Kerner Report: President’s riot commission learned from the people (1968)

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Getting the facts

Kerner Commission Report backstory, part 4: President’s riot commission learned from the people

By Otto Kerner, Chairman, National Advisory Commission an Civil Disorders

President Johnson and Kerner Commission




[Original] Editor’s Note: Judge Otto Kerner, former governor of Illinois and chairman of the President’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders discusses in a series of five articles the significance of the report. Judge Kerner tells for the first time the inside story of how the members arrived at their findings on racism, and gives his views on where do we go from here. Today’s fourth article deals with getting the facts.

Getting the facts

Quietly, without any public notice, we members of the national civil disorders commission walked in America’s black ghettos burned and shattered by rioting.

Those were the tense months of 1967 when we all became wiser. We learned from the people themselves.

You can’t draw conclusions just from books or from listening to a few witnesses. You have to get to the man on the street, the boy on the street. And I think we learned most of all from the mothers in the ghetto.

I would get out of my car, walk up to people and say, “My name is Otto Kerner. I am working with a group that is looking into this riot situation.”

I didn’t tell them I was governor of Illinois or chairman of the commission or anything of that nature. I was concerned that if I did, they would not speak freely.

In Detroit, Newark, East St Louis and Milwaukee. I talked to dozens of people in these shaken communities. Many of them had seen houses and shops burned and people shot.

When I sat down on a porch stoop to talk to some housewives in Detroit, one of them thought I was from Washington. She challenged me immediately.

“You don’t live here,” she told me. “So what do you know about it? You sit in a big office in Washington and you draw up some plans and tell us what to do,” she continued. “You ought to come here and live with us for a couple of months. We want more policemen. We are not lawless people. We are responsible people. We are doing the best we can.”

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Simple words, but they helped us to understand the worries and fears of the ghettos that erupted in violence.

The people of the ghettos want some very simple things: more police protection against crime in their own neighborhoods, more and better jobs and housing, improved street lighting and garbage collection, better schools, respectful treatment from whites. These things need doing if we are to realize the American dream of an equal society.

These conclusions are not theoretical. Our commission sent teams to many cities. They lived in the communities, they talked to thousands of people. Some were threatened. We had the firsthand benefit of the thinking of at least 15,000 Americans in preparing our Report.

And in all my own movement among the unemployed young people of the poverty areas, I found only one who did not want a job. It was in one of these communities that a young man of 23 impressed me with his determined search for work. The company where he had been employed had folded up.

‘Have you tried?’

“But have you tried to work?” I asked him.

“Man, have I tried,” he said. He showed me a number of applications for jobs he had tried to get during the last three months.

“That’s a shame,” I said. “Is there anything else you’d like to do?”

It turned out he wanted to go to a cooks and bakers training school in the neighborhood — and he had applied there twice.

Well, I had just eaten lunch in that very school. “This young man has done about all he can, do and he needs help,” I told the secretary of the organization.

“And you are supposed to help. You are getting federal funds for this sort of thing.”

Later I learned that they took him in and gave him his chance. And that is what the people of the ghettos want: a chance.

One thing I can say with confidence after speaking to many of them: They are willing to wait, to have patience — if they believe that the whites are sincere in doing something about the racist system.

But they have been patronized for so long that they understandably have become cynical. Our commission found that white racism is the primary cause of the explosive situation in our cities.

Newark riots July 1967
Newark riots – July 1967
What racism means

To the Negro, racism means that he is at least twice as likely to be out of work as a white man of comparable skills. It means slum housing, and high school graduates who cannot read, and sharp credit practices. We found one instance in a Negro community where a television set had been marked up 285 percent higher than in white areas.

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And racism means rotting garbage in the ghetto. Do you worry about city garbage collection where you live? In a ghetto, they do. The ghetto always is overcrowded, and they may need two or three pickups a week, where another neighborhood might need just one.

But how do they get it done unless they can elect one of their own to the political structure and thus take care of their grievances? There are areas in our large cities in which the population is overwhelmingly Negro but there isn’t a Negro alderman.

They feel they ought to have their own representation. Consequently, they want part of the power. And yet the phrase “black power” as used by some people is considered offensive.

If, however, you use it in a comparable sense with Polish power, German power, Jewish power or nationalistic power, there is rhyme and reason to it.

In our political structure, we are used to electing representatives of nationalistic groups. These groups have voted as blocks to get their own spokesmen into the legislative halls. We call it political power, political muscle. Is black power, used in this sense, so different?

We hear it said that there would be no need for movements of this sort if only successful Negroes “would help their own people.” But one thing the white community does not realize is that this cannot be done in that way. The attitude in slum areas is that if a Negro has “made it,” it is because he is an Uncle Tom and you cannot trust him.

The Negro businessman is doing as much as he can. We must look a little lower on the economic structure and help the communities to lift themselves.

But we just can’t gild the ghetto so that the people will wind up living where they always lived.

It is only when you get into the communities, sit with the people, talk to them, eat with them, that you begin to sense their frustrations.

And that is the beginning of understanding. Yes, we all learned.

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