[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 fifth article deals with what must be done.
Steps must be taken to prevent separate societies
I have been asked countless times if there is some concise blueprint to prevent new disorders and to bring peace to our riot-charred cities. There is no simple cure-all. I wish there were.
Of course, we can and must take many steps on a high-priority basis to stop America’s ominous drift toward two societies, separate and unequal.
I can think of no more suitable moment to face these facts than now, when our country is preparing to shape new national policies and to choose new leaders.
There is much we can do quickly to expand activity in the areas of jobs, housing, education and community relations. We need not wait for big new spending programs. The report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders sets forth scores of recommendations for action.
We did not expect miracles or overnight results when the report was issued on March 1 of this year. But the fact is that it took a tragic assassination to make people take the report seriously. It became a bestseller immediately, but until the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot by a sniper, our report was largely an unread bestseller.
Now, finally, there are stirrings in thousands of communities that tell me that the report has touched America’s conscience. Yes, finally, people are reading it. I noticed a difference in my mail — in frequency, intensity and sincerity — during the weeks and months of shock and self-appraisal that followed Dr King’s death on April 4.
The 10 other commission members, all of us appointed by President Johnson, have had the same experience, I believe. Af chairman of the commission, I have received hundreds of letters from church groups, housewives, students, citizens’ organizations and other It has to be cleansed at the grassroots’ concerned Americans. They are seriously discussing the Report and seeking to implement it in their own communities.
This is the most important thing that could have happened, for the racism that underlies the ghetto system cannot be overcome in the halls of Congress.
People keep asking me, “What is Congress doing?” My answer is that the problem is not in Congress. Passing a law will not make racism go away. Racism is a personal thing. It has to be cleansed at the grassroots. Otherwise, I have repeatedly warned, we can spend billions of federal dollars and they all will be useless.
But are we doing enough to implement the report itself? Obviously, no.
I have heard it said that there merely has been talk and no action, that the White House has been dragging its feet. This is not true. First of all, there has been action by governments — city, county, state, federal. What is needed now is expansion of this activity.
The commission suggested quick, high-impact programs to crack the ghetto-poverty system. Our major goals must include two million new jobs, both in the public and private sectors, in the next three years; a great increase in the availability of low-cost housing; a national minimum for welfare payments.
I have been asked why the President did not come out and bang the table for these programs.
The President is deeply concerned and engaged with implementing the report. Even before the report was issued, he already had delivered a message in which some $80 billion of his program related to these problems — education, job opportunities, housing, public health and many other areas of concern.
He picked up where President Kennedy left off and expanded programs far the needy. I talked with him a number of times, and I know he felt frustrated that Congress was not reacting and providing the necessary means.
He was very disappointed that there was not more crossing of party lines in solving this nonpolitical problem.
So I repeat — there is much we can do now.
It has been estimated that the measures our commission proposed would cost billions of dollars. At relatively little cost, however, government at all levels, as well as private industry can expand job opportunities.
And jobs are the No. 1 priority in developing a society of equal opportunity. The easiest group to lift up is the underemployed — those Americans working ful-ltime for less than a living wage. There are a tremendous number of them.
Advantage is being taken of them because they are black and because they are in jobs not covered by the minimum wage law.
On-the-job training combined with elementary education courses can give them new skills and they can move into existing job vacancies at higher pay. Some of these people cannot read well enough now to take the right bus to work. And yet experience has she that with adequate training they become reliable employees.
We also must do more to seek out the “hardcore” unemployed, door-to-door. They are so withdrawn now, so conditioned to failure, that they will not respond to regular means of job solicitation. We need to build new hope and new attitudes in them. It can be done.
We must greatly expand low-cost housing. Much of this housing supply already exists and can be made available with the help of rent supplements.
We also must expand home ownership with low down payment and low-interest loans. Why? Not only to provide living space, but to develop pride of ownership. Anyone who buys property takes care of has investment.
This is not an exclusively white characteristic, We must upgrade the teaching process in slum schools. And Negroes must be represented in government at all levels. The way must be opened for them to take part in the planning and execution of programs affecting their communities. They have the problem, not we whites. Many of these things already are being done, but all of us need to do more.
As for the detailed policies recommended in t h e commission report, they are not 30- day, 60-day or one-year programs. Just planning some of these things may take a year or two. Even if you have a plan, the money cannot be there overnight.
So let me say again that the job begins with an understanding of racism. And, black or white, both of us must develop new attitudes.
If we cannot do that, then it is obvious, as the report states, that there will be further disastrous separation — two societies in an internecine war.