“This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”
— Kerner Commission report, 1968
While the Summer of Love swept through San Francisco 50 years ago this summer, scores of inner-city neighborhoods across the country burned with rage.
In what was dubbed the “long, hot summer,” more than 100 poor, largely black communities were rocked by violent incidents in 1967. Some labelled them riots, others called them uprisings and rebellions. Erupting primarily in East Coast and Midwestern cities, including Milwaukee, Buffalo, Tampa and Cincinnati, the incidents resulted in more than 100 deaths, hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage and scores of burned-out neighborhoods, some of which never fully recovered.
The unrest was a reaction to to a larger problem: deep-seated anger and hopelessness simmering in many disenfranchised, urban communities where rates of poverty, joblessness and crime were disproportionately high.
But nearly every instance of unrest was ignited by the same kind of spark: an individual local incident involving an unarmed black man (or men) beaten or killed by white police officers for a seemingly minor infraction.
And two of the most devastating riots occurred back-to-back that July.
Newark and Detroit
In Newark, NJ two white police officers severely beat a black cab driver after stopping him for a minor traffic violation. As word of the incident spread, thousands of residents rioted in the streets, looting businesses and prompting the deployment of several thousand police officers and National Guardsmen. The violence raged for six days, leaving 26 people dead, scores more injured and tens of millions of dollars in property damage.
Just two weeks later in Detroit, a police raid on an unlicensed bar in the largely black Virginia Park neighborhood sparked an even more devastating riot. Looters raided shops and set buildings on fire. Panic ensued amid rumors of snipers on rooftops. Roughly 17,000 law local and national law enforcement officials, including the National Guard and US Army paratroopers, were sent in to quell the unrest.
Over the course of five bloody, chaotic days, 43 people were killed and more a thousand injured — mostly black men at the hands of law enforcement. More than 7,000 arrests were made, and an estimated 2,500 stores were looted or burned, leaving large swaths of Detroit’s inner-city in ruins.
It marked Detroit’s second major riot in just 24 years.
Newark and Detroit were not isolated incidents. Two years before, a confrontation between a young black man and a police officer in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles resulted in days of rioting that left 34 people dead. Violent unrest continued in 1966 in poor sections of cities like Chicago, Cleveland, New York and San Francisco.
As wealthier, largely white communities increasingly flocked to the suburbs, the remaining inner-city neighborhood were often thrust into deeper states of prolonged economic isolation, Over the following decades, jobs and home values in these areas continued to drop sharply.
The Kerner Commission
In the immediate wake of the riots, President Johnson established a bipartisan task force: the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, named after its chair, Illinois Governor Otto Kerner. The group was tasked with addressing three major questions:
“What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it happening again?”
In his televised address announcing the commission, Johnson began:
“We have endured a week such as no nation should live through: a time of violence and tragedy.”
He then proclaimed:
“Not even the sternest police action nor the most effective federal troops can every create lasting peace in our cities. The only genuine long-range solution for what has happened, lies in an attack, mounted at every level, upon the conditions that breed despair and breed violence. All of us, I think, know what those conditions are: ignorance, discrimination, slums, poverty, disease, not enough jobs … There is simply no other way to achieve a decent and orderly society in America.”
Over the next six months, members of the commission visited inner-city neighborhoods throughout the country, interviewing residents, police officers, and local officials. They drew on the research of social scientists and analyzed media coverage of the recent violence.
The 11-member commission was not politically radical in any sense of the word: It included four members of Congress, the mayor of New York, Atlanta’s police chief, and union and industry representatives. Only two members were black.
Nevertheless, the commission’s final report was blunt, and to many Americans, shocking:
“This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal. White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities.”
The report’s direct reference to white racism as a root cause of the riots was particularly controversial.
“We used the word racism. And on the commission, we had two or three people say, ‘Should we use that word, racism?'” former Senator Fred Harris (D-Okla.), who served on the commission, told Bill Moyers in 2008.
“We felt that it was very important … to say it. Because what we know is that oppressed people often come to believe about themselves the same bad stereotypes that the dominant society has. Our saying racism, I think, was very important to a lot of black people who said, ‘Well, maybe it’s not just me. Maybe I’m not, by myself, at fault here. Maybe there’s something else going on.'”
The report elaborated on the often explosive relationship between local police forces and the black communities they patrolled:
The police are not merely a “spark” factor. To some Negroes police have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression. And the fact is that many police do reflect and express these white attitudes. The atmosphere of hostility and cynicism is reinforced by a widespread belief among Negroes in the existence of police brutality and in a “double standard” of justice and protection—one for Negroes and one for whites.
At the time, many observers believed that the unrest was the work of “outside agitators,” radical groups traveling from city to city, intent on sowing chaos and disorder. The commission, though, found no evidence of conspiracy or premeditated plans. Although it stopped short of labelling the riots a flat-out rebellion against racial oppression, it underscored that the conflicts were an indication of the deep frustration stemming from a host of social problems afflicting inner city communities of color.
Topping that list was police brutality, unemployment, and an inadequate supply of affordable housing. The commission stated, in no uncertain terms, that white America was directly implicated in creating these problems:
“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 long list of sweeping policy recommendations included :
- Creating two million new jobs and six million new affordable housing units
- Revamping the welfare system
- Eliminating de facto school segregation
- Eliminating “abrasive” police practices and establishing redress mechanisms
- Improving news coverage of the problems facing black Americans
- Making local government more responsive to inner city communities
The 426-page report, published in March 1968, sold over two million copies and earned a spot on the nonfiction bestseller list of the New York Times, which called it a “stinging indictment of white society.”
And then, it all but disappeared.
The Johnson Administration countered that the commission hadn’t given the president enough credit for past civil rights legislation, and Johnson later refused to support further research or even meet with the commissioners.
The report noted that in order to improve conditions, “hard choices must be made, and, if necessary, new taxes enacted.” But there was little political will to do so, particularly as the nation planted itself deeper into the incredibly costly conflict in Vietnam.
And less than a month after its publication, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination sparked another string of violent riots in poor, urban communities across the country.
From Kerner to Ferguson
After the Michael Brown shooting in 2014 and the unrest that followed, a new commission was formed to study a similar issue. Chaired by Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, the group was tasked with identifying the underlying causes of the unrest. Its final report, while much smaller in scope, bears some resemblance to the Kerner findings. The series of recommendations, modest in comparison to the Kerner report, included:
- Reducing the use of force by police officers
- Reforming sentencing laws
- Improving the health and education of children and young people
- Increasing access to affordable housing and public transit
- Expanding Medicaid
Like the Kerner report, the Ferguson analysis identifies racial inequality as the primary problem. But the language and tone is strikingly different: far less piercing, accusatory and urgent.
“We are not pointing fingers and calling individual people racist,” the report states. “We are not even suggesting that institutions or existing systems intend to be racist.”
The original members of the Kerner commission may have foreseen this. They concluded their report by quoting the testimony of psychologist Kenneth Clark. Clark – whose famous doll tests were cited in Brown v. Board of Education – reminded his audience of the many previous commissions assembled to study incidents of racial unrest: Chicago in 1919, Harlem in 1935 and 1943, Los Angeles in 1965. Testifying before the Kerner Commission, he said, was a kind of Alice in Wonderland experience: he watched the same images flickering past, sat listening to the same analysis and the same recommendations – and it all culminated, finally, in the same inaction. The commissioners quoted his words:
“It is time now to end the destruction and the violence.”