Robert Dentler’s Trial by Fire: The Magowan Lawsuit

        Dr.Robert Dentler recalls in his autobiography The Looking Glass Self that when he agreed to work on desegregating The White Plains Public School system in 1964, Dr.Kenneth Clark, who had performed the famous doll test that was instrumental in convincing the Supreme Court to rule against segregation in public education in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision,  warned him that he would end up working on desegregation for the rest of his career to the exclusion of all other sociological endeavors. He was correct. The integration of The White Plains Public Schools served as a trial by fire for Dr.Dentler due to a 60 million dollar lawsuit brought against him, his employer Columbia University and The White Plains Public School District by Malcolm and Claire Cathleen Magowan. The Magowans were angry that White Plains Schools’ Superintendent Carroll F.Johnson had allowed Dr.Dentler and his associates to give their 11 year old daughter Claire and her classmates  a Racial Attitudes Test without their permission.

Superintendent Carroll F.Johnson declared  the integration of The White Plains Schools a success in 1968[1] and credited Robert Dentler and his team from The Center for Urban Studies for helping to make the transition smoothly. The Magowan’s lawsuit proved to be a trial by fire for both men. The conservative John Birch Society funded the lawsuit, which allowed it to drag on for three years. Dentler was prevented from using his racial attitudes test, a tool that would have provided valuable insight into how integration impacted the attitudes of students in The White Plains Public Schools.

According to his biography, The Looking Glass Self, Dentler took a position as Professor of Sociology at Columbia University in New York because it paid $2400 more per year than his position at Dartmouth college did[2]. His associate at Columbia, Dr.Bernard Mackler, believes that Robert Dentler needed to be in New York City because he had a passion for improving Urban Education. “Robert was born and raised in Chicago, he and I met at The University of Kansas where he was getting his Doctorate in Sociology. Robert hated Kansas. He needed to be in the city. Dartmouth was too isolated for him.”

Dentler founded The Center for Urban Studies which later became known as The Center for Urban Education (CUE). The primary focus of Dentler’s work for CUE  would be the desegregation of urban school districts. He worked for New York State Education Secretary Dr.James Allen’s taskforce to advice how to desegregate The New York City Public Schools. Dr.Kenneth Clark also served on the taskforce. Although their recommendations were not implemented Dentler was recommended by Dr.Allen to Carroll F.Johnson the Superintendent of The White Plains Public Schools, who was determined to integrate his school system.[3] 

Johnson and Dentler were like minded when it came to the issue of school integration. Johnson was born in Georgia and had witnessed first hand how segregated schools resulted in inferior education for minority students. Both Dentler and Johnson felt that it was high time to honor the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education deciscion which by 1964 was a decade old.

Dr.Dentler believed that a racial attitudes survey test was an important desegregation tool. Studies had shown that children ages 6-12 had not internalized racial prejudices of their own but did reflect attitudes learned at home. Dentler gave his own children Deborah and Eric the test. Deborah Dentler recalls feeling guilty for saying that she would not want Hungarians for neighbors because they were Communists. The question had listed ethnic groups and asked if there were any that you wouldn’t want for a neighbor. The plan was to track student answers to test questions for a five year period. The goal was to develop quantifiable data that could demonstrate the positive impact of school integration on racial attitudes of the students who were integrated.[4] One of the more alarming statistics from the data Dentler had already collected was that segregated Black and Latino students had more negative views of themselves than the white students who were surveyed did. These results, for students in the metropolitan New York area, were for students in predominantly Black and Latino schools ten years after the Brown Decision. Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark doll tests had found similar results and helped to sway the Warren Court to issue their ruling against segregated public education in 1954 .

On June 15,1964 Dr.Dentler and his associates from CUE gave the Racial Attitudes Test to a group of 6th graders at The Post Road School in White Plains. Young Claire Cathleen Magowan told her parents about it after school. That same evening there was a PTA meeting which Dr.Dentler attended to explain the tests. The Magowans and some other parents were very upset that the tests had been given without their knowledge or consent. Concerns about how the information gathered from the tests would be used were expressed. Dentler insisted that confidentiality would be maintained but that the tests would continue. One parent was so upset that she fainted and had to be carried out on a stretcher.[5] 

Parents later explained to reporter Mary Flynn that they were bothered by the questions on the test.[6] :

Given a Negro, a Russian, a German, a Japanese and an Irishman, Who would you like as a friend? Who would you like to have in your club? Who would you have over for dinner?

Given a Negro boy and girl and a white boy and girl, who would you sit next to on the bus?  Which one gets into trouble? Which one concentrates on Math? Which one would you play with? Which one wouldn’t you like as a friend?

Agree or Disagree

Negro children are dumber than white children.

Negro boys use more bad words than white boys.

Negro children are as smart as white children.

The parents were upset by their childrens’ reactions. Some kids felt the questions were not very nice. One child said he knew the test was about the busing. One child told his mother that one question had a picture of “two Negro kids and two regular kids.”

         

The White Plains chapter of the  NAACP was opposed to Dr.Dentler’s Racial Attitudes Test. In a newspaper article listed as exhibit 13 in the Magowan v Johnson, Dentler, White Plains Board of Education case states that they asked  school superintendent Dr.Caroll Johnson to destroy the tests and not use them in the future. Albert Corum, President of the NAACP Chapter for White Plains, stated that their request to see Dentler’s test was rejected. The NAACP issued this statement regarding the Racial Attitudes Test

 “ The thoughts of citizens, whatever they may be, must remain inviolate… certain questions posed to young children tended to raise doubts and give the impression of seeds of truth and formed an atmosphere of prejudice in minds that had not been conscious formerly of false stereotypes.”

Superintendent Johnson decided that the tests had to be destroyed. A Notary was hired to watch Robert Dentler burn each test on July 3, 1964. Dentler lamented the loss of valuable information. He tried to look over the tests but there was not enough time. The Magowans were not satisfied. They demanded to see the original test. Dentler refused. In May 1965 The Magowans sued him and The White Plains Public School System for 60 million dollars claiming that Dentler had planned to profit from the tests, that the tests were given without permission and violated their young daughter’s Constitutional rights.

Malcolm and Claire Magowan were not happy with Johnson’s decision to destroy the tests. They still wanted to see what the actual test looked like. Dentler notes in his autobiography that his old enemy The John Birch Society paid for the Magowan’s lawsuit. “Turning over the test would be tantamount to publishing an upcoming exam in the school newspaper,” he explained.[7]

Providing legal support for the Magowan’s lawsuit fit neatly into The John Birch Society’s playbook. This secret group of far right anti-Communists was created in 1958 by a Massachusetts candy manufacturer named Robert Welch. Renowned conservative William F.Buckley Jr. described the organization for Commentary Magazine:

Welch refused to divulge the size of the society's membership, though he suggested it was as high as 100,000 and could reach a million. His method of organization caused general alarm. The society comprised a series of cells, no more than 20 people per cell. It was said that its members were directed to run in secret for local offices and to harass school boards and librarians on the matter of the Communist nature of the textbooks and other materials they used.[8]

Certainly Dentler’s Racial Attitudes Test qualified as “other materials”.

        The case dragged on for three years. The Magowans lost their first lawsuit but the judge allowed them to have it retried. As they waited for their case to be heard by The New York Supreme Court, Claire Magowan was quoted in The Amsterdam Recorder Sept.16, 1967:

 "All we wanted to find out was who gave the test, and we still can't. They keep saying,'Trust us. We know what's best for your child.' We will find out who gave that test if we have to go all the way to the Supreme Court. They just won't talk to us. that is all. It is sad when you have to hire an attorney to talk to the superintendent of schools. We've gone through all the channels. It costs a lot of money to protest. But we will see it through, regardless of what it costs." Justice Joseph P. Hawkins presided over the Magowan’s appeal. He was sympathetic to them. Quoted in the same article for The New Amsterdam Record as Mrs.Magowan he “chided the defendants for their ‘patronizing’ approach.”[9] 

According to Dentler’s autobiography, Hawkins initially ruled in The Magowan’s favor. Dentler’s  lawyers found out that the clerk who drafted the decision, was a friend and neighbor of the Magowans. The judge ruled for the defendants. They would not be liable for the 60 million dollars demanded by the plaintiffs.

        Superintendent Johnson noted in an article he wrote about The  White Plains Public School’s Integration success that there was a small group of vocal parents who strongly opposed integration. They complained that resources that could have been allocated elsewhere were being drained by the cost of busing Negro students throughout the White Plains School District.

        The idea that the Civil Rights Movement was a Communist Conspiracy was  a fundamental tenant of the John Birch Society during the 1960’s. The year the Magowan’s filed their lawsuit, The John Birch Society set up an office in White Plains and claimed to have doubled their membership in the New York suburbs[10]. In his opposition to the plaintiffs motion to dismiss the case dated 12/27/1968, The Magowan’s attorney  Robert A. Clark asserted that there were links between Dr.Dentler’s testing plan in White Plains and Communism. He targeted the fact that Dentler’s Institute of Urban Studies received a $7800 grant from THE NEW WORLD FOUNDATION (Clark capitalized all the letters of the foundation). He found the New World Foundation’s mission statement to be concerning:

The right education for children; The relationship to life and the ethics, of industry and commerce etc… as is set forth according to its articles of incorporation which is set forth in Exhibit 2.

Clark maintained that the grant meant that Dentler had received monetary compensation for his work with the White Plains School District.  He went on to cite the reading list provided by The Institute for Urban Studies for curriculum consultation  arguing that known communists were on the list. Herbert Aptheker Secretary of the Communist Party U.S.A. was listed as the author of a book on The History of the Negro in America. W.E.B. Dubois presence on the list for his famous work The Souls of Black Folk also drew Clark’s ire. “The list ends up with W.E.B. Dubois whose ideas and beliefs need no introduction.”

        Clark entered Dr.Dentler’s 1960  doctoral dissertation Attitude Change in Volunteer Service Groups: Group Composition, Solidarity and Environment as Correlates of Change. Clark notes that the authors Dentler cites in his paper state that the best years to achieve social change are from the third through the sixth grades. This was not a secret. Dr.Dentler wanted to study children who were too young to form their own racist attitudes but were old enough to articulate racial attitudes they may have picked up from their parents.

        Attorney Clark’s concerns that integration efforts manifested by men like Caroll Johnson and Robert Dentler were a form of Communism is reflective of the great shift in Americans’ views about race and bigotry. During the early 1960’s conservative commentators openly expressed concerns that mixing people of different races or religions would hurt families because bigoted family members would not tolerate it.[11] By 1968 no one was claiming the right to be a bigot or worried about protecting those who were bigoted. Instead arch conservatives expressed the concern that external forces were forcing people to change their personal beliefs against their will. Attorney Clark interprets this as Communist in his formal complaint. The John Birch Society’s official attitude towards the civil rights movement was that it was working to create a Negro Soviet Republic in The United States.[12] 

        Ultimately, the 60 million dollar lawsuit was not about protecting young Claire Cathleen Magowan’s civil rights. It was aimed at making life difficult for those who were trying to implement the Brown v Board of Education decision ten years after it had been made.

        


[1] Johnson, Carroll F.  Achieving Racial Balance- -The White Plains Story. A Comprehensive Report. Jan 68.Journal Cit- School Management; v12 n1 Jan 1968.

[2] Dentler, Robert A. The Looking-Glass Self: A Memoir. Technical Publications Inc. Waltham, MA. 2002. P. 166.

[3] Dentler, p. 176.

[4] Dentler, Robert A., Elkins, Constance Intergroup Attitudes, Academic Performance, and Racial Composition, The Urban R’s: Race Relations as the Problem in Urban Education, Dentler, Robert A., Mackler, Bernard and Warhauer, Mary Ellen. Published for The Center for Urban Education by Frederick A.Praeger New York, 1967.

[5] Dentler, Robert The Looking Glass Self.

[6] Flynn, Mary, Destruction of Tests Honored, Parents Told. The Reporter Dispatch, 17 June 1964.

[7] Reporter Dispatch, Destruction of Tests… 17 June 1967

[8] Buckley, William F. Goldwater, The John Birch Society and Me. March 1, 2008. Commentary Magazine.

https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/goldwater-the-john-birch-society-and-me/. Viewed 12/4/2016.

[9] Parents File Two Suits Over Racial Test Given Pupils,Amsterdam Recorder,  16 September, 1967. P. 18.

FultonCountyHistory.com. Viewed December 4th, 2016.

[10] Birch Society Begins Big Membership Push.Knickerbocker News. P 18. Albany, New York. Fulton History.com. Viewed December 8, 2016.

[11] Sokolosky, George. “The Scarsdale Case.” Editorial. Ironwood Daily Globe [Ironwood, MI] 20 Jan. 1961: 4. NewspaperArchive.com. Web. 30 June 2011

[12] Tabachnik, Rachel The John Birch Society’s Anti-Civil Rights Campaign of the 1960s, and Its Relevance Today. Political Research.Org. viewed December 4th, 2016.

Leave a comment

Filed under About the Author

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s