The Kerner Commission, and why its recommendations were ignored

The Kerner Commission, and why its recommendations were ignored
February 25, 2016 Michigan Radio

The Kerner Commission (courtesy photo)

By Lester Graham | Michigan Radio

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Full transcript

News media around the world are talking about Detroit’s resurgence.

Politicians in the city and the state, such as Governor Rick Snyder, hype its revitalization.

“New investments have helped fuel a rapid dramatic transformation of Detroit and today it’s America’s comeback city.”

But that’s only part of the story of Detroit.

In the city’s neighborhoods many people are still struggling.

By some measures, black residents in Detroit are in worse shape now than black residents were during the civil rights struggles in the 1960s.

Michigan Radio and the Detroit Journalism Cooperative have launched a year-long investigation to see what has and what has not changed.

Lester Graham reports on a 1960s plan to help end racial discrimination in Detroit and the nation.

It was ignored by policy makers. Many researchers say that was a critical mistake.

Here’s what happened.

The summer of 1967 saw dozens of uprisings in urban centers across the nation.
Detroit’s was the worst.

43 people were killed –most of them black. More than a thousand other people were injured.

Thousands of national guard troops and thousands more police were already on the streets. The mayor and governor wanted more help. President Lyndon Johnson sent in five thousand U.S. soldiers.

“I take this action with the greatest regret and only because of the clear, the unmistakable, and the undisputed evidence that Governor Romney of Michigan and the local officials in Detroit have been unable to bring the situation under control.”

Before the fires in Detroit were out, Johnson spoke to the nation again. He was appointing an 11-member special Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. It was chaired by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner and became known as the Kerner Commission.

“The Commission will investigate the origins of the recent disorders in our cities. It will make recommendations—to me, to the Congress, to the State Governors, and to the mayors—for measures to prevent or contain such disasters in the future.”

The President wanted to know why? Why did these uprisings happen?

Within seven months the Kerner Commission had an answer.

Nathaniel R. Jones was Assistant General Counsel for the Commission:

Nathaniel R. Jones was Assistant General Counsel for the Commission (photo by Lester Graham)

Nathaniel R. Jones was Assistant General Counsel for the Commission (photo by Lester Graham)

“One of the conclusions of the Kerner report was that white racism was at work, was the cause of the upsets and the uprisings that we had. In fact, the report stated that white society created it, perpetuates it, and sustains it.”

In other words, white racism, white attitudes were the underlying reasons for racial unrest in the cities. Many white politicians and news media vehemently resisted that finding.

Detroit had been seen by the nation as a model of race relations. Many black people were getting jobs in Detroit that simply were not available to people of color in much of the rest of the country.

Overlooked was the fact that Detroit African-Americans often were given the hardest and dirtiest jobs, often were passed up for promotions, and generally made less money. Housing was inferior. Unemployment among people of color was higher. Relationships with police were strained.

The Commission also blamed the violent outbreaks on federal and state governments ignoring the plight of black residents. It blamed mainstream media for ignoring the problems and consistently presenting only the white point of view.

“The Commission said in its report that there was a combination of complex social, psychological problems, poverty all tangled up which create this feeling on the part of people that they can’t trust authority. And that was true as a lead in to what happened in the ‘60s and it’s true now.”

The report’s most quoted conclusion read, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white- Separate and Unequal.”

The Kerner Report was published in paperback. It became a best seller.

But President Johnson barely acknowledged it.

Joe T. Darden is a professor at Michigan State University and co-author of a book on the 1967 Detroit riots. He says the Kerner Report challenged whites’ attitudes about blacks. And he says that made President Johnson worry it would damage the Democrats’ chance to keep the White House.

“The report put the responsibility for all of this stuff on white society and white institutions. That, I think, was a surprise to some white Americans and I think that was part of the reason he was very careful not to upset the large segment of white society. That was why I think it happened like that.”

Another factor in President Johnson’s silence on the Kerner report was his own ego. He felt the report ignored his accomplishments Great Society programs.

But in a 1969 interview for the LBJ Library Commission Chair, Otto Kerner said praising Johnson’s work would give the report a political flavor the commission members did not want.

Kerner said Johnson privately told him he was working quietly to implement Kerner report recommendations.

“He said, ‘You know, we’ve been trying to do these things that you’ve recommended in the report, and as you know Congress is not very acceptable to the things that I proposed. But I want you to know that I have the members of the cabinet and the White House staff people still trying to have accepted those things I’ve already recommended.’”

But that’s not what Johnson told one of his political buddies.

A phone call between President Johnson and Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley reveals Johnson had problems with the report.

President Johnson’s Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, was running for president. He pushed the Kerner report recommendations. But, Johson felt Commission’s Vice Chair New York Mayor John Lindsay had pushed the Commission too far.

LBJ-Kerner (phone with Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley):

“And Bobby just gave me hell today for not carrying out the Kerner Commission study. Well, I didn’t realize when I appointed Kerner that this son-of-a-bitch from New York, Lindsey, would take charge. He did take charge and he recommended I hire two-and-a-half million people on federal payroll. And I just, I’ve not wanted to reflect on Kerner and criticize the Commission. At the same time, I couldn’t embrace it because I’ve got a budget.”

That Johnson budget had doubled because of the Viet Nam war.

Nearly five decades later, that report by the Kerner Commission is still considered a one of the most insightful documents on race relations and remedies for discrimination to ever be published by the government.

MSU Professor Joe T. Darden says the cost of ignoring the Kerner report has meant further decades of less opportunity for African-Americans.

“That would have eliminated this separation we have: central city/suburb, white suburb/black central city, white affluent/black poverty. That would have prevented that. They didn’t take that alternative, what the Kerner Commission really wanted society to do.”

That’s why this year the Detroit Journalism Cooperative is looking into the grievances of black America, reviewing the findings of the Kerner Report, and investigating hard numbers to see how life for people of color has changed during the past 50 years.

Support for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative on Michigan Radio comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Renaissance Journalism’s Michigan Reporting Initiative, and the Ford Foundation.

Production assistance came from the Oral History Project at the LBJ Library. Assistance in reporting this piece came from Bill McGraw with Bridge Magazine, a DJC partner.


  1. Hal Martin 5 years ago

    Bobby Kennedy was not LBJ’s attorney general, but Senator from NY.

  2. SocialCritic 4 years ago

    This content is very helpful as the Wiki article on the Kerner Commission as of this writing does not indicate why LBJ “ignored” the Kerner Commission recommendations. The above piece attempts to clarify and should be included in the Wiki entry on this topic.

    Because much of Civil Rights era history is growing old now — insofar as young and even many middle-aged Americans do not have personal recollections of this era — it is difficult to convey just how institutionalized racism really was to a generation that did not experience it firsthand. According to a historian interviewed by NPR, inner city ghettos were created by housing policy, blockbusting and other such tactics:

    “Historian Says Don’t ‘Sanitize’ How Our Government Created Ghettos” (NPR).

    As recently as the Financial Crisis we witnessed how banks, without official backing of government, nonetheless attempted to market subprime mortgages to those who could least afford them, particularly within minority communities. Over the years, however, the rate at which government has intentionally set out to perpetuate institutional forms of racism on housing and other fronts has been struck down by the Supreme Court. That is genuine progress, to be sure, so why does it feel like we are backsliding? For what it’s worth, my best guess:

    Today we have entirely new impediments to progress that did not exist at the time the Kerner Commission convened. In the wake of the Vietnam war, before we fully came to terms with our own internal problems, we began to focus on the undeveloped world. By the 1980s, even as the World Trade Organization was eliciting protests from concerned Europeans, progressive globalization proponents in the U.S. praised efforts to lift the Third World out of poverty even as conservative backers praised the improved competitiveness that the offshoring and outsourcing of jobs allowed for American business interests. The impact of this shifting focus — from domestic policy to global integration — was to undercut the diversity of available jobs here in the U.S. and to leave that many more working class people, minority and otherwise, unemployed or lesser-employed as factories closed. (And the trend hasn’t stopped. Job erosion most recently came to include service sector employment in bricks-and-mortar retail employment.)

    Employment opportunity is and was key to closing the inequality gap between whites and minorities. But just as we were beginning to make some progress in the legal and public policy arenas, we introduced two massive shifts into American life for which the consequences, once again, disproportionately served to harm minorities.

    To that, we add a second development.

    Even as the push to globalize came to fruition in the 1980s so, too, did another type of trade: the emergence of the crack cocaine epidemic. The use, sale and distribution of illegal drugs, which disproportionately impacted urban areas, is yet another underlying factor to account for increased rates of minority incarceration. Taken together — globalization and criminality revolving around the street drug epidemic — we have seen rates of inequality increase still more in the United States. Again, those who were already living at a disadvantaged took the brunt.

    Prior to the late 1970s street drugs were few, whereas today they are virtually innumerable. Prior to globalization the American middle class was growing for whites and at a slower pace for minorities. Post-globalization the American middle class is eroding among all groups, but again minorities have disproportionately borne the brunt.

    At this juncture we need to ask: Is globalization and illicit drug trade serving to do, indirectly, what institutional policy sought to do directly in the preceding era? Put another way, had we managed to stave off the mass onslaught of illegal drugs and stave off the push to offshore/outsource (globalize) for another two decades, might we have seen the the Kerner Commission recommendations come to pass in some form or fashion after all?

    To the broader discussion: Can we really attribute the fact that LBJ did not implement Kerner Commission recommendations as the beginning and ending of the problem — or is it possible to infer that the subsequent decision to ignore the momentous domestic changes called for by the Kerner Commission report stem from a re-prioritization on global policy (and integration) at the expense of domestic progress (housing, jobs, infrastructure)?

    My guess is that when we examine at all that has fallen out of favor in recent decades in the public/domestic policy arena, the competing (intruding) factor will again and again come down to globalization. In this sense, policymakers are STILL ignoring the Kerner Commission recommendations in favor of an economic and domestic policy progression that has served to perpetuate a level of inequality that is now *worse* than it was in LBJ’s era.

    The question becomes, do we accept the failed war on drugs — and the rampant abuse of drugs as a normalized part of City life — or do we collectively come to appreciate that the illicit drug trade is another form of subjugation? Might it be time, similarly, to ask whether globalization and our government’s international agenda, in general, are themselves a means to perpetuate the inequality problem that institutionalized discrimination (in housing, law and U.S. government policy) no longer can?

    In at least one version of LBJ’s explanation for ignoring the Kerner Commission recommendations, he allegedly says he has a budget (can’t afford to hire all those additional federal employees). And yet as we look back to the 1960s American politicians found it possible to “afford” and otherwise rationalize the war in Vietnam. Today, under the alternating banner of “Neocon” (Bush/Cheney era) and “Liberal Interventionist” (Obama/Biden) era, we are largely on the same path that we were in LBJ’s day — still spending billions of taxpayer dollars abroad to try to make other countries safe for democracy (and U.S. corporate development) while neglecting to prioritize progress here at home.

    When does it become okay to stop and ask ourselves if putting a priority on our own internal wellbeing — to stem the tide of our own rising inequality — is really that bad in view of the mixed (and even catastrophic) results from some 60-years worth of attempts to shape outcomes abroad?

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