Editor’s Note: Fred Harris, a Democratic former US senator from Oklahoma and University of New Mexico professor emeritus of political science, is the only surviving member of the Kerner Commission. Alan Curtis is president of the Eisenhower Foundation. Both are co-editors of “Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years After the Kerner Report,” a new book upon which this article is based. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the authors.
“A physician’s warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life.”
That’s the way the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. described the 1968 report of President Lyndon Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (called the Kerner Commission after its chairman, Gov. Otto Kerner of Illinois).
President Johnson had appointed this blue-ribbon citizens commission in the wake of the terrible riots that exploded in the black neighborhoods of many American cities during the long hot summer of 1967, with great loss of life, awful human injury and enormous property destruction — causing shock, fear, alarm, bewilderment and anxiety throughout the country. The worst disorders, in Newark and Detroit, were not finally quelled until the President sent in US Army troops.
President Johnson charged the Kerner Commission to investigate the riots and recommend action, not only from a law and order standpoint, but also in regard to their deeper causes. “Let your search be free,” the President told the commission members. “Find the truth and express it in your report.” And that is what the commission famously did, which, as it turned out, not only shocked the conscience of the nation, but greatly upset President Johnson, as well.
The Kerner Report condemned violence and lawlessness in the strongest terms, saying they “nourish repression, not justice,” and then came its basic finding: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”
“Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans,” the report stated further, adding, “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.”
Great and sustained national efforts were required, the Kerner Report said, not only to combat racism, but also to significantly invest in human capital, through programs against unemployment and low wages, poverty, inferior or inadequate education and training, lack of health care, and bad or nonexistent housing.
The report also made strong recommendations for improving the conduct of the media and the police, and for the further integration of housing and schools. These recommendations applied to all Americans, “rural and urban, white, black, Spanish-surnamed, and American Indians.”
But, misinformed about its contents and distracted by the Vietnam War, President Johnson rejected the Kerner Report (and this is particularly sad because President Johnson did more against poverty and racism than any other president, before or since).
However, the report was leaked to the media, with detrimental effect, before the commission could, as planned, background reporters so they would fully understand the reasons for the panel’s findings and recommendations. This leak resulted in hastily written news stories that appeared throughout the country the next morning and which carried shocking headlines, something like: “White Racism Cause of Black Riots, Commission Says.” Many people never learned “the rest of the story.” Not surprisingly, there was considerable backlash in the country.
Still, many American leaders spoke out in favor of the Kerner Report, including, in addition to King, Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Sen. Robert Kennedy. And despite the opposition, America made progress on virtually every aspect of race and poverty for almost a decade after the Kerner Report. The number of African-American and Latino elected officials increased as did their numbers in the middle class and in all aspects of American life. Eventually, we elected an African-American president.
But with jobs alarmingly disappearing through globalization and automation, with conservative political change and, eventually, with unfriendly US Supreme Court decisions and congressional cuts in both taxes for the rich and the big corporations and in programs that benefited poor and middle class Americans, progress was slowed or stopped, and, finally reversed. Some improvement occurred, of course, during the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama administrations, but regression has been the trend since the mid-1970s, and that is true today.
There is still far too much excessive force by police, too often deadly force, especially against African-Americans. White supremacists have become bolder and more violent. Housing and schools have been rapidly resegregating, locking too many African-Americans and Latinos into slums and their children into inferior schools.
As the nation has grown, our overall poverty rate has stubbornly remained virtually the same, while the total number of poor people has increased from 25.4 million to 40.6 million. The rate of child poverty is greater today than in 1968, and the percentage of Americans living in deep, or extreme poverty, has grown since 1975, and “welfare reform” has failed. The African-American unemployment rate has continued to be nearly double that for whites. Latino unemployment remains disproportionately high, as well.
Labor union membership has shrunk from about 25% of private jobs to about 6%. Inequality of income in our country has greatly worsened. In the 1970s, the richest 1% of Americans took home something less than 9% of total national income; by 2016, they took home 24%.
Fifty-two percent of all new income in America goes to the top 1%. Rich people are healthier and live longer. They get a better education, and a better education produces greater inequality of income. Then, greater economic power translates into greater political power.
While it is true that the racial achievement gap in education has narrowed significantly since the 1970s, it still remains, and must be closed.
So, where do we go from here?
We know what needs to be done, and we know what works:
A more progressive tax system, making rich people and big corporations pay their fair share. Stopping tax and spending subsidies that redistribute wealth and income in the wrong direction. Strengthening unions and eliminating the legal and other barriers that impede the right of workers to organize. Raising the minimum wage to a living wage, which would be a giant boost to the economy and bump up middle class wages, too.
We need more affordable housing, and housing and schools integrated by income and race. We also need re-regulation of big banks and big finance. Better incomes for those who can’t work and who can’t find work. A sound, free public education for all — from early childhood through college. Education and training, with special attention to those put out of work by circumstances beyond their control. Health care for all. The basic American principles of equal rights and equal opportunity for all — whatever a person’s social standing, ZIP code, religion, gender, or color. Investment in infrastructure, in science, in alternative energy and in technology. Investment in ourselves.
How can we get these things done when present times are so tough?
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First, we can take heart from the fact that the great civil rights movement, led by King, John Lewis and others, began in the terrible and depressing time of Jim Crow, rigid segregation and the harshest racism — and still they courageously resisted, persisted and ultimately prevailed.
We can take heart, too, from the fact that the polls show that the majority of Americans support the measures we must now adopt and the steps we must now take.
We can take heart from the fact that we live in a time of unprecedented, growing and powerful people’s activism — with great new efforts and organizations, like the Women’s March, Indivisible, and Black Lives Matter.
Finally, the Rev. William Barber of North Carolina, founder of the rapidly spreading Moral Mondays movement and a new Poor People’s Campaign, is right when he says, “We can’t keep fighting in our silos. No more separating issues — labor over here, voting rights over there. The same people fighting one should have to fight all of us together.” Barber is pointing the way we must go, showing that white, black, Latino and other Americans can join hands in coalition with each other and with women, millennials, seniors, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and others to work for their common interests, because, “Everybody does better when everybody does better!”