Civil rights pioneer honored at commencement

Written by: Donald Heller

Primary Source: The Dean’s Blog

robert-clark-jr

Last weekend, Michigan State held its fall commencement ceremony, at which six individuals were honored with honorary degrees.  Much of the focus during the weekend was on George Will, one of the degree recipients, because of controversy around a Washington Post column he had written earlier this year about sexual assault on college campuses.  While the discussion around Mr. Will’s column and how people reacted to it is important, this unfortunately overshadowed the others who were honored with degrees.

Among them was Robert G. Clark, Jr., who received a master’s degree in Administration and Education Services from the College of Education in 1959, after receiving a bachelor’s degree from Jackson State University in his native Mississippi and working as a teacher in that state.  Mr. Clark, now 86, returned to Mississippi with his master’s degree, and in 1967 became the first African-American elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives since Reconstruction.  He remained as the only African-American in that legislative body for eight years.  In 1977, he was elected chair of the Education Committee of the House, becoming the first African-American committee chairperson in the state’s history. Then, in 1992 he was elected Speaker Pro Tempore, a position he held for 12 years. When he retired from the Legislature in 2003, he was the longest-serving member of the House.

Mr. Clark served in the Mississippi Legislature during a pivotal era in the history of that state and our country. As chair of the Education Committee, he helped move forward equity in school funding for all children in the state. He was instrumental in the passage of the Education Reform Act of 1982, which ensured that all schools – schools that were still largely segregated at that point in history – had adequate funding for capital repairs, new buses, and up-to-date textbooks.

In addition, Mr. Clark served as chair of the Ethics Committee and vice chair of the Apportionment and Elections Committee. During his tenure as Speaker Pro Tempore, he put in place practices that increased the proportion of African-American employees in the House to a level equal to the percentage of African-Americans in the population of the state.

Mr. Clark also made important contributions to civic life. He served on the Policy and Steering Committee of the Education Commission of the States, as well as the Education Committee of the National Conference of State Legislators. He was one of the original members of the Board of Directors of Central Mississippi, Inc., an anti-poverty agency in that part of the state. Mr. Clark has also served as chair of the Board of Directors of Mississippi Action for Community Education, been chair of the Mississippi Delta Revitalization Task Force, and a member of the Mississippi Workforce Development Commission.

Earlier this year, I wrote about our college’s spring commencement speaker, Carlotta Walls LaNier. She is the youngest member of the Little Rock Nine, the group that first integrated Little Rock Central High School in 1957.  Ms. LaNier gave a moving commencement speech describing her journey, which you can watch here.  It was an honor for the College of Education to host these two pioneers of the civil rights movement in our country.

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Donald Heller
Donald E. Heller is Dean of the College of Education and a professor in the Department of Educational Administration at Michigan State University. Prior to his appointment in January, 2012, he was Director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education and professor of education and senior scientist at The Pennsylvania State University. He also has held a faculty appointment at the University of Michigan. His teaching and research is in the areas of educational economics, public policy, and finance, with a primary focus on issues of college access and choice for low-income and minority students. He has consulted on higher education policy issues with university systems and policymaking organizations in California, Colorado, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Washington, Washington DC, and West Virginia, and has testified in front of Congressional committees, state legislatures, and in federal court cases as an expert witness. Before his academic career, he spent a decade as an information technology manager at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Donald Heller

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