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The Riot Report | Article

The Bombshell Political Report So Shocking a U.S. President Tried to Pretend It Didn't Exist

LBJ tried to torpedo the official Kerner Commission record. Instead it became a bestseller

President Lyndon B. Johnson's head in profile with his gaze focused intently.
President Lyndon B. Johnson listens during a meeting in the White House Cabinet Room, March 26, 1968. LBJ Presidential Library.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson created the [Kerner] commission in July 1967 it was tasked with understanding what had happened up to that moment. Nearly two dozen uprisings or, in the antiseptic language of the report, “civil disorders,” had occurred between 1964 and 1967, with the largest and most destructive taking place in the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles over the course of five days in August 1965. 

Kerner has endured not simply for its prescience but also for the breadth of its analysis of the moment when it was conceived. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, which became more commonly known as the Kerner Commission—a reference to then-governor of Illinois Otto Kerner, who served as its chairman—was created by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Executive Order 11365 on July 28, 1967. The order was issued as entire stretches of the city of Detroit lay smoldering. 

On July 23, 1967, a police raid on an after-hours bar in Detroit sparked an explosion in which residents hurled rocks and bottles at police and culminated in a nearly week-long uprising marked by arson, looting, and forty-three deaths. Just eleven days earlier, the city of Newark had detonated following the assault on John Smith, a Black cab driver, by white police officers. The reactions in the community were immediate and incendiary. In the chaos of social retribution that ensued, twenty-six people were killed and hundreds more injured, while the city sustained an estimated ten million dollars in damage. 

Newark and Detroit were just the most notable of more than two dozen American cities that ignited in revolts in that summer of 1967. It appeared as though a valve of the city reservoir had been opened. An apocalyptic fury, the response to decades of discriminatory policy and centuries of racial exploitation, suddenly spewed out in American cities.

Johnson charged the eleven-member Kerner panel with answering three questions: “What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?” These were Johnson’s precise words. Addressing these questions, however, would mean answering dozens of subsidiary questions the roots of which lay deeply tangled in American history and public policy. 

The members themselves represented a cross section, albeit not a representative one, of domestic interests. Chaired by Kerner, the second-term Democratic governor of Illinois, the commission included two of his fellow Democratic elected officials, Congressman James Corman, the fourth-term representative of California’s twenty-second district, and freshman senator Fred R. Harris of Oklahoma. They were joined by three Republicans, New York City mayor John V. Lindsay, Rep. William M. McCulloch of Ohio’s fourth district, and Edward Brooke, the freshman Massachusetts lawmaker and the sole African American serving in the United States Senate at the time. 

By current standards the commission was overwhelmingly white (nine of the eleven members) and male (ten of eleven). Katherine Peden, the commerce secretary of Kentucky, was the sole female commission member. Roy Wilkins, the political moderate and executive director of the NAACP, joined Brooke as the only Black people at the table. In addition, I. W. Abel, president of the United Steelworkers of America, represented labor in the proceedings, and Herbert Jenkins, the police chief of Atlanta, Georgia, represented law enforcement. Charles Thornton, the CEO of Litton Industries, spoke for the manufacturing sector.

President Johnson sits at a long conference table with two men on either side of him. Behind them stand another eight men and one woman.
President Lyndon Johnson (seated, center) shakes hands with members of the Kerner Commission. July 29, 1967. White House Photo Office Collection, LBJ Presidential Library.

What differentiated the Kerner Commission from the outset was the historical scope of the investigations: the members were not seeking to understand a singular incident of disorder, but the phenomenon of rioting itself. Despite the heterogeneity of interests, if not the bipartisan backgrounds, of the members, the concluding report spoke with a strikingly unified voice about the problems that the various committee participants sought to understand. And that voice was an unabashedly integrationist one. Their most immediate and salient observation was that, even though the police had been involved in these most volatile incidents, American cities were not simply facing a crisis of policing. Rather, police were simply the spear’s tip of much broader systemic and institutional failures.

[T]he Kerner Report noted that the “problem” had been, first and foremost, inaccurately diagnosed. The so-called Negro problem was, in fact, a white problem. Or, as the report noted in one of the oft-quoted sections of the summary, “What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro 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.”

In a best-case scenario, Kerner would have become a kind of guidebook for the War on Poverty policies then being enacted by the Johnson administration. In more practical terms, the commission recommended new community-based guidelines covering how police needed to interact with citizens of “the ghetto,” as Black communities were dubiously classified in the report. It devoted an entire chapter to the ways in which justice should be administered in the course of riots; it suggested a national network of neighborhood task forces, local institutions that could bypass the bureaucracy and red tape of city administration and head off problems before they erupted into crises. It suggested “neighborhood service centers” to connect residents of these communities with job placement and other forms of assistance and proposed expanded municipal employment as a means of diminishing chronically high unemployment in these areas. 

Perceptively, its members suggested that the monochromatically white news media that reported on these uprisings was also a symptom of the bigger problem. That social upheaval that had been created by overwhelmingly white institutions and maintained by said white institutions was then investigated and reported upon by yet another overwhelmingly white institution constituted, in their assessment, a racial conflict of interest. They closed with a raft of specific recommendations for housing, employment, welfare, and education. Kerner was possibly a victim of its own meticulousness. The report brims with suggestions. One reason why its proposals were not realized might be that it simply made too many of them.

The commission could not have known when it released its findings in March 1968 that it was issuing a preface, not a postscript. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated the following month, and more than one hundred American cities exploded into just the type of violence that the Kerner Commission had sought to understand if not prevent. [T]he Report was fated, from the moment it reached shelves, to operate more crucially as a forecast than a review. “Our Nation,” it warned in 1968, “is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”

Excerpted from "Introduction" by Jelani Cobb, from THE ESSENTIAL KERNER COMMISSION REPORT, edited by Jelani Cobb, with Matthew Guariglia. Copyright © 2021 by Jelani Cobb. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation. This selection may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.


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