In 1951, when a group of thirteen parents first filed a class-action suit against the Topeka, Kansas Board of Education over the continuing use of racial segregation, it sparked a three-year legal battle culminating in the fateful Brown vs the Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954. By overturning the 1896 Plessy vs Ferguson decision, the Supreme Court established that the "Separate but Equal" provision permitting racial segregation in American schools represented a clear violation of the Fourteenth Amendment by perpetuating inferior education and treatment for children of African-American descent.
The plaintiffs of the case, under the direction of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), had attempted to enrol their twenty children in nearby schools in the Topeka area. When the enrolment was rejected with the children being referred to segregated schools (which, in many cases, involved children having to walk six blocks or more just to reach the necessary bus stop), the plaintiffs (headed by Oliver Brown) were urged to file an action protesting the discrimination. The resulting "Oliver Brown et al. v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas" trial represented a crucial test of the racial segregation policies that had polarized American society for decades. It also provided a reunion of sorts for two very different psychologists: Mamie Phipps Clark and Henry Garrett.
Born in 1917, Mamie Phipps' childhood in racially segregated Hot Spring, Arkansas exposed her to the often deficient primary and secondary education that was considered normal for African-Amerian children of that era. Since her father was a physician who had financed his own way through medical school and both of her parents were prominent members of the local African-American community, they instilled the value of hard work and dedication in their children. Mamie Phipps enrolled at Howard University in 1934 and, while she had originally planned to study physics and mathematics, changed her major to psychology at the suggestion of her future husband, Kenneth Bancroft Clark.
Along with her psychology studies, Mamie Phipps worked part-time in the psychology department as well as a summer internship with the office of prominent civil rights lawyer, William Houston. Her work in dealing with the various cases challenging existing segregation legislation left a profound impression on her. Enrolling as a psychology graduate student in 1938 (and marrying Kenneth Clark at about the same time), she began working with her then-husband on research examining racial difference in pre-school children. Her master's thesis, The Development of Consciousness of Self in Pre-School Negro Children, inspired her husband to work with her in submitting a joint research grant proposal to the Julius Rosenwald Foundation. The resulting grant would fund their joint research for three years and also made it possible for Mamie Clark to enter Colombia University to study for her doctorate.
While her husband continued gathering research data, Mamie Clark plunged into her graduate work and raising their first child. Despite being the only African-American student in the Colombia graduate psychology program at the time, she would later report it to be a satisfying experience and denied any real racial issues affecting her studies. It was at Colombia where she first met Henry Garrett and asked him to be her dissertation professor. As a prominent statistician, former president of the American Psychological Association, and Chair of Psychology at Colombia, having Garrett as a mentor seemed an obvious choice. The fact that the was also a eugenicist and a proponent of "race hygiene" did not appear to have any impact on his working relationship with her. Mamie Clark graduated with her doctorate in 1943 after completing her research on identity in black children.
Despite the meagre job opportunities available following her graduation, Mamie Clark and her husband established the Northside Center for Child Development in 1946. From its humble beginning in a Harlem basement apartment, the Center provided a homelike environment for minority children to help supplement the practically nonexistent community resources available at the time. Acting as director, Mamie Clark oversaw a range of services including remedial education, medical examinations, psychological counseling, and social work. Given the stigma surrounding psychological services at the time, providing assessment and counseling was especially problematic. Intelligence testing was particularly suspect given that minority children were being routinely assigned to the Class for Children of Retarded Mental Development (often with parental permission) based on their test results. Such placement typically marked children for life and they were rarely able to return to mainstream classes. As part of the Center's mandate, the Clarks often reevaluated the intelligence of the "retarded" children and found significant discrepancies in how minority children were being assessed.
The Clarks also continued to do groundbreaking research exploring consciousness of skin colour in children three to seven years of age. In one classic study, the Clarks provided children with colouring books, crayons, and a series of objects to draw. These objects also including a picture of a boy and a girl and the children were instructed to colour the children "the way you would like them to be". Although light-skinned children coloured the drawings of children appropriately, a significant portion of children with medium to darker brown skin coloured the pictures as either caucasian or in a bizarre colour choice such as blue or yellow. In reporting their results, the Clarks argued that the colour choice was "an indication of emotional anxiety and conflict in terms of their own skin . . . because they wanted to be white, they pretended to be". A similar study involving dolls with different colours of skin showed that over one-half of the study children showed a preference for the white doll and rejected the doll with a darker skin. When asked which doll they found to be ugly or pretty, the African American children frequently showed significant tense and evasive behaviour when questioned about their own racial identity and why they preferred the white doll.
Armed with these research findings, Kenneth Clark led a prestigious group of social scientists in preparing an expert witness brief on the detrimental effects of racial segregation. Titled, "The Effects of Segregation", the social science brief supplemented the legal brief presented by the NAACP's legal counsel and became one of the highpoints of the three-year Brown trial. Given the political resistance to desegregation, the Clarks and their research (particularly their "Doll Study") came under attack by conservatives. Most of the attacks were partisan in nature and southern politicans were especially outspoken about the use of psychological theories as a substitute for the legal process. That didn't stop them from fielding their own scientific experts however, most notably Mamie Clark's old mentor, Henry Garret.
After leaving Colombia in 1955 to teach at the University of Virginia, Garrett became well-known as a strong advocate of racial segregation. As a prominent academic whose scientific work was frequently cited by conservatives, he became well entrenched among Virginia's segregationists and was frequently courted by the conservative elements of the state legislature. Since desegregation was already becoming a hot issue, Garrett helped to bolster Senator Harry Byrd's Massive Resistance policy designed to prevent forced desegregation of schools. As a strong hereditarian, Garrett argued that segregated schooling was necessary given that minority children were typically inferior in intelligence to white children. He even went so far as to say that school desegregation would lead to "total demoralization and then disorganization in that order". His condemnation of what he termed "egalitarian bias" didn't sway the juror in his favour.
Even after the Brown decision was handed down in 1954, critics condemned the use of psychological research in shaping legal policy. One prominent legal scholar commented that the Brown decision was "caused by the testimony and opinion of scientists" and that civil rights legislation "should not rest on such flimsy foundation as some of the scientific demonstrations in these records". Prominent psychologists such as Bruno Bettleheim also weighed in on the issue and argued that there was no reliable evidence that racial segregation damaged the human personality. The Clarks' research findings continued to be debated in universities and laboratories with the frequently embattled Clarks often being forced to defend their research findings against partisan critics.
As for Henry Garrett, he continued to be active in supporting Massive Resistance legislation (which persisted well into the 1960s) as well as efforts to overturn the Brown decision. He became one of the prime movers for the International Association for the Advance of Ethnology and Eugenics, the Liberty Lobby, the Northern Front, and also acted as a director of the Pioneer Fund. Up until his death in 1973, he continued to rail against the rejection of biological theories of intelligence and often placed the blame on "Jewish" organizations for promoting "egalitarian dogma". The obvious racism of his views made him increasingly out of favour with other hereditarians although he is still widely cited in right-wing literature.
Both Mamie and Kenneth Clark continued with their research while Mamie Clark remained as director of the Northside Center until 1979. By the time of her death in 1983, Mamie Clark had become a civil rights icon and, along with her husband (who died in 2005) accrued numerous honours and awards. While basic problems with racial discrimination still persist today, Mamie and Kenneth Clark continue to be an inspiration and an example for future psychologists to follow.