Tag Archives: Kenneth Clark

On Martin Luther King And Barack Obama

I was born in 1930 in a Jewish ghetto in the south Bronx of New York City at a time when people clustered in ethnic, racial and religious enclaves to be with those like themselves. I missed being born in Harlem by six months because my folks moved to the Bronx and Harlem has always been on my mind and was the first place I taught school. The Negro was not part of my daily life. My “enemy” was the Irish who lived in the next ghetto area and, to a lesser degree, I disliked German Jews who were economically above we east European poor people. The first “different”person in my class was Joseph Jelik who was a Christian and a stranger to my way of life but since he sat next to me we became friends.

I entered the United States army in 1951 during the Korean War and due to lost orders I wound up in Germany at the headquarters of the US 7th Army. One day, a friend asked me what the word “integration” meant since he assumed my two years of college made me smart. Anyway, five of us took on the responsibility of developing a plan to integrate the US 7th Army. I was a 21 year old with two years of college and didn’t have clue about what to do, but we worked out a plan. This was my introduction to integration. Our plan was flawed in many ways, but eventually the 7th Army became integrated.

I returned to CCNY and found myself in the class of Dr. Kenneth Clark in May, 1954. Professor Clark wrote the psychological brief for the Brown vs Board of Education case. I recall the day the Supreme Court rendered its decision saying that segregation was unconstitutional. We waited until Dr. Clark entered and we were crying and applauding this wonderful man for the work he did. That day, he talked about integration and made predictions. He was a brilliant teacher and deeply impacted me.

My first teaching job was at James Fenimore Jr. HS in Harlem and I wound up teaching the 8th grade class for students who were behavior problems. We remained with one another all day to keep them away from other students. From them, I got an entry into the lives of Harlem children and the gangs and drugs which were just entering. Please read Claude Brown’s “Manchild In the Promised Land” which depicts my students all too well.

I was a high school teacher when Martin Luther King came on the scene. I also became fascinated with Malcolm X and went to hear him speak in person. I greatly admired both men. I got my high school students on Long Island interested in their ideas and was proud that some of my students went to Harlem to participate in rent strikes. I left high school teaching and went to teach at Webster College in St. Louis. The death of King and Kennedy impacted me and I wanted to do something. I set up the first program for returning Vietnam war veterans to train them to become teachers– Veterans Accelerated Urban Learning for Teaching(VAULT) and I went to Ft Leonard Wood and insisted one third had to be Negro. When education people at the base would not help me, I went into bars, barracks and even a few other places asking the question–”Would you like to go to college?” I recruited 35 men who had fought in Vietnam and they were integrated in the program as they were in battle. Oh, I insisted the program be led by a Negro.

My life has witnessed a voyage from a mental and physical ghetto to work with people of all backgrounds. I worked extensively with teachers in urban areas because I wanted to be with kids of my own background. I have watched America change. Oh, it is not a perfect change, but it is certainly light years away from my childhood in a segregated ghetto. America is a flawed nation which, like all others, carries the sins of the past which are still alive in the minds of the present. We can not undo what happened, but we can create a new world in which we are truly integrated. My children are Polish, Russian, Irish, Catholic, Jewish, Protestant and my third wife is one-fourth Cherokee. I live with the world in my home at a family gathering.

Martin Luther King built on the work and efforts of so many others– A. Philip Randolph, Thurgood Marshall, Paul Robeson, (my boyhood hero) Walter White, Frederick Douglass, Martin Delany, and thousands of other men and women of all races and backgrounds who believed in the American dream of a nation containing the wretched of the earth. I remember the CIO labor leaders who established the first integrated schools in the South in order to train Negro union leaders and how the song, “We Shall Overcome” came from the union movement before it became the battle cry of the Civil Rights movement.

This week not only marks the birthday of Martin Luther King and the inauguration of Barack Obama but it is the 100 anniversary of the birth of the NAACP. The NAACP was founded by blacks and whites. One hundred years later their dream of ending segregation has taken one more step forward. We have not reached the end of the road, but we sure are no longer at the beginning. I know everyone wants to celebrate Obama today, but, in my mind, the names of so many will be present who fought the good fight to end segregation.

Those of us who were born in the segregated world can now sigh a breath of relief that our world is dead. There is still segregation and prejudice, but it no longer is sanctioned by government. A new world begins today.

Obama Nomination– An Historic Moment In History

In May, 1954, I was a student in the class of Dr. Kenneth Clark, among the first Negro professors at CCNY, and the author of the NAACP psychological brief in the case of Brown vs Board of Education. We had class the day when the US Supreme Court declared segregation to be unconstitutional. As Dr. Clark entered the class, we rose, some crying, all joyous, and showed him our deep admiration for his work. That day, he talked with us about the future. Among the main points he made was it would take about fifty years before the real impact of segregation was over. I wish he was alive today to see the results of his work for human rights and social justice.

There are those who will shrug off the impact of the Obama nomination and point out examples of prejudice in American society. There are those whose heads are always turned backward and can never see changes that occur literally every day in this nation. So many fought the good fight for confronting racism, individuals like A. Philip Randolph, Paul Robeson, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Jackie Robinson, and the thousands of black, Asian, and whites who fought to create conditions under which an African American could be nominated for the presidency of this nation.

I was fortunate to be raised in among the most liberal congressional districts in America where many of us connected prejudice in America toward black skinned people to the prejudice our parents had experienced in Poland and Russia. My mother attended an elementary school where Jewish children sat in the back of the room. My uneducated parents were not fighters for social justice, but they did not use expressions or talk about other people in derogatory ways. In the army, I stumbled one day into the task of working on the desegregation plan of the US Seventh Army in Germany. I was a 21 year old boy with no knowledge of how to end discrimination and my friends and I some how learned to make fewer mistakes as we went about the task of ending segregation. In the end, segregation ended, and even some of the southern born sergeants accepted their new Negro fellow sergeants. The experience taught me Americans would undertake change and accept it.

My first teaching job was at an all black boys junior high school in Harlem where I was assigned to teach the 8th grade discipline problem boys. I discovered they were street bright but easily grew bored and restless unless I could make lessons interesting. I found little evidence parents did not care because literally every parent I contacted gave me complete cooperation. It never entered my mind, these boys were “different” or unable to learn. They were street kids like myself.

In the 1960s, I initiated the first college education program for Vietnam war veterans that trained those returning from combat to become teachers. I insisted one-third of those in the program must be Negroes. We were rather successful. The experience taught me that whites and blacks who had fought together could work together in civilian life and myths of about IQ scores made scant sense when one was dealing with a young Negro soldier who had risked his life for America. The entrance exam consisted of one question: “Do you want to go to college?” Of the 25 we accepted, 15 got their degrees.

I admired the work of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X but, frankly, felt emotionally closer to Malcolm X than to King. The death of these two outstanding leaders definitely hurt the cause of ending prejudice. I have never felt the fight for equality was only about the rights of black people because anyone living in this nation impacts the lives of all living in America. If a black child lives in a segregated world, I, also live in one. If a black child is denied equal rights, I also am denied equal rights.

Many will point to the tasks undone, I believe to deal with the tasks undone, one must understand the tasks that have been done. Obama’s nomination means never again will a black or Asian or Hispanic candidate have to deal with the whispers and subtle ways in which people have relied on racism to fight his nomination. That tactic will not work the second time around.

The good fight has a thousand ancestors whose names are too numerous to be listed. As Dr. Kenneth Clark told us that day in May, 1954, it will be a long, difficult road, but it is the only road we can use if hatred and bigotry and prejudice is to end in this nation. I am so glad to be alive in this historic moment. I only wish people like Dr. Kenneth Clark who fought so hard and long could also be with us in this moment in history.