Unknown Histories: The Kerner Commission

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November 2020

In 1968, four years after the Civil Rights Act and three years after the Voting Rights Act were passed, President Lyndon B. Johnson convened a Presidential Commission to study why Black people were still rioting. The “long, hot summer of 1967” had seen 159 race riots pop up in cities from Atlanta to Boston to Cincinnati to Milwaukee, with the most dangerous ones occurring in Newark and Detroit.

The 11-member committee was charged with answering three questions: “What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?” After seven months of investigation, it came out with its report, which became an instant and controversial bestseller.

The report laid most of the blame for the riots on white racism, rather than Black pathology or secret radical groups. Despite legislative victories for Black citizens, the reality of pervasive unemployment, poverty, segregation and discriminatory police behavior left masses of Black people frustrated and trapped in areas of chronic poverty. “White society,” the report stated, “is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” The most common and frequent complaints among Black people in the areas where the riots had occurred were police behavior (including over-policing and excessive use of force), lack of employment, and inadequate housing. The report called for massive government spending on programs to alleviate these concerns as well as others, such as inadequate education, poor facilities, and the ineffectiveness of the political structure at addressing Black grievances.

Although the report was criticized from all sides, it got many things right. The Chicago Daily Defender noted that “the Negro press and civil rights organizations have been pointing this out to the nation for more than a decade.” However, President Johnson refused to transfer any money from the Vietnam War effort to the recommended programs. Despite the report’s big splash, nothing was done about it. Researchers Lipsky and Olson, who studied the outcomes of twenty-one commissions appointed to investigate race riots between 1917 and 1943, believe that is on purpose. Not a single one of the commissions they studied ledto any meaningful change. The purpose of commissions, they believe, is for the government to appear to be doing something about an issue, not to actually do something.

The story of the Kerner Commission can be applied to today. The government has once again failed to take concrete action to address the grievances of the Black Lives Matter protests, many of which echo the same grievances listed in the Kerner report. However, this outcome is not inevitable. Massive civilian mobilization has changed the course of history before, and it can happen again. In fact, it must, or as the report warns, “none of us shall escape the consequences.”