Interviewer: Sam Pollard and Judy Richardson
Production Team: B
Interview Date: September 7, 1989
Camera Rolls: 2155-2157
Sound Rolls: 272
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Kenneth Clark, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on September 7, 1989, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
Dr. Clark, we're going back to 1968. Students have taken over the administration building. How did you hear about the students' take-over of the administration building?
I was on the board of directors of the university at the time, and I think I heard before our meeting but we certainly heard at the meeting 'cause that dominated the whole concern of the board of directors that the students had taken over and were doing a number of things in terms of seeking to obtain their objectives.
What were some of your concerns and reactions in the board meeting at the time? What were some of the discussions like?
Well the thing that I remember most was that some of us were very much concerned about preventing violence and keeping the conflict and confrontation to a minimum between the board and the students or the administration and the students and if the--I remember correctly, n- 1968 is a long way back, there were some few members of the board who were sort of hard liners and who wanted to, ah, make the students understand that, ah, they had no power or control, that the power and control was to be found in the board and not in the students. And they seemed as if they were going to dominate, but a few of us said, "Look we don't want to give any demonstration to who has power. We just want to prevent violence." We eventually got them to agree that a few of us would go and talk with the student leaders.
Now some of the people on the board who were more hard lined, I mean, I imagine they were hard line because some of the students demands were very strong. For example they wanted the resignation of president Nabrit.
I mean, and he had contributed a lot to, contributed a lot to the civil rights struggle. I mean, what was your reaction to the students demanding his resignation? President Nabrit's resignation? If you could use President Nabrit's name in your answer--
Well president Nabrit was out of the country at the time, and some of us were trying to get ah old of him and if I remember correctly had a difficult time finding him. Yes, I think there was no question that the student's wanted his resignation. To be quite honest with you, I don't know what their specific reasons were for wanting his resignation, but that was a very high level of concern for them.
What was your reaction to the students? I mean here's a man who'd been involved in the civil rights struggle for many years and who contributed a great deal. What was your reaction your personal reaction to this?
Well, I had worked with president Nabrit very closely during the Brown decision cases. You know he was one of the lawyers in fact he was the chief lawyer for the case involved the District of Columbia. And in the meetings that Thurgood had up here in New York, Nabrit was a very active participant. I felt close and friendly and had a high degree of respect for him and I certainly respected him during the period when he was president of the university. I don't know what happened in that latter part of his tenure when the students became negative toward him, and I must confess that I, if I were to say to you that I know what was happening at the time I would not be telling you the truth.
So did you think that the students had a valid reason? I mean--
I don't know. All I know is that I was primarily concerned with protecting the students and the university from chaos and violence. I can't tell you if they had valid--a valid series of objectives or not. I mean they were organized and they had taken over a couple of the buildings and they seemed quite persistent and insistent. And, ah, A few of us on the board felt that if we didn't establish some communication with them that things would get worse and worse and worse.**
Well one of the other concerns is that that they didn't feel Howard should have a strong commitment to the Black community, the larger Black community outside of Howard University. What was your reaction to that?
I have to repeat to you that my priority was getting the students out of danger.
I understand that
And I can not tell you that I have any remembrance of what their agenda was. I just can't tell you that. And ah, ah--
You don't remember any, you must have some sort of an opinion about some of these students demands.
You keep asking me that and I'm telling you that I was more concerned with preventing violence and preventing--
I don't disagree with you on that.
--and preventing the police from coming up on that campus and carting these students off to jail. I did not put priority on the issues that they were striking about. I really didn't. My priority was: how do we get these students, how do we keep them from being hurt? How do we keep the university from being hurt? How do we keep the hard liners on the board from demonstrating that they have power by bringing in the police you see?
At what point did you go up to see the students at night to talk to them, you know?
It was evening. At a point where we got the board to agree, and by we, I meant a few of us including the distinguished chemist Percy Julian, who fortunately was not a hard liner, 'cause he did have, the board had respect for Percy Julian, a few of us had the board agree that we should go and talk with the students and show them that there were ways of dealing with their issues other than through violence. If I remember correctly, maybe the majority of the board didn't think that we were going to succeed. And they said, "All right, go." But the I think they gave us about 24 hours or so to accomplish our mission and if we did not succeed then they would bring in the police.
That's great. Cut, that's very good.
No. No! That's just very good.
You know the person who you should talk with is Herb Reed. Herb Reed, and Frank Reeves is dead now, but they were in more direct communication with the students and have alliance with the students and they were friends of mine. You could talk with them. And they were the ones who arranged for us to go in.
But what your giving us is the sense of the board reaction which I think is very strong
There were some hardliners.
It was very important to get from you the fact that there was a certain group within the trustees who want to go over and want to try to get this thing worked out. You know, between the faculty and the administration.
No question about that.
Excuse me, sir.
Have you talked with Herb Reed?
Yeah. We did a phone interview with him as a matter of fact.
Oh good. Did he have a better memory than I? I'm sure he did.
Well it's a long time ago. No, I mean, a lot of us forget this stuff.
Dr. Clark, I know you don't remember the demands of the student?
Yes. Your quite right.
One of the demands was that they felt that Howard should have a strong commitment to the Black community.
Should have a what?
That Howard should have a strong commitment to the Black community outside of the campus. My question to you is, did you feel that Howard had already, were they doing that? Was the school doing that? Was the school involved in the community as far as you were concerned?
My personal feeling is I don't see how it would be possible for the school not to be related or involved or concerned with the Black community. The purpose of Howard University was to communicate and educate the students and the community and the nation. I remember as an undergraduate that I would listen to the lawyers of the law school talk about the legal approaches to obtaining racial justice. Well this to me was a commitment to the Black community and of course the whole Brown decision cases came out of Howard University's law school. I certainly learned a great deal about American injustices. The racial problems and an intelligent approach to try to deal with them from people like Ralph Bunche, Frank Frazier, and a group of good, solid, intelligent faculty people. To me this was commitment. I remember as a senior at Howard being arrested. It was a group of my classmates when we went down to the capital building and protested against their not permitting Blacks to eat in the restaurant there. Though Ralph Bunche and others on the faculty fought very hard to keep us from being expelled.
OK, we're going to take a break. Camera Roll out.
Dr. Clark, many of the students on the campus, I mean, I'm not sure if you remember this, but many of the students felt they that the school should have a curriculum that was more Black oriented. I mean, you were just talking about that you felt, you know, when you went to Howard that the school had a commitment, that you had went downtown and had been active and stuff like that. What would your reaction be to the students in '68 wanting to help have a more Black oriented curriculum? Didn't you think Howard already had that?
Well I certainly did. I had a great deal of respect for--
I have to ask you to include that Howard already had a curriculum that was oriented toward Black people.
They won't hear his questions--
I felt that Howard had a very strong commitment. And by Howard I mean faculty members of Howard, certainly those whom I respected and talked with had a strong commitment for racial justice. The commitment term I thought was a sort of a fashionable term when Howard was really being concerned with how do we use intelligence and law to remove the more flagrant and eventually, I suppose, subtle examples of racial injustice. And, ah, To me a university is a place where ideas are made to be dynamic and to be places where, universities, you have concern with basic human values. And my feeling was that Howard University could be a institution that would bring this dimension of primary concern for justice as an important part of higher education. And I felt that certainly my five or six years at the university, I felt this very strongly. I felt that the university was doing this. I also feel that the Black Power movement wanted something else. I don't know that I quite understood what they wanted the university to do in terms of Black Power demonstrations. It seemed to me that what went on in the seminars, in the classrooms, in the conferences, in the legal, the discussions of the law school, these were the kinds of things that a university could contribute.
So did you think that the students, I mean, that what they were doing was disrupt this kind of progress that had been happening at Howard for so many years?
Well I will tell you very honestly I felt that what the students were doing then was fashionable. And they were apparently, there was a great deal of enthusiasm about that approach. Now my feeling was, "Look, let's look at this approach. Let's see what the university could contribute. And what the university has contributed and what it could contribute even more so." But again this had nothing to do with my concern with not having violence. It had nothing to do with, if I disagreed with the students they still did not want the police coming in there using clubs and handcuffing them and taking them away. What I would prefer was for us to find some way of having a dialogue with the students and listening to what they wanted and letting them understand what the few of us felt the university should contribute and could contribute.
What did you think the takeover accomplished after it was over?
Frankly I don't know. I know what it prevented. I know what was prevented. If I remember correctly the students were not handcuffed and taken off to prison. What their objectives and goals were, I don't know whether they accomplished them or not. I really don't.
When you mediated with the students did you, did you really express strong where your concerns about them working out some solution so they could walk out of that administration building without having the police come in?
Our mediation with the students was concerned primarily with this problem of not having police come on that campus and take control and take students off to prison. I repeat, this was my primary concern.
And, ah, the attempt to get the students to understand that this was a very important priority concern. And really having to do with justice. And having to do with the role of the university. University is not a place in which difficulties and differences of opinion should be mediated by violence.
OK. Lets cut.
Dr. Clark I'm going to ask you again, what did you think would happen if the police came on campus? If you could be explicit about what you thought would happen to the students if police walked in the administration building and tried to take them out of it?
I think there would be--
I just need you to say--
I think that if the police had come on the campus during that period of controversy and confrontation, and with the students in control of the administration building, that it would be physical violence. It would be arrest, obviously. The student leaders would be taken off to jail. Maybe we would have to start all over again getting them out. You know. It was clear that this was not the thing to happen. and that the students had to understand that. Although some of them might have considered it more exciting if that happened. But for some of us on the board this would have been increasing the turbulence.
But for some others on the board wasn't it a way to show that, who was in control and who had power?
Oh, sure. In a way they might have had something positive on their side that you could--
I mean, if you could say--
The students, the board members who felt that no concessions whatsoever should be made to the students and the few board members who felt that we shouldn't even engage in communication with them or that the members of the board should not take the initiative in communicating with the students they believe that authority had to be demonstrated, and that one could not submit to the irrationalities of the students without regard to the consequences. Now I, that's to saying, too harshly. I'm sure that even the more hard line members of the board would not want to see any blood, but they certainly wouldn't mind seeing some of the students being arrested.
Was there a concern that since Howard has a very strong relationship with the federal government that that relationship might be threatened by the student takeover?
I don't recall anyone saying that. And certainly that was not anything that we could communicate to the students when we were talking with them.
You said earlier and the question before this is that Black power was fashionable at the time of the takeover.
Yes. Either it was fashionable or be--
Did you include Black Power?
Black power at, Black Power at that time was either quite fashionable among young people or was beginning to get fashionable and the students and the student leaders wanted to demonstrate that they were in tune with the ideology and the activities of the students at that time.
Do you feel the relevant? Do you feel it was relevant?
Did I feel that Black power was relevant?
Can we stop a second.
I didn't care about the ideology and the rhetoric-- I was concerned only with any damage to those students.
When you say violence, what did you think might happen? Cause I remember the police force, for example, in Washington then. As to oppose to what it is now. And what did you think would really have happened when they came on?
Well I would have imagined they would have these bludgeons--
Could you hold on that? That's what we need to hear.
But that was just my imagination.
But that's OK. It came from something. That was a real concern.
By the way I don't recall whether the Columbia University student violence occurred before.
It came after.
Columbia university came after?
So they were all imitating each other.
That's right. That's right.
So you could answer to Sam just so people understand why you were so concerned about police not coming on campus, what did you envision would happen if they came on campus?
I felt strongly that we should do everything within our power to keep police from coming into this conflict or coming on campus because I had images of police using their nightsticks and their bludgeons and worse really.** Now this may have been just my imagination but this was my imagination. I just did not want to be on a board or to be associated with the university in which students were being bludgeoned. That's what I was saying to my colleagues on the board. And this was the main point that I was communicating to the students and the student leaders.
You had said earlier that we put Black Power as fashionable. Did you find it relevant in terms of the students needs on the campus?
I wasn't involved in any discussion of the ideology or the rhetoric of Black Power of putting Blackness as a major issue in terms of the responsibilities and goals of the university. As far as I was concerned a university was a place where you considered all kinds of problems and conflicts and sought to have intelligent and rational discussions. At that time if I remember correctly Black Power was a marching slogan. I don't recall anything about that slogan that was leading to a increase in justice and decency in racial, ah, racial justice I guess. To be quite honest with you, I was not particularly popular with some of the Black Power advocates at the time because I thought that it was really the negative side of White supremacy. And I had, no, I thought White supremacy was sort of stupid. And I think that Black Power rhetoric was not particularly rational or intelligent either.
Lets cut. That's it
Let me just add one other thing. I know you weren't communicating at the students the concern that you might have had about, even though you didn't communicate to the students, did you yourself have a concern about perhaps the federal government lowering there appropriations to the university because of what happening?
I couldn't have cared less.
It never occurred to me that, anytime an issue that's always brought up before the board. Don't forget I was young then.
OK. Do you think others on the board, I mean was that discussed, though?
I guess it was. To me the problems that the university faced--