Fifty years ago during the long, hot summer of 1967, racial tensions in America reached a crescendo, erupting into a chain of urban uprisings in one major city after another—Newark, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Tampa, Detroit. Detroit’s was the worst: 43 people were killed and more than a thousand were injured.
Before the embers cooled, President Lyndon Johnson appointed the National Commission on Civil Disorders (known as the Kerner Commission) to find answers to three basic questions: What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again?
The 11-person group, headed by Otto Kerner, then governor of Illinois, released a sweeping analysis of the many causes and consequences of racial and civil discontent during that time. Unless conditions were remedied, the commission warned, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”
Hailed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as “a physician’s warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life,” the Kerner Report remains one of the most powerful examinations of race relations in modern-day society, with lessons that reverberate today.
Half a century later, the last surviving member of the Kerner Commission Sen. Fred Harris joined a panel of scholars at the LBJ Library on March 6 to reflect on the origins of the report and discuss the stark parallels between now and then. Below are some images and quotes from the evening event, sponsored by the Social Justice Institute and supported by the Longhorn Center for Community Engagement, LBJ Presidential Library, LBJ School of Public Affairs and Department of Radio, Television and Film.
Angela Evans, dean of the LBJ School of Public Affairs, opened the event with and insightful overview of the landmark 1968 Kerner Report and the value it brings to American society.
“Upon establishing the commission, President Lyndon Johnson said to its members, ‘Let your search be free. Let it be untrammeled by what has been called the ‘conventional wisdom.’ As best you can, find the truth, the whole truth, and express it in your report.'”
Dr. Peniel Joseph, professor of history and founder of the LBJ School’s Study of Race and Democracy, provided a brief exploration into the timeliness and relevance of the Kerner Report, stating that it is one of the most important documents on race and equality ever released by the federal government.
“The Kerner Commission took steps for proactive political, social and cultural transformation. These were public servants who spoke truth to power even at the cost of their own careers and reputations because it was the right thing to do.”–Dr. Peniel Joseph
Sen. Fred Harris reminisced on the creation of the Kerner Report, the conflicts he faced with the Johnson administration, and the many warnings he and his fellow commissioners revealed in the report. He noted some marked improvements in the 80s with integration in schools and housing. Yet the progress was short-lived as the education gap, wage gap—and various other gaps—widened over time.
“With conservative political change and unfriendly Supreme Court decisions, progress slowed or stopped and finally reversed. There were some improvements during the Clinton and Obama administrations but regressions are the trend today.”–Sen. Fred Harris of Oklahoma
Dr. Eric Tang, professor in the College of Liberal Arts and director of the Social Justice Institute, moderated the discussion. He commented on the report’s significant impact on modern-day examinations of persistent racial inequalities.
“Despite the efforts of some to thwart the commission’s impact, it became arguably the most widely-read government document in the history of the country.”–Dr. Eric Tang
Dr. Kathleen McElroy, associate director of the School of Journalism in the Moody School of Communication, discussed the misconceptions of urban uprisings that were sparked by unbalanced news reports. She noted that after the Kerner Report was released, more people of color were hired into newsrooms to improve coverage.
“To this day, the Kerner Report is shorthand in newsrooms for media integration. Its most visible impact was on the private sector.”–Dr. Kathleen McElroy, fellow of the S. Griffin Singer Endowed Professorship in Journalism
Former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro discussed the relevance of the report’s findings to current inequalities in Austin and cities across the nation. He emphasized the need to invest in opportunities for social and economic mobility.
“When it comes to housing and neighborhoods, you need to give people as much choice as possible. Either the choice to go to a higher-opportunity area or to stay in the neighborhood where they live. East Austin is a great example of that. The African American population has declined by almost 50 percent over the last 15 years.”–The Honorable Julian Castro, fellow of the Dávila Chair in International Trade Policy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs
Tang concluded the event with a pressing question: Where do we go from here? To that, Harris listed a number of action items such as strengthening labor unions, raising the minimum wage, investing in better schools, housing, education and providing healthcare for all. He left the audience with a hopeful takeaway.
“We can take heart by the fact that the great Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King and others began in the terrible, oppressive time of Jim Crow. The odds were abundantly against them, but they courageously resisted, persisted and prevailed.”–Sen. Fred Harris
View more photos on the LBJ Library’s Flickr site. Credit: LBJ Library photos by Jay Godwin.