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"The Kerner Commission: Remembering, Forgetting and Truth-Telling,"

by Bruce R. Thomas July/August 2008 issue of Poverty & Race

The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (NACCD) released its report 40 years ago—on March 1, 1968. The NACCD was popularly known as the Kerner Commission, after its chair, Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois. The Vice-Chair was New York City Mayor John Lindsay. Kerner was a Democrat, Lindsay a Republican. The other nine members reflected the standard political arithmetic of such commissions:

Four Members of Congress: Senator Edward Brooke (R-MA), Senator Fred Harris (D-OK), Congressman James Corman (D-CA), Congressman William McCulloch (R-OH).

One corporate executive: Charles Thornton, CEO, Litton Industries.

One labor leader: I.W. Abel, President, United Steelworkers of America.

One state government executive: Katherine Peden, Commissioner of Commerce, State of Kentucky.

One law enforcement official: Herbert Jenkins, Chief of Police, Atlanta, GA.

One civil rights leader: Roy Wilkins, Executive Director, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Nine Commissioners were white, two African-American; ten were male, one female. Of the eleven members, two are alive: Edward Brooke and Fred Harris.

I worked on the Kerner Commission staff. What follows are reflections on the meaning of the Kerner Commission Report (KCR) as a matter of remembering, forgetting and truth-telling.

* * * * *

The French philosopher and critic Ernest Renan argued that a country’s unifying sense of self entails both forgetting and remembering. The French envelop the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in amnesia. America has done much the same in the matter of race and racism. The KCR assembled a remarkable brief in support not only of remembering our nation’s racist past but also of acknowledging the multiple ways in which the consequences of that past are written into the nation’s present. Two key paragraphs in the KCR summary told the truth in plain, blunt terms:

  • (Paragraph One)
    This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.

  • (Paragraph Two)
    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.

The two paragraphs are markedly different in their relationship to the text of the report.
Paragraph One brings forward to the beginning of the KCR key phrases and concepts from the conclusions to Chapter 16 (“The Future of the Cities”) :

  • The nation is rapidly moving toward two increasingly separate Americas. Within two decades, this division could be so deep that it would be almost impossible to unite:
    • a white society principally located in suburbs, in smaller central cities and in the peripheral parts of large central cities; and
    • a Negro society largely concentrated within large central cities.

Paragraph Two does not preview subsequent narrative language. It performs two purposes. One is to state in a few carefully crafted words the racist theme and argument of the KCR. The actual language of the narrative comes at the opening of Chapter 4, “The Basic Causes.” Acknowledging that the causes of racial disorders are “a massive tangle of issues and circumstances,” the report goes on to say:

  • Despite these complexities, certain fundamental matters are clear. Of these, the most fundamental is the racial attitude and behavior of white Americans toward black Americans. Race prejudice has shaped our history decisively in the past; it now threatens to do so again. White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II.

The second purpose or function of Paragraph Two is to place in the reader’s mind a summary explanatory category for the myriad of concrete details about the black experience in America that suffuse the 265 pages of the main narrative text. From a host of candidates, here are two such details:

  • [D]ifferential food prices constitute another factor convincing urban Negroes in low-income neighborhoods that whites discriminate against them. (p.141)

  • Most Negroes distrust what they refer to as the “white press.” As one interviewer reported:
    • The average black person couldn’t give less of a damn about what the media say. The intelligent black person is resentful at what he considers to be a totally false portrayal of what goes on in the ghetto. Most black people see the newspapers as mouthpieces of the “power structure.” (p.206)

With hindsight, we can today say that Paragraph Two unwittingly served a third purpose: as a preview of one of the three reports that make up the largely unknown second volume of the KCR: “Supplemental Studies for The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.” Released in July 1968, “Supplemental Studies” presented the results of inquiries commissioned (but not endorsed) by the NACCD: “Racial Attitudes in Fifteen American Cities”; “Between Black and White—The Faces of American Institutions in the Ghetto”; and “Who Riots? A Study of Participation in the 1967 Riots.”

The “Between Black and White” study generally supports Paragraph Two, but in a more nuanced way. This study, done by a team led by Peter Rossi from Johns Hopkins University, sought to understand “the interface between central community institutions and urban ghettos….” It focused on police, teachers, social workers, merchants, employers and political workers. Two of the study’s four principal findings were:

  1. “Although our respondents were aware that their cities faced severe problems of housing, education, poverty, crime and unemployment, their views can be characterized as optimistic denials of the full seriousness of the position of urban Negroes in their cities.”

  2. “Our respondents’ explanations of why civil disorders were occurring showed a contradictory pattern of reasons. On the one hand, they were very willing to concede that important sources of civil disorders lay in the basic conditions of ghetto life—poverty, unemployment, poor housing. On the other hand, they gave a much more important role to militants and ‘agitation’ than the Commission’s Report was able to find was actually the case.

    (Italics in the original)

So: how do we explain this rare instance of remembering and truth-telling in a nation’s public discourse?

At the July 29, 1967 press conference announcing his creation of the NACCD, President Lyndon Johnson laid out the questions the Commission was to answer (What happened? Why? How to prevent recurrences in the future?) and also issued a truth-telling charge: “As best you can, find the truth and express it in your report.”

But Presidential exhortation was no guarantee of Commission execution. How did the Commission find its way toward remembering and truth-telling?

Five explanations come to mind. First, one might say that truth-telling possibilities are unleashed when history explodes. So it did in the first nine months of 1967 in the United States; there were, in this period, some 164 separate incidents of urban rioting. Two were momentous: Newark and Detroit. The images in the nation’s media were staggering, almost beyond comprehension. This domestic explosion of violence took the country out of the realm of business as usual—and then, as if the domestic events were insufficient, came a second eruption of illusion-shattering violence, in February 1968: the Tet offensive in Vietnam.

The second explanation has to do with the nature of the beast. Commissions like Kerner are born of a political act that creates a non-political space. For both Commission members and staff, the work is a career parenthetical. Involvement with the Commission entailed no negative personal or political consequences. The voice of the Commission was a collective (this is our conclusion) in which no single voice could be singled out for criticism or retribution. The self-editing that is a constituent part of the political mind was largely checked in at the Commission’s cloakroom.

Third is the Commission experience itself. For both Commission members and staff, producing the report was an education, as much affective as cognitive. A number of Commissioners traveled to cities where riots had occurred. The Commissioners had homework and, to a remarkable degree, did it, as, for example, in reading staff papers. Particularly notable among those papers was the “Harvest of Racism” document prepared by research director Bob Shellow and his team. Though never publicly released, it exercised considerable internal influence.

Fourth, there were the witnesses, the men and women who appeared in person before the Commission to give testimony. Over months of time, the Commissioners listened to an array of voices that sketched out a portrait of America that became as undeniable as it was uncomfortable. The cumulative impact of this chorus is revealed on the final page of the KCR narrative, the stunningly brief Conclusion built around the words of one witness whose testimony came early in the life of the Commission. The speaker was Dr. Kenneth B. Clark, and the Conclusion quoted his words:

  • I read that report…of the 1919 riot in Chicago, and it is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of 1935, the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of 1943, the report of the McCone Commission on the Watts riot.

  • I must again in candor say to you members of this Commission—it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland with the same moving picture reshown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations and the same inaction.

The fifth explanation rests upon the foundational four. It involved a dollop of artifice, a little procedural two-step that gave us the two memorable paragraphs in the Summary. I have one version of this artifice; I don’t know definitively if it’s wholly true, partly true or not true at all. But even if its specifics are not precisely true, the version is nonetheless valid as a representation of the human and political process that shaped the final version of the KCR, particularly the Summary.

The version is this: The time came to finalize the report. The day before the final vote approving the text, Mayor Lindsay said to the Commissioners that no one would read the full report and it needed a few short prefatory paragraphs that would convey in just a few words the spirit and meaning of the report and the convictions of the commissioners. The Commission agreed. Lindsay volunteered to draft those few short prefatory paragraphs that night and to present them at the final meeting the next day. Lindsay presented his draft the next day; the Commission accepted it; and so the report opened with those memorable words.

In fact, Lindsay had several weeks earlier asked some of his mayoral staff who were active in assisting his Commission work to start drafting those few short prefatory pages. Lindsay had the pages in his back pocket when he volunteered to draft them overnight. He had decided to choose the most propitious moment for the idea of their necessity that would optimize the likelihood of their acceptance.

Accepted they were—and, in the minds of millions of Americans, the two key paragraphs in the Summary became the Kerner Commission Report. The two volumes of the complete Report comprise some 650 pages, but it was these two paragraphs in the Summary that carried the burden of truth-telling.

Bruce R. Thomas lives and works in Chicago as a writer and researcher in education. He works part-time at the Chicago Teachers' Center of Northeastern Illinois University and devotes the rest of his time to a non-profit entity he founded and directs called Inventure. The Kerner Commission was his first job following graduate work at Balliol College, Oxford University, on a Rhodes Scholarship.

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