Racism in America: The Kerner Report (1968)

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Detroit, July 23, 1967 rioting

In the early morning hours of July 23, 1967, police in Detroit raided an unlicensed, after-hours bar in what they assumed was just another routine crackdown on an illegal operation.

What resulted was nearly five days of violence, with Governor George Romney ordering the Michigan National Guard into action, and President Lyndon B Johnson sending the famous 82nd Airborne in an attempt to quell the riots. This culminated in the deaths of 43 people, more than 1100 injured, and somewhere north of 7200 arrests — making it one of the largest-scale riots in United States history.

Before the riot even reached a conclusion, President Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission, headed by Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois, to answer three basic questions about the Detroit riots:

  1. What happened?
  2. Why did it happen?
  3. What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?

Seven months later, the Commission released its 426-page report, which sold over two million copies in book format, immediately becoming a best-seller. Martin Luther King, Jr called the report, simply, a “physician’s warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life.”

The report laid blame at the feet of both state and federal government for failed housing, education, and social service policies, as well as at the mainstream media for having “too long basked in a white world, looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective.”

The Commission suggested one of the main causes of urban violence was white racism, and called for the creation of new jobs and the end to the de facto segregation that still ran rampant in major cities. Additionally, it recommended the government invest billions in breaking up residential segregation and move towards a more diverse and sensitive police force. (See how the report chairman explained how the team came to their conclusions here: Insight into the Kerner Report from Kerner himself.)

Despite this radical and prescient view for the time, President Johnson ignored the report’s conclusions and recommendations — an odd reversal from his earlier championing of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Acts he had so passionately pushed through Congress.

An excerpt from A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination, by Clay Risen, explains what apparently happened:

The administration went into crisis mode. Many recommended that Johnson engage with the report and accept it as a positive contribution. They even wrote up a speech, never delivered, in which Johnson would incorporate the commission’s ideas into his own new list of policy proposals.

“The more I think about it, the more I fear that a cold reception to the Kerner Report is bad policy for us,” wrote McPherson in a memo to Califano. “Unless something like this is done — meeting the report squarely and affirmatively, rather than coldly or evasively — I think we will be in trouble.”

But the president, feeling personally insulted by the report’s conclusions, declined even to meet with the commissioners, and his public statement was limited to a few bland assessments.

One can’t help but wonder: If President Johnson had heeded the words of the Kerner Commission, could the violence in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland have been avoided? The 1992 riots in Los Angeles? And, further back, the riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr in April of 1968?

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Either way, it’s clear we still have a long way to go. – AJW




National Advisory Commission an Civil Disorders 1968 report foreword


Below is the report summary — the entire illustrated report can be seen online on The National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS) website.





The summer of 1967 again brought racial disorders to American cities, and with them shock, fear and bewilderment to the nation. The worst came during a two-week period in July, first in Newark and then in Detroit. Each set off a chain reaction in neighboring communities.

On July 28, 1967, the President of the United States established this Commission and directed us to answer three basic questions:

What happened?

Why did it happen?

What can be done to prevent it from happening again?

To respond to these questions, we have undertaken a broad range of studies and investigations. We have visited the riot cities; we have heard many witnesses; we have sought the counsel of experts across the country.

This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.

Reaction to last summer’s disorders has quickened the movement and deepened the division. Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American.

This deepening racial division is not inevitable. The movement apart can be reversed. Choice is still possible. Our principal task is to define that choice and to press for a national resolution. To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values.

The alternative is not blind repression or capitulation to lawlessness. It is the realization of common opportunities for all within a single society.

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This alternative will require a commitment to national action — compassionate, massive and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and the richest nation on this earth. From every American it will require new attitudes, new understanding, and, above all, new will.

The vital needs of the nation must be met; hard choices must be made, and, if necessary, new taxes enacted.

Violence cannot build a better society. Disruption and disorder nourish repression, not justice. They strike at the freedom of every citizen. The community cannot — it will not — ­tolerate coercion and mob rule.

Violence and destruction must be ended — in the streets of the ghetto and in the lives of people.

Segregation 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.

It is time now to turn with all the purpose at our command to the major unfinished business of this nation. 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.

Our recommendations embrace three basic principles:

* To mount programs on a scale equal to the dimension of the problems:

* To aim these programs for high impact in the immediate future in order to close the gap between promise and performance;

* To undertake new initiatives and experiments that can change the system of failure and frustration that now dominates the ghetto and weakens our society.

These programs will require unprecedented levels of funding and performance, but they neither probe deeper nor demand more than the problems which called them forth. There can be no higher priority for national action and no higher claim on the nation’s conscience.

We issue this Report now, four months before the date called for by the President. Much remains that can be learned. Continued study is essential.

As Commissioners, we have worked together with a sense of the greatest urgency and have sought to compose whatever differences exist among us. Some differences remain. But the gravity of the problem and the pressing need for action are too clear to allow further delay in the issuance of this Report.


>> Read more on the next page [ All report pages: Introduction | Part I | Part II | Part III ]

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