The Kerner Report and the Forgotten Politics of 1968

The 12 representatives of the Kerner Commission, together with Lyndon B. Johnson

“This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black; one white – separate and unequal.” [1]

This remains one of the most poignant lines that one remembers of the 1968 Kerner Report, a 426-page document released after seven months of the Kerner Commission’s investigation [2] into the growing Civil Rights unrest leading up to 1968. Set up in July 28, 1967, the Kerner Commission was elected by President Lyndon B. Johnson after major uprisings in Detroit, the “composition of the commission – heavily stacked with racial “moderates”” was notably lacking with “the voice of the “”militants.””[3] Ironically, this eventually lent the report much credibility to the severity of its findings. The Kerner Commission’s main purpose was to attempt to find the answers to three simple questions: “”What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?”” [1]

The book cover of the Kerner Report

The completed report’s findings  to these questions were shocking. “White society,” the presidentially appointed panel reported, “is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”[4] In other words, white racism was the root cause for the unrests, underscoring the limitations placed unjustly on African-Americans’ ability to escape from poverty. Its findings, cast alongside well-supported data and evidence of the various systemic issues that African Americans faced during that era, were also replete with many solutions – notably, which required a large amount of fiscal resources. Yet, despite the staggeringly negative results of the Kerner Report, the fact that it remains a rather forgotten memory of 1968 points to the convoluted political situation of that watershed year, as well as the way in which much of the racial issues of America might have been inadvertently swept under the rug with the distance of time.

The Nation’s Response to the Kerner Report

Needless to say, with just less than half a decade between the Civil Rights Act of 1964 [5] (and its subsequent Voting Rights Act of 1965) and the results of the Kerner Report in February 1968, the Commission’s findings generated much controversy. While much of white sentiments supported the enforcement of “law and order” [3] – the rhetoric of military force – to quell the uprisings, the Kerner Report instead reproached the use of force [4]. According to polls taken after the release of the report’s findings, while a large majority of blacks supported the results, 53 percent of white respondents refused to believe the claim that it was ‘white racism’ that caused the riots [4]. Evidently, “the common sense of purpose in the summer of 1965 had all but evaporated by the spring of 1968” [3].

The Report’s Failure

The back cover of the Kerner Report

Unfortunately, despite the progressive nature of the Kerner Report, it lacked the political impetus necessary to enforce the solutions that it had proposed. Shockingly, President Johnson not only refused to implement much of the report’s suggestions and proposed solutions, but ignored the report’s significance entirely [6]. The report’s findings of course, had far-reaching negative implications on Johnson’s political career. On one end, because the report’s suggestions were so fiscally demanding, the Johnson administration, constrained by America’s spending on the war in Vietnam could not simply shift resources to social reform. Furthermore, tax increases too were not an option for congress [4]. On the other end, Johnson felt deeply betrayed by the Kerner Commission who did not provide any indication at all of his domestic achievements in the years leading up to the report. Later, the commission even came under fire by then presidential candidate Richard Nixon, who insisted that white Americans had nothing to apologize for [7]. Admittedly, one must acknowledge the political challenges that Johnson had to negotiate: “Johnson found himself in the end in the worst of all possible political worlds, absorbing blame form foes for proposing the commission and from friends for not endorsing its conclusions” [3].

Yet, it was later made known in this interview from Fred Harris, the last surviving member of the Kerner Commission that not only did the report include pages that acknowledged Johnson’s concerted pro-Civil Rights policies, but that he had not even bothered to read the report. The interview is also significant for its behind-the-scenes look at the politics that embroiled the Kerner Report, alongside the general atmosphere of 1968 related through the eyes of Fred Harris, the former US Senator from Oklahoma. In this interview, the former Senator revealed information that compounded the controversy: the Kerner Report were never meant to be released to the public in the first place. It had been unintentionally leaked to the Washington Post, the media’s wide-reaching impact sensationalising much of the news. [8] Recalling the article’s title, ‘”White Racism Caused Black Riots”, Commission Says’, the former senator remarks that much of the Commission’s proposed solutions that were intended to address economic and social inequality for all racial groups, not just African Americans, went unreported. Embittered, President Johnson had thus refused to accommodate to the Kerner Commission, let alone read the report’s findings. With this discovery, Johnson’s stubborn rejection of the Commission and the Report is greatly undermined, for it suggests that he could have done far more.

Going further, it is also important to note that while Johnson did order the Commission to investigate the causes leading to the riots, the true intention behind creating the commission was rather, to uncover evidence that could support a possible conspiracy – what could be just a result of a masterminding organization or individual that orchestrated the entire uprising. [7] While this does not discount the seminal findings of the Kerner Report, this is very much a reflection of racial sentiments that surrounded much of 1968: a white refusal to believe that black racism was inherently systemic and unjust – not just the lack of hard work – as well as an acknowledgement of bipartisan politics that inhibited much of the progress of Civil Rights.

A Retrospective Assessment


Today, the evidence of racism described in the Kerner report remains prevalent the society and politics of America. While its name might have changed, its face remains the same. For instance, “”Black power” is out, “Black Lives Matter” is in.”” Despite the Report’s recognition of the rampant racism that pervades American society, the ongoing struggle against black racism shows the lack of impetus towards enforcing lasting policies and solutions that ends the systemic struggle that many black Americans face. More so, just as the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Report offered a timely reminder of the racism that remains a serious, legitimate issue today, my attempt at extracting the details of the Kerner Commission and its Report refuses to allow the distanciation of this important piece of memory to occur, for it is one that still holds much relevance today.

To find out more about the protests, anger and fervour that necessitated the Kerner Report, click here.

 

  1. Stone, Geoffrey R. “‘Our Nation Is Moving Toward Two Societies…”.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 12 July 2017, www.huffingtonpost.com/geoffrey-r-stone/our-nation-is-moving-towa_b_10927438.html.
  2. Carter, David C. “Just File Them or Get Rid of Them.” The Music Has Gone Out of the Movement , edited by David C. Carter, University of North Carolina , 2012, p. 197 – 235.BiblioBoard. Web. 20 Apr. 2018.
  3. George, Alice. The 1968 Kerner Commission Got It Right, But Nobody Listened. 1 Mar. 2018, www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/1968-kerner-commission-got-it-right-nobody-listened-180968318/.
  4. History.com Staff. “Civil Rights Act of 1964.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2010, www.history.com/topics/black-history/civil-rights-act.
  5. Graham, Lester. “The Kerner Commission and Why Its Recommendations Were Ignored.” Michigan Radio, http://michiganradio.org/post/kerner-commission-and-why-its-recommendations-were-ignored
  6. “The Kerner Commission And The Search For Answers.” Tribunedigital-Chicagotribune, 11 May 1992, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1992-05-11/news/9202110788_1_kerner-commission-national-advisory-commission-illinois-national-guard
  7. Harris, Fred, and Alan Curtis. “Last Surviving Member of Kerner Panel: 50 Years Later, America Is Still Divided.” CNN, Cable News Network, 1 Mar. 2018, www.cnn.com/2018/03/01/opinions/last-surviving-member-of-kerner-panel-says-america-still-divided-opinion-harris/index.html.

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “The Kerner Report and the Forgotten Politics of 1968”

  1. I thought you did a nice job of explaining the Kerner Report. I happened to come across this article while working on an assignment for another class, and thought you might find it interesting as a way of incorporating a modern perspective on this:
    ‘Two societies: one black, one white’: The Kerner Commission’s prophetic warnings by Donald Nieman. http://www.triangletribune.com/news/2018/04/12/state-national/two-societies-one-black-one-white/

    It says, “During the ensuing 50 years, retrospectives on the report surfaced on anniversaries and in the aftermath of highly publicized urban uprisings in Los Angeles; Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore, Maryland; and Staten Island, New York.” Bringing in some of this could help with explaining how the report is viewed today, 50 years later. The author also talks about how many of the findings are as relevant today as they were then.

  2. Very well done! The use of various mediums (photography, interview, quotes) enhances the post and there is a great hook.

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