. I said, ‘You mean you’re my bodyguards?’ and they said that was right. A little later, Betchman came by and stuck his head in the door to say something – I think maybe it was his idea of a pleasantry – and the fact is that I did feel a whole lot better knowing those two fellows were right outside the door there.”
Of the sixteen black children between six and nine years old whom Clark tested, ten said they preferred the white doll to the Negro one. Eleven of them said the Negro doll was the one that looked “bad.” Nine of them said the white doll was the “nice” one. All sixteen correctly identified the white one as white and the colored one as colored, yet seven of the sixteen children picked the white doll when asked to select the one most like themselves. All these responses matched almost precisely the ratios that Clark and his wife had obtained in their tests over the years. Here, too, there were moments of anguish as there always were when he administered the tests. Clark asked one dark‑brown girl of seven – “so dark brown that she was almost black” – to take the coloring test that he generally gave along with the doll test. “When she was asked to color herself,” Clark would testify in court the following week, “she was one of the few children who picked a flesh color, pink, to color herself. When asked to color a little boy the color she liked little boys to be, she looked all around the twenty‑four crayons and picked up a white crayon and looked up at me with a shy smile and began to color. She said, ‘This doesn’t show.’ So she pressed a little harder . . . in order to get the white crayon to show.”
Clark did not complete his testing the first afternoon and had to come back the next day. “The fact that our side was playing for keeps really sank in to me after the tests were over that first day. I figured that I’d be sleeping right there in Summerton, but Montgomery said, ‘No, sir, my instructions are to take you to Sumterfor the evening’ – that was about twenty‑five miles away in the next county. I finally realized that nobody was joking in all this.”
©2017 Richard Kluger