Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies
A Struggle Unfinished: Riots, Race in America, and the Failures of the 1968 Kerner Commission
Friday, April 14, 2017
to 3:00 PM
315 Humanities Building
A half-century ago, in the afterglow of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, riots besieged American ghettoes when temperatures ran hot. The events precipitating these riots often followed a tragic and longstanding script in American cities: accusations of police brutality, usually wrapped up in racial profiling, that often fed off rumors or broader, racially tinged frustrations with ghetto life. Frayed nerves and simmering resentment often mushroomed into death and destruction after dark, snarling into a mess of confusion and inebriation and damage that left many Americans wondering what had gone wrong or how any of it had started.
On the heels of deadly riots in Newark and Detroit in the summer of 1967, President Lyndon Johnson assigned the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders—known colloquially as the Kerner Commission—to answer three primary questions: “What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again?” On March 1, 1968, the commission’s report answered these questions, attributing the ugly inner-city violence, in part, to white racism and social inequality, detailing how political and economic structures contributed to suppressing the nation’s poor. With the ominous observation that “our nation is moving toward two societies—one black, one white—separate and unequal,” the commission called for increased federal spending and white accountability in confronting the problems plaguing America’s cities. “What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto,” the report declared, adding: “White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” The message was clear: long-awaited civil rights laws were watershed moments in the civil rights movement, but they had not corrected racial injustice nor the deep-seated hardships of the black experience wholesale.
The Kerner Commission sought out the structural deficiencies that explained why civil disorders persisted, the unabated cycle of residential segregation, poor schooling, inadequate employment, and police discrimination that evaded a single uplifting speech or federal law. In an unrivaled era of civil rights goodwill, the Kerner Commission’s deliberative indictment of white America was a bold statement, one that emphasized how suffering in the shadows still accompanied progress in the limelight. The report infuriated Johnson, a man consumed by the specter of the Vietnam War who interpreted the commission’s suggestions of increased spending as an indictment of his own domestic agenda. With an administration intent on discrediting the report to preserve its own political reputation, the commission’s findings and recommendations had virtually no momentum for change in the spring of 1968.
My dissertation places the life of the commission—from its inception in the days following the Detroit riots to the aftermath the following spring—at the center of the narrative. This is not a dissertation on the details of the Kerner Commission’s final report as much as it is one that tries to chronicle how eleven officials and scores of highly qualified staffers spent seven manic months arriving at such a report. It considers the causes, effects, and the report itself, of course, but not at the expense of a month-by-month account, which no historian has written to this point. In chronicling the day-to-day work of the commission through its correspondence, minutes of meetings, newspaper clippings on its daily affairs, and other materials, I seek to show how the commission arrived at the conclusions it did while also tracking how the White House sought to undermine those conclusions at seemingly every juncture. Its detractors wanted to undermine it for different reasons, and several circumstances beyond its control dulled its influence and message. This project examines the primary actors—both behind the podiums and behind the scenes—and seeks to explain why they arrived at the conclusions they did, how those who resisted along the way did so, why such conclusions fell on deaf ears, and how the report failed to accomplish its stated objectives.
The commission aimed its tangible programs at helping black America and its cultural observations at convincing white America. Even after the former seemed implausible, hope persisted that America could have a fruitful dialogue on how and why white Americans were complicit in the origins and travails of poor black neighborhoods. On both scores, it failed. The Kerner Commission was never going to be a catch-all solution to all of America’s postwar problems, but it is fair to wonder if it could have perhaps changed the conversation and reduced the chances of history repeating itself had the report and its message had more time as a lead story. In the blink of an eye, however, its chance had come and gone.