In 1967, over 100 cities, large and small, exploded in fire and violence, the result of decades of discrimination against black populations in places like Cleveland, Nashville, Boston and Newark. The biggest riot at the time was in Detroit. After five days of rioting, 33 blacks and 10 whites were dead and property damage totaled more than $100 million.
Unnerved by the scale of Detroit's unrest, and anxious to find the root causes of the violence, President Lyndon Johnson announced to the nation that he'd convened a new commission, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. The 11-person group would be headed by Otto Kerner, then governor of Illinois. Its charge: to discover what happened, why it happened and how to prevent it from happening again.
The Commission's members (all male and all white, except for NAACP head Roy Wilkins and Sen. Edward Brooke, R-Mass.) took field trips to several trouble spots. They interviewed residents and consulted with their own team of demographers and analysts to understand the depths of the effects of segregation and other forms of discrimination. (During one such visit, a man told Commission members Fred Harris, then a senator from Oklahoma and his trip partner New York Mayor John Lindsay, he saw more white people in the Mississippi hometown he'd fled than his adopted city of Milwaukee. His life was that segregated.)
Warnings in a best-seller
The conclusions were dire. Institutional and systemic racism were responsible for many of the ills that beset black America, the report said. The segregated housing, subpar public schools and aggressive policing of black and brown communities could all be traced back to the second-class treatment of America's darker citizens. The nation, the report famously warned, was "moving toward two societies, one black, one white--separate and unequal."
The Commission's report was published as a paperback, and became a national best-seller. Virtually no one referred to it by its formal name Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders; it simply became the Kerner Report. And while some progress has been made since the report was initially released, a lot of things have gotten worse.
A new study that builds on the Kerner Report's work was released this week. Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years After the Kerner Report was co-edited by Fred Harris (the sole surviving member of the original Commission) and Alan Curtis, CEO of the Milton Eisenhower Foundation. It notes that poverty has increased and so has the inequality gap between white America and Americans who are black, brown and Native American. The gains children of color made when efforts continued to desegregate schools in the 60s began to reverse by 1988. Court decisions that loosened oversight of previously de facto segregated schools resulted in a huge change: In 1988, almost half of all students of color went to majority-white schools. Today that number has plummeted to 20 percent. Poverty is such a problem, the study concluded, that if it is not mitigated, America's very democracy is threatened.
"I was 37 when I served on the (Kerner) Commission," Harris told NPR. "Whoever thought that 50 years later, we'd still be talking about the same things? That's kinda sad."
Kerner's continued relevance
Julian E. Zelizer, a history professor at Princeton who has written extensively on the Kerner Commission, said the original report remains germane. "In terms of criminal justice and the way race affects it, I think the findings are so relevant. You could almost take portions of the report, adjust them, obviously, to contemporary times, but they'd still resonate with what we're dealing with today."
Zelizer says Johnson wasn't even sure he wanted to convene a panel to study racial unrest. That would be tricky even in the best of times, and those times weren't that.
"He's very fearful from the start that the Commission would end up blaming him," Zelizer explained. "And at the same time, they'll say you have to do things that Congress, he knows, will never accept, and he would look bad."
After his Herculean effort to pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, could the architect of The Great Society be remembered instead as the president who bungled race? That possibility was very much on the president's mind.
Johnson's trepidation — and his annoyance that his Great Society programs were not credited in the report (members said they didn't want to politicize their findings) — led him to ignore the Kerner Commission. There was no ceremonial handover of the report in the Oval Office or elsewhere, no handshakes, no thank yous.
"He refused to meet with us to receive our report," Harris confirms. "And that's particularly sad to me because President Johnson did more against racism and poverty than any president before or since."
No love from the White House
Peniel Joseph, a University of Texas historian, says Johnson was in a tight spot. The Vietnam war was not going well. Martin Luther King Jr. was preparing to begin several marches that would highlight the poverty of black America. And politicians in his own Democratic Party, such as Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy and, later former Attorney General Robert Kennedy, were making noises about challenging him for the presidency. He felt hounded on all sides.
"He was being criticized from his left by people like Dr. King, who was saying all the money he was spending in Vietnam should be spent on antipoverty efforts and racial justice efforts," Joseph says.
"And on his right," he continued, "He was being criticized by conservatives who supported the war effort, but rejected the Great Society, and who felt as if the Great Society was justifying law and disorder."
So the Kerner Report was put aside, and would soon be eclipsed by the tsunami of historical events that followed that year: King's assassination in April, Robert Kennedy's in June, the train wreck that was the Democratic National Convention in August, with its Chicago street protests and unhinged police violence. Richard Nixon's election campaign that fall centered on a law-and-order platform.
But landmark anniversaries have a way of focusing people's attention. The date, the continued attention on problems the Kerner Report focused on (the militarization of police departments, for instance) and the new study may renew people's interest.
And maybe enlightened self-interest will help. "Racial and ethnic inequality is still with us," Fred Harris told the Washington Post. "What's happening in the country is bad for all of us. Doing something about it is good for all of us."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Fifty years ago this week, President Johnson's commission on civil disorders released the Kerner Report. This was an attempt to explain why so many of the country's cities erupted in riots. Now many observers say this report can tell Americans a lot about the issues fueling racial tensions today. From NPR's Code Switch team, here's Karen Grigsby Bates.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: In July 1967, recognizing that five days of rioting in Detroit had left the entire country anxious and on edge, President Lyndon Johnson made a special television address to the nation.
(SOUNDBITE OR ARCHIVED RECORDING)
LYNDON B. JOHNSON: We have endured a week such as no nation should live through, a time of violence and tragedy.
BATES: In the same address, he announced a new initiative.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOHNSON: I'm tonight appointing a special advisory commission on civil disorders. Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois has agreed to serve as chairman.
BATES: The Kerner Commission was established while Detroit was still smoking. Princeton historian Julian Zelizer, who has written about the report's impact, says the president wasn't so sure he even wanted a commission.
JULIAN ZELIZER: He's very fearful from the start that the commission will end up blaming him. And at the same time, they'll say you have to do things that Congress - he knows - would never accept. And he would look bad.
BATES: The commission was populated with very mainstream politicians, civic and business leaders. But the conclusions it reached were pretty radical. Unless something was done, it famously warned America was in danger of becoming two societies - one black, one white, separate and unequal. It was, says Princeton's Julian Zelizer, a pretty startling opinion at the time. And he says it's still pertinent.
ZELIZER: In terms of criminal justice and the way race affects it, I think the findings are so relevant. And you could almost take portions of the report, adjust them obviously to contemporary times. But they would still resonate with what we're dealing with today.
BATES: Segregation in housing and education, lack of opportunity and police violence in communities of color were some of the reasons cited for the unrest then, just as they've been more recently in places like Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore. Much to the irritation of one member, most of the press reduced the intricate nuanced report to this.
FRED HARRIS: White racism cause of black riots, commission says.
BATES: That's former Oklahoma Senator Fred Harris, the only living member of the Kerner Commission panel.
HARRIS: I was 37 when I served on the commission. And who ever thought that, 50 years later, we'd still be talking about the same things? That's kind of sad.
BATES: At the University of Texas, historian Peniel Joseph says the national reaction to the commission's report was mixed.
PENIEL JOSEPH: Some people really applauded the candor of the report because the report really laid the blame for the violence at the feet of institutional racism and white oppression.
BATES: Not everybody agreed, though.
JOSEPH: Others felt that the report was just justifying violence. But it was something people paid attention to. And that was a best-seller for a time.
BATES: It's true. This government report by a panel of establishment types was published as a book. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders - usually called "The Kerner Report" - was a thick paperback, more than 600 pages. It became a best-seller and was in such demand that 23 editions were printed. Despite that, Fred Harris says Lyndon Johnson was done with his commission. Instead of the usual formal handshake and thank you to commission members...
HARRIS: He refused to meet with us to receive our report. And that's particularly sad to me because President Johnson did more against racism and poverty than any president before or since.
JOSEPH: He was being criticized from his left by people like Dr. King, saying that all the money he spent in Vietnam should've been spent on anti-poverty efforts and racial justice efforts.
BATES: Again, Peniel Joseph.
JOSEPH: And on his right, he was being criticized by conservatives who supported the war effort but rejected the Great Society and felt as if the Great Society was justifying law and disorder.
BATES: So the Kerner Report was put aside. But this week, a sequel to the original report was released. Its conclusion - widening inequality has become a threat to American democracy.
Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SLEEPDEALER'S "ASTORIA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.