After deadly race riots in 1967, President Lyndon B Johnson commissioned a 11-person team — which included congressmen, senators, a former governor and the executive director of the NAACP — to investigate the reasons for the civil unrest, and to provide recommendations for the future.
He told them, “Let your search be free… As best you can, find the truth and express it in your report.”
Six months after the report was released, a papers across the country published insider insights from Judge Otto Kerner, the former governor of Illinois, and chairman of the President’s National National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.
In the series of five articles, Kerner offered a personal behind-the-scenes look at the process that went into creating the committee’s report. The article below is a letter from the editor of the Southern Illinoisan in Carbondale, Illinois, introducing the series to the paper’s readers.
The team at ClickAmericana.com transcribed these newspaper articles — published here online for the first time in text format to bring Kerner’s valuable insights into the digital age.
Note that these stories are presented as they were written in 1968. Some of the wording, such as the use of the term “Negro,” reflects the language commonly in use at the time.
He spells out his convictions regarding white racism.
The commission’s report said: “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.”
Mr Kerner now expands on this point saying, “Our critics called us stupid for singling out racism, for making it the essential point of our report.
“I know we were not stupid. It would have been intellectually dishonest to back away. We looked into this deeply and said it the way we saw it.”
Mr Kerner, in his new comments, makes some key points.
He says he believes that many of the members of the commission apparently started with the idea that poverty is the cause of the civil disorders.
But he says “flat out”: “It is not poverty. Actually, there are more whites than blacks in poverty areas.”
Mr Kerner says that agitators are not essentially to blame, although there are agitators. He examines unemployment, bad housing and inadequate education and says that although they played a significant part there was something behind it all.
The thing maintaining and enforcing tile system of two societies, separate and unequal, he repeats, is racism.
One of Mr Kerner’s examples makes clear what racism is.
It’s the example of a young man raised in a Negro ghetto. As Judge Kerner points out, he probably will have been arrested five or six times by age 20 for no special reason. People in the ghetto simply are arrested on suspicion.
When the young Negro applies for a job and the personnel director sees the arrest record, he probably will never check to see if the youth was ever convicted or what the arrests were for. On the other hand if it were a white youth involved, he might check these things. That, Mr Kerner says, is racism.
He says racism is also the Negro man receiving an income of about 40 percent that of a white man with similar education and skills; paying more for a poorer home; running twice as high a chance of being unemployed; attending a poorer school; and having a lower life expectancy.
Mr Kerner points out that the members of the commission agree unanimously that white racism is the basic cause of the racial disorders. The Southern as well as the Northern members were convinced of this fact by the evidence presented.