The Kerner Report, a groundbreaking 1968 study of racism in America, was ignored by the president who ordered it

Ebony Aug 1971 Racism in America

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Kerner Commission Report backstory, Part 1: How it evolved (1968)

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

[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. 

How the report evolved

It took months of soul-searching before we members of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders fully faced up to racism.

Racism is very difficult for any of us to admit, even to ourselves. It certainly was not easy for the commission members. Nine of the eleven of us were white.

But gradually and inevitably we had to conclude that the basic cause of America’s racial disorders is white racism. I define this racism as the deeply-rooted system expressed in the belief that if you are white, you are superior — and if you are black, you are inferior.

We tried and rejected a softer approach. We looked for other words, but they were not right. It all came to a head at a six-hour, no-holds-barred session in Washington. Everyone spoke his mind. When we had finished, we knew the answer.

And we knew that telling it in that way would be bound to be uncomfortable. But we just could not avoid being blunt and direct.

That is why we insisted on that controversial and yet inescapable paragraph in our report to the American people:

“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.”

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.

The story of how we confronted racism is a story of learning, of growing up, so to speak.

damage done as result of 1967 Detroit riot
Senator Philip A Hart next to mayor Jerome P Cavanagh inspect damage done as result of the 1967 Detroit riot. (Credit: Bentley Image Bank, Bentley Historical Library)
Began after Newark riot

The eleven of us sat down together for the first time late in July, 1967. There had been violent outbreaks and bloodshed in the Negro ghettos of Newark, Detroit and other American cities.

President Lyndon B Johnson called us together, eleven Americans from varying walks of life, to answer three basic questions: What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again?

Our assignment was to examine only the disturbances of that year. As governor of Illinois, I was steaming downriver on a Mississippi paddle-wheeler, participating in a bi-state goodwill conference in the Quad Cities area, when the President’s call came. It was 8:30 p.m. July 28.

Scores of witnesses

Would I serve as chairman of the commission? The President wanted to know right away, and of course I said yes.

The other commission members were Mayor John V Lindsay of New York City, vice chairman; two US senators Fred R. Harris of Oklahoma and Edward W. Brooke of Massachusetts; two congressmen, James C. Corman of California and William M. McCullough of Ohio. Also I. W. Abel, president of the United Steelworkers of America; Charles B. Thornton board chairman of Litton Industries; Roy Wilkins, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of the Colored People; Katherine Graham Peden, former commerce commissioner of Kentucky, and Herbert Jenkins police chief of Atlanta, Ga.

With the help of a skilled staff directed by David Ginsburg, we put in many hours of work. We walked in the riot-wrecked ghettos to see for ourselves.

We heard scores of witnesses ranging from far right-wingers to black radicals like Stokely Carmichael. Much of that testimony must remain confidential for the time being, for it was given only with that assurance We wanted everyone to be heard — left, right, center.

We immersed ourselves in America’s racial agony — its history, the system of segregation, the fears and fury of the ghetto.

And in November and December of 1967, we began to crystallize our thinking on the causes of black rioting. That weekend meeting in Washington clinched it in our minds.

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Poverty not cause

I think a number of us started with the idea that the cause of civil disorders is poverty. It is not poverty. Actually, there are more whites than blacks in poverty areas.

Nor, essentially, are agitators to blame, although there are agitators. What about unemployment and underemployment, bad housing, inadequate education? They play a significant part, but there was something behind it all, maintaining and enforcing the system of two societies separate and unequal: racism.

Some of our members found it difficult, of course. There is no point in singling anyone out, but we all learned a good deal as we went along.

Our black nationalist witness, for example, was so blunt and spoke with such frightening logic that some of our members left that room white as a sheet. Some of us said things at the start of our work that we no longer could accept at the end.

It was not the two Negro members of the commission — Roy Wilkins and Senator Brooke — who led us to confront racism. No, it was white members. The Negroes doubtless saw it all along, although they did not state it as bluntly as we decided to do.

Racism is many things, of course. Take a young man raised in a Negro ghetto. We call him a rioter. But how many of us know that by age 20 he probably will have been arrested five or six times, for no special reason? People in the ghetto simply are arrested frequently on suspicion.

When he applies for a job and his arrest record comes out — that is it. The personnel director probably never even tries to find out why the young man was arrested, or if he ever was convicted of anything — as he might if a white lad were involved. And that is racism.

Judge Otto Kerner

Unconscious prejudice

We grow up with these: unconscious and perhaps unintentional prejudices. But to a Negro family man, racism means that his income is about 40 percent that of a white man of comparable education and skills.

His chances of being out of work is at least twice as high. He pays more for worse housing. His schools are poor. His life expectancy is lower. He is at the bottom — unemployed or underemployed.

That is why our report had to be so disturbing. The remarkable, thing about it was that it was unanimous.

We had some trouble, nonetheless, because some of our staff people thought we were I emphasize that it was the commission’s report, not the staff’s. I think some staff members were disappointed because we and not they were running the commission. Actually, we went over every word and often made them more emphatic. Some chapters were rewritten four or five times.

There was Chapter 5, on the history of 300 years of racial prejudice in America, written for us by a foremost historian; the chairman of the history department in one of our great universities.

He entitled the chapter ‘Alienation and Protest.’ We changed that first word to ‘Rejection.’

“That’s a strong word,” he told me.

“But don’t you have to be part of something before you can be alienated from it?” I asked him.

He agreed. “Rejection” was a more factual and descriptive word.

Kerner Report insights, Part 2: Kerner urges responsibility in meeting violence

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

Kerner Report Use of overforce criticized 1968

Kerner urges responsibility in meeting violence

You don’t use a bazooka on a 10-year-old boy walking away from a looted store with six bottles of soft drink. You don’t fire heavy weaponry in civil disorders unless you are prepared to kill or injure many innocent people. Weaponry ought to be held back as much as possible.

Armored vehicles, automatic weapons and armor-piercing machine guns are for use against an enemy, and not a lawbreaker. All of these weapons are normally associated with war and a combat zone.

These are simple principles of crowd control. Consequently, it was disturbing, as disorders developed in our cities last year, to see a movement by local police forces to purchase heavy armament. Supply companies were carrying on sales campaigns.

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I am very pleased to note that this now seems to be changing. After the report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders was issued March 1, 1968, mayors and police chiefs began getting the message.

Where they had bought armored cars and automatic weapons, they began disposing of them. The Report emphasizes that in riot control we must use only that force that is necessary to maintain law and order.

Preserving order, of course, is the first responsibility of government. Much of the criticism of our commission Report came from people who had not read it. They said we condoned the actions of irresponsible persons in riots.

This is not a fact.

Chapter 12 sets forth the commission’s position that individuals cannot be permitted to endanger public peace and safety. We also must be careful not to sacrifice the rule of law in the name of order. The guardians of the law are also subject to the law.

If you come out with a show of force, you in a sense challenge the other side to meet you. Farce begets force. There must be very strict controls on the use of weaponry, particularly in crowded conditions where many people are on hand simply because they are curious.

After the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Let’s take the last civil outbreaks that occurred in Chicago — the rioting of April 5 and 6 that followed the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

At that time, I was governor of Illinois. We had trained our National Guardsmen carefully. No one was to fire a round except on order of a superior officer, a captain of a company or battery.

As a result, the only shots that were fired by the guard were around the Cabrini housing project area at Sedgwick and Division streets, where someone was shooting from one of the high-rise buildings.

A specially-trained platoon, consisting of expert marksmen, was at the site. Under control of an officer, they first determined the area from which the shots were coming. And they were directed to shoot only at that area under order. They fired only single shots, from rifles. There was no indiscriminate firing, and fortunately no one was hurt.

MLK Jr grave

In contrast, in the Detroit and Newark disorders of 1967, there had been irresponsible firing not only from rifles but from armor-piercing, .50 caliber machine guns. Guardsmen as well as policemen, were involved. Property was destroyed and innocent persons were killed or wounded in their own apartments. In most of the cases where people were shot, they were not taking part in the disturbances at all and were seeking refuge in their own homes.

Certainly you would not shoot a 10-year-old because he threw a rock. Yet the detailed studies we made of disorders in various cities showed us that in most instances a teenager would urge some younger child to throw a rock through a window. Or these children would get pushed in front to be used as cat’s paws.

After these incidents, of course, the teenagers would come in. Very few adults, basically, started any incident. These tended to start as pranks and when later events developed, the 20-year-olds and 25-year-olds got in. Most of the arrestees were under 35 and same were just kids or adolescents.

In general, how much force should a law enforcement officer use in cases of looting and arson?

This is a difficult area and there are no preconceived rules. The officer should use such force as is necessary to prevent the commission of a crime. But no law enforcement officer can take the life of someone merely committing a misdemeanor. We all know that. When do you start shooting? Everything depends upon the degree of the crime and the resistance of the person or persons committing it.

Let us say a man has broken into a bank and stolen a sack of $1,000 bills, and is ordered to halt and does not. Then everybody would agree you shoot him — if you do not endanger the life of an innocent bystander. But suppose he has stolen only a cigar box full of quarters? What do you do then?

The answer, I believe, lies in the proper training of police officers who must make spontaneous decisions at the time these things happen.

What positive steps must we take to prevent disorders?

First, obviously, we need to overcome community “grievances” with programs at the grass-roots level, involving the local residents in the planning.

And there must be continuing contact with the community to enable the forces of the law to be alert to its feelings and attitudes. We need civil and military forces correctly trained in community relations. They must be prepared to move in as needed and they must conduct themselves with fairness and proper authority.

Most people in these communities are law-abiding. They want protection from the irresponsible.

“We are the ones whose houses are going to be broken into,” one woman in Detroit told me after the rioting there. “We want more police here.”

An authoritative movement of law enforcement groups into these communities will be welcomed by the people — if they are dealt with fairly.

But always we must be very hesitant to make a show of overforce with armored vehicles and heavy weapons.

And of course there must be very strong gun control laws. I have been a hunter myself, and I don’t believe that gun control by itself will stop killing. There are just too many guns in the hands of irresponsible persons.

But we must start. It is late now. In Detroit and Newark, where the greatest disorders took place in 1967, the gun stores and the pawn shops were the first places looted — to get weapons.

I don’t follow the argument some people put forth that there are other ways of having disorders, without guns.

Yes, it is true that a broken bottle, a knife, a tire iron, a crowbar is a dangerous weapon. Still, I never have heard of anyone being killed by a broken bottle or a knife at 200 yards.

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Kerner Report insights, Part 3: Prejudice. It’s in all our hearts. What can we do about it?

I was lucky. My parents never designated anyone by racial or religious label. It was outside my home that I first learned about prejudice.

But the fact is that nearly all of us have prejudices of one sort or another. These feelings feed the racism that has done so much to divide America into two societies, separate and unequal. We are trying to close that breach now, to achieve the great American dream of an equal society.

Racism, bred into our society for 300 years, is the underlying cause of the rioting in our cities. That was the inescapable conclusion of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, of which I was chairman.

White racism, we found, maintains and enforces the ghetto system — and thus is primarily responsible for its explosive mixture. Black racism also plays its part.

What can we do about these racist prejudices? How do we cleanse our hearts of them? We must start by facing ourselves and admitting we have such feelings. If we are unwilling to do that, we can spend billions of dollars to overcome the racist system, and the money will go down the drain.

All the federal money in the world will not help under these circumstances. From every American it will require new attitudes, new understanding and, above all, new will. So this means confronting ourselves and acknowledging prejudices if we have them. We need not feel guilty or resentful about it; racial stereotypes are part of our world, and we grew up with them.

Often they are unconscious, unintentional or simply based on ignorance or misinformation. It is amazing, for example, that so many people believe that Negro blood is different from white blood. It isn’t. If you believe that it is, that is a racist belief.

As a result of my work with the civil disorders commission, I have received many hundreds of letters, not all of them complimentary.

Some of thosee writers merely proved the obvious far* that there are many people with racial prejudices. I suppose they were surprised when a Negro’s heart was transplanted into a white body and the body did not reject it. Many people believe that the Negro is not even part of the human race.

And many of us categorize. One Negro does something wrong, and therefore all Negroes are no good.

People tell me, for instance, that when Negroes move into a neighborhood they destroy it. Perhaps that is right — but we are talking about slum areas. When whites lived there, there may have been three or four people living in a four-room apartment. When Negroes moved in, there might be 12 of them in that same apartment. That overcrowding is the result of poverty and the fact that Negroes generally are restricted to certain neighborhoods.

The property owners tend to tell themselves, “Well, the building is going to be destroyed and I know they can’t move to another neighborhood.” So they raise the rents. Negroes actually pay more for comparable living space than whites do.

And because of the crowding, there is bound to be more garbage. But as a rule garbage collections are not increased.

Many of us have not faced these facts — and that is a prejudice. We grow up in an atmosphere of subtle and not so subtle racism and we are fooling ourselves if we think that Negroes are not bitterly resentful of this.

In Detroit, after the severe 1967 disorders, I visited the ghetto ruins and talked with a black man employed in a poverty office.

“I have been working with youth gangs,” he told me, “and I think I’ve done a pretty good job in straightening them out.

Yet this morning when I was walking to work, a prowl car came along with two cops in it. They said, ‘Hey you, hey boy, come here.’ I am no boy. I am 54 years old. I haven’t broken any laws. Damned if I like to be called ‘boy.’ I’ll bet they wouldn’t call a white man ‘boy.'”

I asked this man what the police did to him, and he replied: “They said, ‘Come here, what have you got in there?’ I opened the case I was carrying and showed them my lunch. Then they said. ‘Stretch.’ Every three or four days I am stretching over a police car.”

And that is an example of prejudice at work — the disrespectful white attitudes that have done so much to inflame the black ghettos.

The police uniform, whether warn by a white man or a black man, has become a symbol of the “establishment” in poverty areas. They hate the uniform itself. It’s the closest personal association with the “establishment.” What can we do about these things?

Our commission report is full of specific recommendations, of course. But I am not concerned with whether people agree or disagree with its conclusions. I do ask them to put aside prejudice and to read the factual parts of the report objectively. By reading and accepting the facts, one acquires a new attitude. Then one begins to understand the problem.

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I say to them, “If you have the courage, and I hope you have, go into your own slum areas, black or white. Go into the poor districts. Visit with the people in their homes. Don’t just drive around the streets and expect to know what is going on behind the walls. You don’t see the sickness and malnutrition that way.”

And I add: “You might like to invite some of them to your homes. You might want to help them develop plans far bettering their communities. But remember, they don’t want patronizing; they are sick of it, and cynical. You may be a successful businessman, but this doesn’t mean you know more about their problems than they do.”

Overcoming racism in the end, requires new attitudes of all Americans. We all must work at it, black and white. And, actually, I am most encouraged particularly by our youth. Many of them understand. They have a concern for others.

There is a certain age group we are never going to change, but there is hope for changing the prejudices of people willing to change.

Kerner Report insights, Part 4: Getting the facts – President’s riot commission learned from the people

President Johnson and Kerner Commission

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.”

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

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.

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.

Kerner Report insights, Part 5: Racism has no simple cure – Steps must be taken to prevent separate societies

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

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.

No miracles

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.

President concerned

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 for 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 non-political 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 fulltime 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 said 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.

Expand ownership

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 his 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 the 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.

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