By Efua Andoh (Public Interest Communications Staff)
With the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington approaching, we interviewed Henry Tomes, PhD, an esteemed psychologist who was the first African American to receive a PhD from Penn State University and the former Executive Director for APA’s Public Interest Directorate.
Dr. Tomes reflected on the impact of the March on him personally and professionally and on what the field of psychology can do to realize Dr. King’s “Dream.”
What are your memories of that time in our nation’s history?
The March for Jobs and Freedom was special for me. I had received my PhD from Penn State in June 1963 and by August I had moved my family to Nashville, Tennessee to take a job in the Department of Psychiatry at Meharry Medical College.
Having moved from the cloistered environs of State College, I was thrust into the frenetic build up to the March. During June, July and August daily demonstrations and sit-ins were taking place throughout Nashville, and it was evident that the Black community including its academic institutions was “all in” in these months leading up to the “March on Washington.”
How did the March impact you?
Similar to many others across the nation, I watched the March and heard Dr. King’s stirring “I Have a Dream” speech on television. The March’s emphasis on “Jobs and Freedom” resonated quite strongly with me. I had moved to Nashville because no other department of psychology or clinic to which I had presented myself offered any employment.
I believe Dr. King’s message reached many people as well as psychologists. Following the 1963 March and speech, I became visible and offers of employment as a psychologist in other settings became a viable option. However, I remained in Nashville during that time and began a satisfying career that took me into a variety of psychological and mental health settings spanning almost five decades.
What is the challenge before the field of psychology to help realize Dr. King’s “Dream”?
During my career, which dovetails nicely with the March and speech, I observed many efforts, some significant, to get beyond the juxtaposition of “…content of character” and “…color of skin,” but they didn’t continue for very long.
It is my opinion that at the next 50th year observance of the Dream, the nation, psychology included, may still be facing the challenges of “character” and “color” that emanated from Dr. King’s speech.
Psychology is so much, but it is individual psychologists that ultimately determine the field and what it does. It is my firm belief that until there are significant numbers of psychologists who are people of color, the field will continue its fitful starts and stops in addressing the issues of the Dream.
We want to hear from you! Tell us in the comments:
What do you think psychology can do to keep Dr. King’s “Dream” alive?
You may also be interested in:
Dr. King’s address at 1967 APA Convention challenging social science to engage in the Civil Rights movement
And social justice for all – 2011 APA President Melba Vasquez, PhD outlines psychology’s role in promoting social justice