Fifty years ago this month, a presidential commission released perhaps the most explosive government report of the 1960s.
Its main finding: Racial violence that proliferated in major American cities in that era was rooted in the failure of political institutions to recognize the humanity of black citizens rather than the supposedly pathological behavior of ghetto residents.
As we observe Black History Month, it’s particularly important to recall how the findings of the presidentially appointed Kerner Commission rocked the nation, becoming a best-seller that combined passionate advocacy with principled social scientific inquiry to trace the roots of violence often characterized as “long hot summers” of racial and civil discontent.
Its meticulous inquiry into the roots of urban poverty, police brutality and racial violence illuminated a toxic racial environment that would grow worse in the aftermath of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination barely a month after its official publication.
The commission’s sensitivity to the hopes and dreams of black folk trapped in segregated ghettos stood on the broad shoulders of civil rights activists such as King, even as the conditions patiently revealed the political environment that inspired black power activism and produced radical activist groups such as the Black Panthers.
Headed by Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner and stacked with leading political, civil rights and policy experts, the Kerner Commission report unveiled the relationship between institutions of American democracy and structures of racial, economic and cultural segregation that turned predominantly black ghettos stretching from Los Angeles to Harlem into what was effectively another country.
Patterns of racial unrest and violence that gripped American cities squarely at the feet of the nation’s political institutions were revealed.
“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal,” the report declared.
“It is time to adopt a strategy for action that will produce quick and visible progress,” the report said, warning that it was past time for the nation to “make good the promises of American democracy for all citizens” and with that laid down a political and moral gauntlet that would frame national discussion for the rest of the year.
A political bind for LBJ
The report’s empathy for black life scandalized many in mainstream politics, erecting a seemingly permanent demarcation between conservative law-and-order advocates who decried it as justifying lawlessness and political activists of various stripes, most notably King, who embraced the findings as incontrovertible proof of a message they and their forebears had articulated since Reconstruction.
Ironically, the findings put President Lyndon B. Johnson in a political bind. Perhaps no other American President had done more to aid the cause of racial justice, nor felt more unappreciated. Johnson faced an increasingly difficult re-election campaign.
He was criticized on the left by anti-war and black power activists, who accused him of effectively abandoning the ambitious plans for a Great Society on a distant battlefield in Vietnam. It was a position most eloquently outlined by King, who was at one time Johnson’s staunchest ally in the cause of racial justice.
Conservatives attacked the President as soft on crime, a closeted socialist whose war on poverty only emboldened black militants, while encouraging riots and mayhem. Richard Nixon, vying for the Republican nomination for president, seized upon the report for blaming the victims of violence rather than the “perpetrators.” Johnson remained silent in the face of the report, although the White House leaked his disappointment over the commission’s failure to point out the progress that had been made under his administration in civil rights.
Politically hurt by the report’s national implications that his administration had not done enough to ensure racial and economic justice despite its best intentions, Johnson refused to meet with the bipartisan commission he appointed to great fanfare the previous summer.
Root causes of urban violence
In stark terms, the report outlined a vicious cycle wherein the more blacks exhibited unapologetic anger and oppression over poverty, racism and violence, the more American society responded with increased police and punishment policies that exacerbated the situation without beginning to approach the root causes of urban violence.
Anticipating the Black Lives Matter movement’s call for sweeping criminal justice reform, the Kerner Commission called for community policing and training for law enforcement. More expansively, the report advocated for billions of dollars in new resources promoting jobs, education and health care to be directed toward urban centers and high poverty communities.
Scores of interviews with rioters lifted the veil behind the depictions of looting and violence that became hallmarks of the era, finding the average rioter to be employed, educated and simmering with rage over institutional denial of decent housing, police brutality and lack of opportunity.
The white backlash
The most controversial aspect of the report proved to be its bold declaration that white racism produced black poverty and violence in the ghetto. While nearly 60% of blacks agreed with the report’s indictment of white racism, more than 50% of whites rejected this assertion.
The 700-plus-page tome proved to be the “wokest” document ever produced by the federal government on race matters. But law and order proved to be a more popularly enduring theme for politicians, pundits and the vast majority of American voters than a report condemning white racism, indicting longstanding democratic institutions and admitting that the civil rights revolution had merely scratched the surface of the kind of radical change required to promote racial and economic justice.
The report turned out to be the tip of rather sizable iceberg in 1968, a blood-soaked year marked by political assassinations, racial uprisings and domestic and international rebellions.
The President’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder remains a historical and intellectual jewel of the era, the artifact of a generation that, despite its immense flaws and inequalities, proved courageous enough to identify squarely the tortured relationship between race and democracy while outlining concrete demands and solutions for a way forward.
Despite the failure of political leaders and American citizens to follow through on the report’s unapologetic commitment to black equality, it remains one of the most important historical and political documents ever produced. The document anticipated urban decline and pointed out the conditions that have allowed a system of mass incarceration to flourish nationally since its publication.
The 2016 reissue of the report, along with historian Julian Zelizer’s riveting introduction, should be required reading for all Americans interested in understanding the historical and policy roots of contemporary discussions of race.
It offered decisive judgment in the midst of national political and civic struggles and touched off a debate over race and democracy that continues to this day, absent the lucidly analytical and profoundly American sentiments conveyed by a report that asked the nation to proclaim once and for all that black lives matter.