Editors’ Note: This is the first installment of a discussion about the significance of the Kerner report and the urban uprisings of the 1960s. The other installments are Daniel Gearys What the Kerner Report Got Wrong About Policing and Elizabeth Hintons From ‘War on Crime’ to War on the Black Community.


The Kerner Commission’s 1968 report, produced for President Lyndon Johnson, sought the causes of urban race riots that had shaken the country during the summer of 1967. The commission shocked many—not least of all the president—when it determined that blame for the riots rested squarely on white racism and the systemic disadvantages it caused.

The report remains one of the most insightful government examinations of the state of race relations in twentieth-century America, with lessons that reverberate today. The commission released its report at a turbulent moment in American politics. The energy behind the Great Society—Lyndon Johnson’s massive domestic agenda, which Congress had passed between 1964 and 1966—had given way to bitter conflict over the war in Vietnam and racial violence and disorder in the cities. The Tet Offensive in Vietnam in January 1968 undermined public confidence in government proclamations that the war was almost over. Liberals were fighting among themselves as the left wing of the Democratic Party started to become more vociferous in its opposition to the war.

Johnson wanted the answers to three questions: What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again?

The Kerner Commission’s findings would be unlike almost any other report that the federal government had produced about race relations in America. Although it stuck to conventional liberal ideas about how to improve racial equality, the report offered hard-hitting arguments about the ways in which white racism was built into the institutions and organization of urban America. The report also tackled controversial issues like police violence against African Americans that had often been kept on the sidelines of mainstream political discourse.

• • •

In July 1967, major riots devastated the cities of Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit, Michigan. These were only the worst, though, of 163 riots that had broken out that summer in places large and small, ranging from Plainfield, New Jersey, to Wadesboro, North Carolina. On July 12, rioting started in Newark in response to rumors that the police had mistreated an African American cab driver whom they were arresting. In the eyes of some close to the Johnson administration, Newark’s unrest was the culmination of many years of frustration with excessive police violence. In fact, President Johnson refrained from sending in any troops to achieve calm, fearing that doing so would only stoke the racial flames engulfing the city. After five days of devastating violence, the riots ended with twenty-six people dead, hundreds injured, and massive property damage to the community.

The violence in Detroit started on July 23, not long after the smoke from the Newark riots had cleared. This time the conflict began when the city’s undercover police raided an illegal African American after-hours bar during a party celebrating the return of Vietnam veterans. As police began making arrests, onlookers could be heard yelling “Black power!” and “Don’t let them take our people away!”

Michigan governor George Romney was planning to run as the Republican presidential candidate in 1968. Thus he resisted asking for help from the Democratic administration. Instead he released a statement that said: “The nation is in crisis, and this [Johnson] Administration has failed even to make a proposal to protect our people on the streets and in their homes from riots and violence.” Johnson responded with a statement of his own: “We will not tolerate lawlessness. We will not endure violence.” The president, however, hesitated once again to deploy National Guard troops, only agreeing to do so when the violence worsened. In the end, forty-three people were killed, over a thousand were injured, and hundreds of buildings were damaged.

Unlike the riots that occurred in Watts, Los Angeles, in August 1965, these riots took place during a period when Johnson, northern Democrats, and the Great Society were already on the defensive. The political damage to liberalism proved much deeper. The images of chaos directly played into the right’s claims that liberal policies had created urban disarray.

The president’s understanding of liberalism also came under attack from the left. The Black Power movement championed a more radical critique of American society than many liberals had been willing to accept. At the core of Black Power was the demand to restore black identity through a strategy of self-determination and racial unity that could overcome institutional racism. Movement activists insisted that wholesale reform was necessary to tackle the roots of American racism: this included better educational programs at schools, prison reform and welfare rights, constraints on police, greater employment opportunities, and robust antipoverty programs. 

Desperate to do something, but not in a position to do much more than defend his existing accomplishments, Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to investigate the causes of the rioting. Not everyone agreed with this course of action. Joseph Califano, one of the most liberal advisers in the White House, didn’t think that calling for a study was the best thing to do in the middle of a total meltdown in urban race relations. “The cities are aflame,” Califano recalled, “the country’s coming apart, LBJ can’t get a tax bill, so what does he do? Set up a commission and say a prayer.” Califano worried that the commission would make things worse for the administration by calling for changes that the White House would not be able to achieve.

• • •

The president appointed Illinois governor Otto Kerner, Jr., to head the commission. Kerner had a relatively strong reputation on racial issues and, just as importantly, was a loyal member of the Democratic machine, intent on protecting the president’s political interests. The governor, who had been an officer in World War II and had been elected in 1960, received national acclaim when he successfully pushed for the integration of the National Guard. He was also eager for a judicial appointment that, Johnson hoped, could be leveraged as a carrot to ensure that the commission produced a report favorable to the White House’s aims.

Only two members of the commission were black: the new senator from Massachusetts, Republican Edward Brooke, and Roy Wilkins, the former president of the NAACP and one of the most senior civil rights leaders of the period. The notable absence of other African American civil rights leaders drew criticism, as it raised suspicions about how serious the commission would be.

Other members of the commission included Ohio Republican William McCulloch, who had been instrumental to the passage of earlier civil rights legislation, and California Democrat James Corman, who was under fire for supporting the fair housing bill. They were joined by the populist Oklahoma Democratic senator Fred Harris. As Senator Harris recalled, when Johnson called to congratulate him on the appointment, the president urged Harris not to forget he was a “Johnson Man” or he would “take out my pocketknife and cut your peter off.”

There were representatives from industry, such as United Steelworkers president I. W. Abel and the head of Litton Industries, Charles “Tex” Thornton, a conservative Texan and Johnson loyalist. Throughout the following months, Thornton would relay information to Johnson so he could keep abreast of what the commission was doing. Katherine Graham Peden, the commissioner of commerce for Kentucky, joined Atlanta police chief Herbert Jenkins, who had been one of the lone law enforcement voices pushing for reform. New York mayor John Lindsay, one of the most prominent liberal Republicans of the time, was an advocate of civil rights. Johnson was worried about Lindsay’s ambitions and liberal proclivities, but he felt that adding Lindsay would win him approval from civil rights activists who respected the mayor’s work in New York.

The mayor of Milwaukee testified that the central cities could not ‘long endure within a segregated metropolis.’

To add to the establishment feel of the body, Johnson put attorney David Ginsburg in charge as executive director, along with his deputy, Victor Palmieri, a corporate lawyer from California. Ginsburg, a Harvard-trained lawyer, born in New York but raised in West Virginia, had been working with Democratic presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Republicans employed staffers like Richard Nathan and Stephen Kurtzman, two moderate establishment types who were expected to endorse a report that did not shake the status quo.

Upon signing the order creating the commission, Johnson told the commissioners at a private meeting to think big. “Let your search be free, untrammeled by what has been called the ‘conventional wisdom.’” His rhetoric belied the fact that he had stacked the committee with loyalists so he could contain how radical they could ever be. Johnson did not give the commissioners much in terms of direction. He said that he wanted to know the answer to three basic questions: What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again? “I hope that you will be inspired by a sense of urgency,” Johnson said, “but also conscious of the danger that lies always in hasty conclusions.”

The first phase of the commission’s investigation involved twenty days of closed hearings in Washington between August and November of 1967, as the commissioners heard testimony from witnesses ranging from first responders and local political figures to activists, governors, and scholars. Some witnesses offered shocking statements. Many of the mayors who appeared before the commissioners were fed up with conditions in their cities. “There is a system of apartheid confining the poor and the Negro to the city,” said Mayor Henry Maier of Milwaukee. He called on Congress to pass the fair housing bill, warning that the central cities could not “long endure within a segregated metropolis.” There was almost no support, other than from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, for the idea that the riots had been a product of radical outside political agitators.

During the second phase of their investigation, the staff and some of the commissioners traveled to twenty-three cities where there had been urban unrest so they could interview local citizens and activists. The commissioners and staff walked around in pairs, usually incognito, in order to get a firsthand sense of what residents were thinking. In Milwaukee, Senator Harris spent most of his day in a black barbershop, where customers told him that segregation was far worse in Wisconsin than in the South. Many of the people he talked with had never even interacted with white people. “Jobs,” was what Harris said he heard most when asked what was needed to make things better.

In Newark, New Jersey, Lindsay, accompanied by Ginsburg, walked through the crowded streets of the city’s projects. Lindsay enjoyed a lighter moment when he played some basketball with a few boys, missing his first shot but hitting the second. A few blocks later he stopped to buy a lime drink from some twelve-year-old girls, handing them a quarter even though it only cost a penny. The city’s mayor, Hugh Adonizio, was furious, as he felt that he was being upstaged. “I’m going to ask my Mayor why he doesn’t come up here,” quipped one local resident who caught a glimpse of the patrician New Yorker. “We can have some very serious political controversy,” one adviser wrote President Johnson, “if Lindsay and other members of the Commission move in on some of the cities where mayoral elections are scheduled this fall.”

• • •

While commissioners heard from witnesses, their staff dove into the data. The social psychologist Robert Shellow, who had previously worked for the National Institute of Mental Health, served as the deputy director of research. The desire to forge connections with university expertise was not a surprise. These were years when social scientists were greatly valued in national politics. Johnson had set up task forces of experts to design his Great Society. The belief in expertise in popular culture was at its highest level.

The social scientists understood that there was a massive volume of scholarship on race relations in urban America with which the commission would need to be in dialogue. The work dated back to W. E. B. Du Bois, who in 1899 had published The Philadelphia Negro, which used path-breaking quantitative and survey methods to analyze the structural forces—such as lack of access to jobs and educational institutions—that undermined African American communities. Du Bois argued that these conditions had produced a certain level of social pathology, including rampant infidelity, that was destroying the black community. His interpretation challenged racist conservatives who claimed that African Americans were inherently inferior, psychologically and morally, as a result of biology.

During the 1920s and ’30s, sociologists and anthropologists associated with the Chicago School used their city as a testing ground to understand, through ethnographic casework, how social environments and social structures shaped human behavior. They rejected Du Bois’s concern with moral damage and instead focused on the conditions that had created social disorganization within the African American community since emancipation. In his landmark book The Negro Family(1940), sociologist E. Franklin Frazier looked at the breakdown of the African American family that resulted from economic and residential discrimination. As an opponent of Du Bois, whom he felt placed too much emphasis on moral damage, Frazier argued that black families had been resilient after slavery ended, and that the problems encountered after the Great Migration would be overcome in time. The absence of fathers in the increasing number of “matriarchal” families, he said, would end with more jobs and with unionization.

Presidential adviser and Harvard historian Daniel Patrick Moynihan echoed many of these themes in an internal report to President Johnson in 1965. This report, entitled The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (often referred to as the Moynihan report), called for a national plan to combat the institutional racism that was producing high rates of unemployment, reliance on welfare, and single-parent families. Moynihan had concluded that the welfare state could achieve only limited results if the black family itself was broken: “The fundamental problem is that the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling.” The “matriarchal” black family, in his estimation, revealed the declining status of black men. There were other signs, Moynihan wrote, of a “tangle of pathology,” such as the high failure rates of African Americans on the Armed Forces Qualification Test, as well as rampant “narcotic” addiction in the inner cities. Johnson echoed many of these findings in an address at Howard University in June 1965.

But as the report became public, particularly in the wake of the Watts riots, Moynihan came under fire from civil rights activists who claimed that his conclusions were patronizing and demeaning. The controversy around Moynihan’s work weakened support among civil rights activists for the argument—once central to liberals—that the psychological damage suffered by African Americans was evidence that the government needed to be more proactive in eliminating the institutional sources of racism. As conservatives picked up on these arguments about the black family to argue that social breakdown was the cause of rioting, liberals became even more frightened by the political direction these arguments could take.

• • •

On November 22, Shellow delivered to the lawyers a first draft of the report from the social scientists on the staff, entitled “The Harvest of American Racism.” The 176-page draft was damning about the failure of Great Society programs, which the authors dismissed as tokenism that did not tamper enough with the “white power structure” to have an impact. While critical of policing, the authors noted that police “often take the brunt of much hostility that might more logically be directed at the larger society and its less visible institutions.” The report treated “rioting,” a term they challenged, as a political response to racial oppression. Rioters were not radicals such as the Black Panthers. Nor were they agents provocateurs. Nor were they the poor. They were certainly not “riff-raff,” as John McCone’s 1965 Watts commission had concluded. Rather, much of the violence was driven by middle-class African Americans who understood the horrendous conditions they faced, and that violence sometimes resulted in positive outcomes. “In several important respects,” the preliminary report said, “a riot is no different from any other kind of collective action.” “A truly revolutionary spirit has begun to take hold,” they wrote, “an unwillingness to compromise or wait any longer, to risk death rather than have their people continue in a subordinate status.”

Upon reading the draft, Ginsburg, who never lost his cool, cursed and screamed. Palmieri tossed the draft against the wall as Shellow watched in dismay. The executive staff of lawyers concluded that a new report would have to be written. Ginsburg fired all 120 social scientists who had worked on the draft.

“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”

Even still, the data in “The Harvest of American Racism” became the basis of the commission’s discussions, and much of it made its way into their final report. In the end, Johnson’s worst fears came true: Kerner lost control. Mayor Lindsay, whom Johnson had never liked much, and who the president believed wanted to use this as a platform for a presidential run, pushed his colleagues to be much more aggressive with their report. Senator Harris, despite his earlier promise and Johnson’s threat, joined the mayor in pushing the commission to be brutally honest in its report. Though he was not always comfortable with the implications of the study, Ginsburg did whatever was possible to make sure that the commission could finish its work.

Lindsay, whose radiant personality had been a favorite with journalists, understood the importance of crafting the report in a way that would grab people’s attention. At his insistence, an attention-grabbing line was added in the hope of generating interest in the media: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”

The final report was a provocative statement about the problems that shaped racial conditions in urban America. The report described the riots as the outgrowth of racial inequality and oppression rather than as acts of political or criminal agitation. Instead of focusing on individual behavior or the cultural and familial problems that concerned Moynihan, the commissioners devoted almost all of their attention to institutional forces, such as unemployment and housing discrimination. 

The riots in Newark and Detroit, according to the report, “were not caused by, nor were they the consequences of, any organized plan or ‘conspiracy.’” The rioters, they found, were usually educated and had been employed in previous years. Most of them were angry about the kind of racial discrimination they faced when seeking employment and places to live. They were frustrated with the state of their neighborhoods and wanted access to the political system from which they had been disenfranchised. They also wanted to participate in the consumer culture that American leaders boasted about. The rioters were not driven by radical agitators, nor were they recent transplants to the city. The report depicted them instead as ordinary, long-time residents of neighborhoods who could no longer stand the deplorable conditions under which they and their families lived. 

Antipoverty programs, the commission’s report said, were failing to achieve their goals because of deep-rooted institutional problems such as lack of employment that made the chances for advancement of anyone born into these conditions slim. The report concluded that without replacing the welfare system with an income maintenance program, combined with robust job policies, the problems would only get worse. The rioting was just a taste of further unrest to come if the status quo prevailed. “Large-scale and continuing violence could result, followed by white retaliation, and, ultimately, the separation of the two communities in a garrison state.” 

No institution received more scrutiny than the police. The rioting had shown without any doubt that law enforcement had become a problem in race relations. Rather than constructive domestic policies, more aggressive policing had become the de factoresponse from city officials. “In several cities,” the report stated, “the principal official response has been to train and equip the police with more sophisticated weapons.” The police played a big role in almost all of the riots, according to the commissioners. Indeed, the Kerner report surmised that systematic police violence against African Americans was at the heart of the riots, more so than almost any other cause.

The report stressed that law enforcement officers were not “merely a ‘spark factor.’ To some Negroes, policemen have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression.” The commissioners warned that in a number of cities the police were being armed with automatic rifles and machine guns, even tanks, which only inflamed the situation. The commissioners believed it essential that more African Americans be recruited to the police departments and that stricter guidelines be imposed on proper police conduct. 

The report ultimately blamed “white racism” for producing the conditions that provoked the riots. With a powerful account of the history of race relations, the commission traced the problems in the cities all the way back to slavery. The point was not that white Americans were intentionally committing racial injustice against African Americans, but that racism was embedded in institutions.

The report offered the conclusion that the nation faced three choices. One was to continue with existing policies. This, they said, would have “ominous consequences,” since it would lead many African Americans to see the conditions they faced as a “justification for violent protest.” The second choice was to adopt a set of policies that aimed to provide “enrichment” to ghetto life without pursuing integration. This, according to the commission, would create a “permanently divided country” where equality, under segregation, would never be possible. Finally, the choice that the commission endorsed was a short-term set of policies to strengthen the ghettos and promote integration by moving African Americans out of these cities. This would produce a “single society, in which every citizen will be free to live and work according to his capabilities and desires, not his color.” The report called for federal investment in infrastructure, education, and jobs. The solutions came back to robust government intervention. New Deal and Great Society liberalism could still work.

• • •

The president received an official copy of the report on the morning of February 27, 1968. Johnson was so furious that he sought to embargo its release. However, within days the situation had spun out of control.

On March 1, The Washington Postpublished a story based on a leaked draft of the report. The article had the shocking headline “Chief Blame for Riots Put on White Racism.” The article moved right to the most pointed aspect of the findings:

Why did it happen? . . . The Kerner commission points the finger of blame squarely on what it regards as one ‘most fundamental’ cause—white racism. It is the way white Americans act toward black Americans. White racism, the commission found, has built up an explosive mixture of segregation, discrimination, and deprivation in the poor black ghettos of the big cities.

LBJ had no choice but to lift the embargo. The stories started to flood in within hours. Many in the media offered praise for what the commission had found, as did liberal activists who had expected a much more watered-down product. Although the report proposed the kinds of programs that mainstream liberals had been championing for some time, the unequivocal emphasis on the institutional sources of racial inequality pleased many in the civil rights movement. “We’re on our way to reaching the moment of truth,” said CORE director Floyd McKissick. “It’s the first time whites have said, ‘we’re racists.’”

There was considerable praise in the black press. The Atlanta Daily Worldsaid that “the Commission has come up with a comprehensive program to meet the growing problems of the cities and it is our hope that responsible citizens will see that both industry and government are now aware of them and the desire to do something to alleviate them.” Citing the line about “two societies,” the Chicago Daily Defenderremarked that “the Negro press and civil rights organizations have been pointing this out to the nation for more than a decade.”

Predictably, conservatives blasted the contents of the report for failing to place sufficient blame on government programs and the rioters themselves. “What caused the riots,” wrote the conservative intellectual William Buckley, Jr., “isn’t segregation or poverty or frustration. What caused them is a psychological disorder which is tearing at the ethos of our society as a result of boredom, self-hatred, and the arrogant contention that all our shortcomings are the result of other people’s aggressions upon us.” Texas Congressman George Mahon, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, dismissed the report as a “disappointment” that would require a 100 percent surtax to finance. Richard Nixon, with his eye on the presidency, complained that the report “blames everybody for the riots except the perpetrators of the riots.” He promised that as president he would “meet force with force, if necessary, in the cities.” The commission was talking about white racism; conservatives such as Nixon kept the conversation focused on the theme of law and order.

President Johnson, who was facing a tough reelection campaign and struggling with whether he should even be running, was unhappy with the findings, as Califano had predicted he would be. He felt that the report had not given sufficient credit to his Great Society for alleviating racial inequality and that it called for programs, such as higher taxes, that were politically impossible.

So he ignored the report. He refused to formally receive the publication in front of reporters. He didn’t talk about it when asked by the media. When adviser Harry McPherson brought him a stack of thank-you letters to sign for the commissioners, he refused. Johnson expressed his anger to Mayor Daley that New York senator Robert Kennedy was complaining that the administration refused to spend enough on the cities. Johnson believed this was an outrageous statement given that he was desperately struggling to prevent an increasingly conservative Congress from cutting what already existed.

• • •

The report, published as a paperback by Bantam Books in early March, turned into an immediate sensation. The 708-page paperback quickly reached the bestseller list, with over 740,000 copies sold. The book was purchased in bulk by libraries, universities, civic organizations, and even police departments. It was said to be one of the fastest-selling books since Valley of the Dolls. Millions of viewers watched Marlon Brando read parts of the report out loud on ABC’s late-night talk show, The Joey Bishop Show, on April 25.

In his introduction to the first edition of the book, New York Times columnist Tom Wicker noted that the recommendations were doubly powerful because the members of the commission were part of the political establishment, not radical intellectuals or bomb-throwing activists. “Reading it is an ugly experience but one that brings, finally, something like the relief of beginning.” Wicker added, “What had to be said has been said at last, and by representatives of that white, moderate, responsible America that, alone, needed to say it.”

Today the war on crime and the war on drugs have replaced urban policy.

Just two weeks after Bantam published the report, public interest in the findings intensified when Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, which resulted in another round of urban rioting. The concerns about racial tension were so great that, after two years of gridlock, Congress finally passed a fair housing bill (albeit one that was severely watered down from the original proposal, as it contained no enforcement mechanisms and exempted huge quantities of housing stock).

Public opinion polls, however, reflect how the report’s findings were received differently by white and black Americans. In mid-April, one month after the report had been made public, 53 percent of white Americans polled rejected the commission’s claim that white racism was to blame for the riots, while 58 percent of African Americans agreed with the findings. Though they narrowly agreed on the need to rebuild the cities, whites also rejected by 63 percent the proposal to fund the report’s recommendations by raising taxes, whereas 66 percent of African American supported paying higher taxes to achieve the goals. By a margin of 2 to 1, whites rejected the Kerner Commission’s claim that organized groups were not behind the violence.

Because the conservative effort to dismantle the Great Society was well under way by 1968, the report never became a guide to public policy. In fact, the biggest post-report legislation other than the fair housing bill was a tough-on-crime measure endorsed by both parties. The legislation imposed restrictions on guns, provided federal grants for law enforcement initiatives against riots and crime, and expanded the power of the federal government to use wiretapping against criminals. At the end of the same month that the commission released its report, Johnson shocked the nation by announcing that he would not run for reelection. Vietnam, not race relations, consumed his remaining months, and the law-and-order candidate Richard Nixon would succeed him, signaling a very different direction in policy from the one the commission had called for.

• • •

The problems highlighted in the Kerner report remain hauntingly relevant today. Many parts of urban America are as unstable, if not more so, than when Kerner looked into the conditions that existed in the late 1960s. Lack of jobs, inadequate education, racial discrimination, and police brutality remain endemic. Poverty has also been spreading to the suburbs, bringing these issues into new areas, while economic inequality has become more severe and hardened. The war on crime and the war on drugs have replaced urban policy. For those who didn’t make it out, hope for change has only diminished.

Still, the Kerner report remains a powerful statement about the struggles that African Americans face in a country where racism shapes many of our key institutions. And it still has a great deal to offer policymakers and citizens as they wrestle with racial tension in the aftermath of recent unrest from St. Louis to Baltimore. The root causes of this spate of riots—from police violence to inescapable poverty—are tragically the same ones identified by the Kerner Commission nearly fifty years ago.

 

Note: This essay is adapted from the introduction to the Princeton University Press 2016 edition of The Kerner Report by The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. Reprinted by permission.