The Kerner Commission: Part 1 – Background

Have you heard of ‘The Kerner Commission’ from 1967-1968? I had not until I saw a random comment on Twitter that mentioned it. At this point, I’ve read through it multiple times, and I have been blown away by the insights it provides into our current situation. I believe that it shows that our current issues surrounding racial justice and equal treatment before the law are not new and have been explored in the not too distant.

In response to inner-city riots that rocked America in 1967, President Lyndon Johnson commissioned THE NATIONAL ADVISORY COMMISSION ON CIVIL DISORDERS (which became known as ‘The Kerner Commission’) (1). Over a six month period the members of this committee visited the sites of the civil unrest, interviewed witnesses and citizens of the affected communities in 23 different cities, and “sought the counsel of experts across the country.” They also brought with them social scientists to collect data and compare across populations.

President Johnson handpicked the members of this commission, and he intentionally did his best to include as many moderates as possible. After-all, this was after his Great Society initiatives, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. President Johnson did not want to rock the boat anymore and was hoping for an easy solution to the problems facing the inner city. (2) That’s not what he got.  

As opposed to a simple solution, Kerner Commission CONCLUDED, “What white Americans have never fully understood but what [Black Americans] 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.”

REMEMBER this was 1967. The report continues:

“White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II. Among the ingredients of this mixture are:

  • Pervasive discrimination and segregation in employment, education and housing, which have resulted in the continuing exclusion of great numbers of [Black Americans] from the benefits of economic progress.  
  • Black in-migration and white exodus, .which have produced the massive and growing concentrations of impoverished [Black Americans] in our major cities, creating a growing crisis of deteriorating facilities and services and unmet human needs.  
  • The black ghettos where segregation and poverty converge on the young to destroy opportunity and enforce failure. Crime, drug addiction, dependency on welfare, and bitterness and resentment against society in general and white society in particular are the result.”

As I will discuss in other posts, the Kerner Commission goes on to discuss these factors in greater detail, citing a history of racism and racist policies. It also gives policy recommendations to help with the problems affecting the inner city. The recommendations were IGNORED by President Johnson, and then the report was lost in the shuffle when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated.

There is a current stream of thought which tries to deny that systemic racism is real. It’s tempting to believe this narrative, especially if we are detached from the FULL SWEEP of American history. When we investigate our history – often times the history not taught in school or widely publicized – we find that much of what is affected our society is nothing new. The need for racial equality, in particular, is simply something that is regularly deferred to the next generation; in essence the can is kicked down the road. Then comes a moment, like that moment in 1968 when President Johnson was given the report or like the moment we find ourselves in now, when we can take decisive action and truly live into the ideals laid out in our Constitution. It becomes our choice to act with empathy, justice, and equality, or kick the can to the next generation.  

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The Kerner Commission – Part 2: The Inner City and Policing

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