An unfilled prescription for racial equality
“... [S]egregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans. What white Americans have never fully understood — but what the Negro can never forget — is that White society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it ...”
Kerner Commission Report, Feb. 29, 1968
It probably was a pretty good idea at the time.
The cities were burning. Harlem in 1964. Watts in 1965. In Detroit alone, 43 blacks were killed, anywhere between 450 and 2,000 were injured, and 7,231 were arrested before the National Guard ended the bloody mess on July 25, 1967.
Before the end of “Burn, Baby, Burn,” by one conservative estimate, 329 “important” racial disturbances took place in 257 cities between 1965 and 1968, resulting in nearly 300 deaths, 8,000 injuries, 60,000 arrests and property losses running into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
President Lyndon B. Johnson had a problem, and that problem was urban America in general, and Negroes in particular. Torn between his need to balance Southern votes and his ambition to leave a civil rights legacy greater than those of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, Johnson proceeded along a very cautious path — he appointed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to study the problem.
The commission’s mandate was at once simple and complex — define the problem, identify the root causes, and devise solutions to what could arguably be described as the result of 350 years of legal and societal discrimination.
Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner Jr., the commission’s chairman, went a step further, asking his colleagues to “probe into the soul of America.”
U.S. Sen. Edward W. Brooke, R-Mass., was one of the 11 members on the commission. New York Mayor John Lindsay and Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People were among the other members who delivered a report that exceeded LBJ’s instructions — made seven months earlier, on July 28, 1967, while Detroit was still burning — to get to the bottom of racial disturbances burning across the nation.
In his recently published book “Bridging the Divide,” Brooke wrote about their findings that went public on Feb. 29, 1968, 40 years ago tomorrow.
“We pointed out that Negro frustration grew out of under-representation in the political system, the police, the media and all aspects of American life,” Brooke wrote. “We concluded that ‘White racism is essentially responsible’ for the explosive violence that engulfed many cities and declared that ‘race prejudice has shaped our history decisively; it now threatens to affect our future.’”
The 426-page report sold 2 million copies, became a best-seller and is best known for its oft-repeated prediction that America was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal.”
In Brooke’s assessment, the commission report contained “ … strong words, but we believed that the truth needed telling.”
The truth didn’t set LBJ free.
The Kerner Commission recommended billions of dollars worth of new government programs for the ghettos, including sweeping federal initiatives directed at improving educational and employment opportunities, public services, and housing in black urban neighborhoods, and called for a “national system of income supplementation.”
“It is time now to turn with all the purpose at our command to the major unfinished business of this nation,” the report declared. “It is time to adopt strategies for action that will produce quick and visible progress. It is time to make good the promises of American democracy to all citizens — urban and rural, white and black, Spanish-surname, American Indian and every minority group.”
The report put Johnson in an impossible situation.
“Despite the entreaties of his staff,” wrote Nicholas Lemann about Johnson’s behavior in a 1989 piece in The Atlantic Monthly, “he refused to comment on the report, refused to allow the commission to present it to him, refused even to sign the form letters his staff drew up thanking the members for their work.”
“I can’t just sign this group of letters,” Johnson told Harry McPherson, his closest friend on the White House staff, according to Lemann. “I’d be a hypocrite. And I don’t even want it let known that they got this far … otherwise somebody will leak that I wouldn’t sign them. Just file them — or get rid of them.”
Johnson’s reaction caught commission members by surprise, especially considering his public pronouncements about race.
In a speech delivered two years earlier at Howard University on June 4, 1965, Johnson appeared to make it very clear where he stood on the race issue.
“ … Freedom is not enough,” Johnson said during his commencement address. “You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: ‘Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.’ You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”
Johnson went even further, defining what he saw as the next civil rights battleground.
“ … It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity,” Johnson said. “All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates. This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom, but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity, but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and equality as a result.”
Given LBJ’s history, Brooke was particularly disappointed in his response to the Kerner Commission Report.
“I thought LBJ would applaud our painstaking analysis and support our recommendations,” Brooke explained. “But the president who had done so much for civil rights distanced himself from our findings. He did not invite us to the White House for the report’s release, nor did he embrace its recommendations.”
Commission members were shocked.
“I faulted the president for not using the bully pulpit of the White House to support our frank statement,” Brooke wrote further. “Because of his silence, precious little official attention was paid to the report. Had Johnson seized the moment, our country might be further along on the road of improved race relations.”
But even Brooke understood the political realities of the time.
“In retrospect,” Brooke wrote, “I can see that our report was too strong for him to take. It suggested that all his great achievements — his civil rights legislation, his antipoverty programs, Head Start, housing legislation, and all the rest of it — had been only a beginning. It asked him, in an election year, to endorse the idea that white America bore much of the responsibility for black rioting and rebellion.
“However true that might be, the message was politically too hot to handle. So the Kerner Commission Report gathered dust while America’s racial problem grew worse.”
And for Johnson, politics was the answer for just about everything, including the volatile issue of race.
As Lemann notes in his 1989 Atlantic essay, Johnson believed that politicians are largely prisoners of their constituencies, and that black enfranchisement would quickly change the supposedly intransigent Southerners in Congress.
“If they give the blacks the vote, ol’ Strom Thurmond will be kissing every black ass in South Carolina,” Johnson once told a friend, according to Lemann.
To say the least, Robert F. Kennedy couldn’t stand Johnson’s line of political thought.
A few weeks after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Kennedy told the historian and writer Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.: “My brother barely had a chance to get started — and there is so much now to be done — for the Negroes and unemployed and the school kids and everyone else who is not getting a decent break in our society ... the new fellow doesn’t get this. He knows all about politics and nothing about human beings.”
Either way, the Kerner Commission Report has survived over the years, mainly as a whipping post for conservatives mounting attacks on 1960s liberal ideology.
At a 1998 lecture commemorating the 30th anniversary of the report, Stephan Thernstrom, a history professor at Harvard University, argued that it was deeply flawed.
“Because the commission took for granted that the riots were the fault of white racism, it would have been awkward to have had to confront the question of why liberal Detroit blew up while Birmingham and other Southern cities — where conditions for blacks were infinitely worse — did not,” Thernstrom said. “Likewise, if the problem was white racism, why didn’t the riots occur in the 1930s, when prevailing white racial attitudes were far more barbaric than they were in the 1960s?”
A good question. But 40 years later, inner cities still need answers — solutions, really — on how to reverse the social pathologies plaguing predominantly black and brown neighborhoods across the nation.
Dr. King, for one, found the answers in the Kerner Commission report. He called it “a physician’s warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life.”
|New Jersey national guardsmen patrol a street in Plainfield, N.J., on July 17, 1967. Twelve people were injured during the racial disturbances in Plainfield, one of an estimated 257 cities where such “disturbances” took place between 1965 and 1968. The Kerner Commission was called to find out why. (AP photo/Eddie Adams)
(top) Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner Jr. (foreground) and New York Mayor John Lindsay report on the current and future activities of the President’s Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. Kerner, the commission’s chairman, and vice chairman Lindsay met with reporters in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 6, 1967. (AP photo/Bob Daughtery)
(bottom) An aerial view of firemen as they continue to fight fires in Newark, N.J., late on July 14, 1967. The fires were a result of rioting that started the night before and continued through that morning. Racial violence flared on the night of July 12, touched off by the violent arrest of an African American taxi driver, and continued into July 15. Convened to get at the root of racial conflicts tearing through hundreds of U.S. cities in the mid-1960s, the Kerner Commission’s report concluded that white racism was to blame for much of the violence that engulfed urban America in that turbulent time. (AP photo/Eddie Adams)