This year, the Detroit Journalism Cooperative is looking back to look forward. The five non-profit media partners are taking the findings of the Kerner Commission — the White House panel convened to determine causes of the violence in Detroit and other cities in the late 1960s — and determining what, if anything, has changed.
In its 1968 report, formally titled “Report on the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders,” the Kerner Commission famously found serious inequities between the conditions experienced by white and black Americans and warned the country was moving toward two societies “separate and unequal.”
Many argue today that economic inequality is further splitting the United States.
To get an idea of how the history of efforts to address policy intersected with debates about civil unrest, WDET’s Sandra Svoboda spoke with Liette Gidlow, associate professor of history at Wayne State University.
Click on the audio above to hear their full conversation.
Here’s a transcript of what they said:
Sandra Svoboda (SS): How did we get to 1967? What was happening in U.S. politics and policy related to U.S. cities like Detroit even before 1967 that helped create the conditions that led to the rioting and unrest of the decade?
Liette Gidlow (LG): When Lyndon John assumed the presidency out of the tragic circumstances of November 1963, early in his administration he had great ambitions for a new domestic agenda, and he called that agenda the “Great Society.” In fact, he announced it over at the University of Michigan in May of 1964 at the commencement address there. He laid out a vision for a society that could address problems of poverty and joblessness and lack of education and lack of access to health care. He thought that this society could do better. So he proposed a wave of programs, many of which were enacted between 1964 and 1968 called the Great Society. The centerpiece of the Great Society was what he called the War of Poverty which was aimed at improving the life circumstances of people in urban cities but also in rural areas, and out of the War on Poverty came a number of programs, some of which are still with us today. Out of the War on Poverty, for example, came the food stamp program which had been a pilot program up to that point in time but is institutionalized in the Great Society. Now we call it SNAP, it still exists today.
Other anti-poverty programs that came out of the Great Society came out of the establishment of the Office for Economic Opportunity. A new agency that had broad powers to work to improve people’s job prospects and increase income levels. Out of the Office for Economic Opportunity came programs like Job Corps or Job Training. Out of it came programs for summer youth employment in urban locations such as Detroit. Out of it came VISTA which was a volunteer service program. Out if it came federal work study dollars that college students today still depend upon. Finally, out of it came the Community Action Program, which set up a very de-centralized set of local agencies to address poverty in local circumstances. Before 1965 there were 1,000 community action agencies set up across the U.S. including in Detroit, and these agencies were designed to mobilize people in poverty to address problems of poverty, and these community action agencies, which still exist today though they are funded differently, helped to create a core of activists, to make some resources available and those community action agencies to this day still run programs in localities including things like child care, job training, food pantries, weatherization programs and the like.
So Lyndon Johnson launches this initiative, this War on Poverty, and then in the summer of 1965 Los Angeles explodes in the Watts Riot and this causes enormous concern certainly in the administration. At that point Johnson hoped to turn the Office of Economic Opportunity into a way to try to prevent riots, that is to try to improve the circumstances of people in cities and so to prevent further urban unrest.
SS: So there was a recognition that unrest, of having many contributing factors, but the economics, the job situation, income levels were part of that back in the 1960s.
LG: There was this recognition in part because of the work of activists to turn the Civil Rights Movement north after the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act had been enacted to look at poverty in the cities as the next great civil rights problem to be addressed. So Johnson had that recognition and hoped that these programs would help to prevent further urban unrest but it wasn’t as simple as that. In 1967, Newark and Detroit explode in urban violence but not just Newark and Detroit, 124 other cities in the U.S. experienced riots that year. Further civil unrest in 1968, especially after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and at that point some people began to blame the War on Poverty for this urban unrest. There are some who felt that these Community Action Agencies helped radicals to organize and that federal dollars were being used to attack the status quo, and there were some people who felt that these were bad actors and that they were being funded by the federal government and felt that that was inappropriate.
So there was a real division of opinion on whether addressing poverty through these agencies improved peace in the cities or exacerbated urban unrest, and these were issues that the Kerner Commission took up in 1967. The Kerner Commission was formed by the President after the riots in Detroit and Newark in 1967. It issued its report in 1968 and it was really a stunning report. There were some people including people in the Johnson Administration, who felt that these urban uprisings were the product of a few radicals, that there were a few conspirators or infiltrators, bad actors, who sort of took advantage of tense situations in order to promote their own agenda and gain attention. The Kerner Commission Report unequivocally set that kind of explanation aside and said the cause of urban unrest, the root cause, is poverty, segregation and joblessness. Very explicitly named racism as a national problem that needed to be confronted and addressed.
SS: How did the experiences of first the Great Society Programs proposals and then the riots and civil unrest of the later 60s influence future presidents as they looked to address those issues that led to those situations?
LG: The Office of Economic Opportunity continued into the Nixon Administration. In fact, Donald Rumsfeld was the administrator of the OEO in the Nixon Administration, but there was never a consensus, a widespread sense of support behind these agencies and in 1973 the OEO was terminated. Some of the functions remained. Many of the functions remained but they ended up being moved to other agencies and funded through other ways. In the 1980s, those funding lines were turned into Community Development Block Grants so instead of line items for these, a block grant format and fund reduced. That is the way those programs are administered today is through block grants.
SS: When did poverty and addressing jobs become so political as we see it today with a very different approach sometimes by Democrats and Republicans and how they would tackle issues of economic development?
LG: It’s been an issue since the beginning of the Republic. We had the Jeffersonians and we had the Whigs, or the Federalists and the anti-Federalists. Some believed in internal improvements. That is in funding basically public infrastructure, public works, resources that would help to develop areas economically and others that had a different vision, a more agrarian vision or one that catered to a different segment of the population. But jobs as a political issue is something that has been very controversial through most of the 20th century, up until our own day. Even back to the new Deal, those were the first big federal jobs programs and on the one hand they were enormously popular. On the other hand, there was always a conservative critique that this was not a business that the federal government should be in.
SS: How do we determine the effectiveness of any of those programs? Have we seen anything work better than something else historically?
LG: We do. What works tend to vary over time but there are any number of studies that show that the ability to improve people’s incomes through supplements such as food stamps, through the earned income tax credit, through other means, that these do reduce poverty. There’s a study that came out of Columbia in 2014 that was very clear that the programs of the War on Poverty have decreased poverty in the United States, and so they’re very effective but they’re not always very popular.
SS: That may be true nationally according to that study, but I’m looking at some of the numbers we’ve gathered – and people can see these at wdet.org or where this project lives at detroitjournalism.org – and really in every, the major Michigan cities since 1970 the poverty rate has increased. There was a bump up between 1970 and 2000, but then again between 200 and 2014. Cities sometimes as much as quintupled their poverty rate. Why have we seen so little success here in Michigan?
LG: Because the problems are bigger than the programs. There are broad economic forces at work: globalization, decline of manufacturing, the jobs that have been created in the last several decades that have replaced manufacturing jobs have not replaced the incomes earned by those jobs. Even the minimum wage has not kept up. So incomes are down over time and the result of that is increasing poverty.
SS: As you look back at the Kerner Commission and specifically within the issues, areas of jobs and poverty, how do you see that report or other politics and political moves of the 1960s directly influencing what we have today and maybe where we should be going?
LG: The Kerner Commission report, looking at it today gives us an opportunity to see how they understood the problems of the past and things that have been done or haven’t been done to try to address them since. The Kerner Commission report offered a very stark prediction and said that America was moving toward two societies, one white, one black, separate and unequal. It’s I think possible to argue, I think it’s reasonable to argue that it was two separate societies at that point in time and that in many respects, it’s two separate societies now though we certainly enjoy much more diversity, it’s not just a black-white division at this point in time There has been progress for people in the middle class, people in the upper class. there’s less segregation at those levels, but at levels of poverty there is still tremendous segregation. Detroit is as segregated today as it ever has been, and policies have not been undertaken to try to reverse that. The promise of the Kerner Commission has not been fulfilled. The call that it issued to American society to adequately confront issues of racism and poverty has not been taken up. That call has not been answered.
This project is made possible by the Knight Foundation, the Ford Foundation’s Renaissance Journalism Project and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.