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The Kerner Commission's Last Living Member Says We Still Need To Talk About Racism

Sep 26, 2021
Originally published on September 27, 2021 1:23 pm

Updated September 27, 2021 at 2:18 PM ET

It may seem that Americans are only now discussing racism and all its ramifications out in the open after last year's nationwide protests against police brutality and the glaring social inequalities exposed by the pandemic.

But in 1968, a government report openly discussed racism in the United States in a way that sent shockwaves through the country.

It came after what's been called the "long, hot summer of 1967," when Black residents in cities across the U.S. erupted in violence as the result of longstanding racial discrimination. The worst unrest happened in Detroit, where 43 people were killed in five days of fires and looting; and in Newark, N.J., where 26 people were killed.

Some claimed the riots were carefully organized by Black militants. Others claimed there were reckless extremists involved: snipers waiting to attack police officers.

Fred Harris was a senator representing Oklahoma at the time. "People were frightened and looking for some kind of explanation," he told Radio Diaries.

President Lyndon Johnson appointed 11 people, including Harris, to a commission to find answers.

Johnson appointed a commission to find out the cause of the unrest

"He said it this way," Harris recalled. " 'Answer three questions: What happened? Why did it happen? And what can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?' "

In addition to holding 20 days of hearings with various leaders, from Martin Luther King Jr. to J. Edgar Hoover, the commission sought answers on the ground. They divided into teams, visiting riot cities including Detroit, Newark and Cincinnati to talk to Black residents and observe the state of Black communities.

"Families were living in really terrible conditions," Harris recalled. "Awful housing, no jobs, and almost criminally inferior schools. Talking to actual people in the riot cities turned out to be a really searing experience."

Police check buildings in Detroit on July 24, 1967, following racial riots which broke out in the city. The last surviving member of the Kerner Commission says he remains frustrated that the panel's recommendations on U.S. race relations and poverty were never adopted.
AP

All of this research was combined in a report that totaled more than 1,400 pages. The most damning words were in the introduction: "This is our basic conclusion. Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal. ... Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American."

The report starkly blamed white racism as the cause of the riots, saying on page 91: "White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II."

The Kerner Report was a sensation

The commission was chaired by Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner and it became known unofficially as the Kerner Report. It shocked the political establishment and the public when its conclusions were made public in March 1968. The Kerner Report was quickly condensed into a book, and according to historian Julian E. Zelizer, became a bestseller, selling 740,000 copies. CBS's Harry Reasoner said that America had been "indicted" with "a charge of white racism." South Carolina Attorney General Daniel McLeod said that the report "unfairly and improperly castigated the white race."

"People don't want to be called racist," Harris told Radio Diaries. "The shock value of that was just enormous."

The report created an American identity crisis — forcing white Americans to understand that they had a role in causing the unrest they feared. Many disagreed with the report, including Harris' own father.

"The way my dad heard the commission report was this: Mr. Harris, out of the goodness of your heart, you ought to pay more taxes to help poor Black people who are rioting in Detroit," Harris recalled. "And my dad's reaction was, 'to hell with that!' "

The biggest stamp of disapproval, however, came from President Johnson. Though he created the commission, he saw its accusations as a slap in the face to his own legislation against poverty in the past. Johnson ultimately rejected the report, and its suggestions were not pursued.

"It hurt his feelings," Harris said. "He had done more against poverty and racism than any president in history. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of '65. People like him thought, 'I thought we solved all that.' "

Harris regrets that the commission didn't bring the news media with them to show the public their trips to the riot cities.

"We never were able to get across what the conditions that people were living in were to a big part of the country," Harris said. "Didn't feel it in their stomach like we did."

However, he has little regrets about what was said in their report.

"Fifty-three years later," Harris said, "if we'd just do now what the Kerner commission recommended, we could change things."

Fred Harris served in the Senate until 1973. Today he is the commission's last surviving member.

This story was produced by Mycah Hazel and edited by Joe Richman, Ben Shapiro and Deborah George of Radio Diaries. You can find more of their stories on the Radio Diaries Podcast.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Acknowledging and confronting racism in America did not start in 2020 with the nationwide protests over police brutality and the glaring inequalities highlighted by the COVID pandemic. But the extraordinary events of the past months have jolted many in the nation into wider, perhaps more open discussions. This might surprise some people, but there was a similar moment more than 50 years ago, when a U.S. government commission published a report that addressed racism in the United States in a way that sent shockwaves through the nation.

The Kerner Commission's 11 members were appointed by President Johnson to investigate the root causes of the unrest that swept much of the country in the summer of 1967. That's when dozens of American cities and towns were rocked by protests against racial discrimination. At the time, many white Americans were quick to blame the unrest on Black militants or other agitators, everything but racism. That was until the commission released its report in March of 1968.

We're going to hear now from one of that report's authors, Fred Harris. At the time, he was a U.S. senator from Oklahoma. Now, at 90 years old, he is the sole surviving member of the Kerner Commission. His recollections come to us in a story produced by Radio Diaries as part of their series, Last Witness.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Eleven hundred National Guardsmen have been rushed in to protect police. Looters carry out thousands of dollars' worth of goods with a gay sort of leisure.

FRED HARRIS: The summer of 1967, the whole news was only burnings and reports about shooting firepeople (ph) and so forth - every night, every day, all summer long, everywhere, it seemed like.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: This is one of dozens of fires which raged through the night in Detroit. These firemen have been here half an hour, and the flames are still linking (ph) towards this gasoline station.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This is going to happen all over America. It's going to be a hot world, not a hot summer. It's a hot world.

HARRIS: People were frightened, puzzled and scared and mad and looking for some kind of explanation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARRIS: It wasn't long after that that we were in our living room, and my youngest daughter, who was then, I think, about in the second or third grade, Laura, came running out of the kitchen. And she said, daddy, President Johnson is on the phone for you. I said, well, is it the president, or is it his secretary? She said, no, he said, this is President Johnson. Let me talk to your daddy (laughter). So I went into the kitchen and took the wall telephone, standing at attention - yes, sir, Mr. President. And he said, Fred, I hope you're going to watch television. I'm going to appoint that commission you've been talking about. He said, and another thing, Fred. I want you to remember that you're a Johnson man. I said, yes, sir, I am a Johnson man. He said, if you forget it, I'm going to take my pocket knife and cut your blank off. He did not say blank (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LYNDON B JOHNSON: My fellow Americans, we have endured a week such as no nation should live through, a time of violence and tragedy. I am tonight appointing a special advisory commission on civil disorders.

HARRIS: Well, he said it this way. Answer three questions. What happened? Why did it happen? And what can be done...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: ...To prevent it from happening again and again? Sometimes various administrations have set up commissions that were expected to put the stamp of approval on what the administration believed. This is not such a commission.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARRIS: Here's the way the Kerner Commission got started. We'd sent teams out to every one of these riot cities - like Detroit or Newark and Cincinnati - to actually talk to the people themselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARRIS: We were in suits and ties, white guys in suits going out and walking out (laughter) around and just talking to ordinary people.

I spent one morning in a Black barbershop in Milwaukee. The young people were coming in are young men, were people who had themselves come from the South. Sort of to break the ice, the first question I was asking to start with was, do you see more discrimination here in Milwaukee or less than you saw back home in Jackson? And it puzzled these young men. And I finally figured out why, is in Milwaukee, they didn't see any white people. There was more rigid segregation in Milwaukee than there was in those Southern cities where they had come from.

Families were living in really terrible conditions - awful housing, no jobs and almost criminally inferior schools. I think for all of us, all of us commissioners, traveling around the country like that, talking to actual people in the right cities, that turned out to be a really searing experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRY REASONER: Good evening. This is Harry Reasoner.

HARRIS: March 1, 1968, the Kerner report was officially released. The president told us to tell the truth, and that's what we did.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REASONER: The president's Special Commission on Civil Disorders has confronted the American people with a new shock to our national sense of well-being - a charge of white racism, national in scale, terrible in its effects.

HARRIS: Nobody had ever used the word - certainly nobody in the government ever used the word racism before. We thought that was important.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REASONER: More than 1,400 pages of testimony findings, conclusions. Our nation, says the report, is moving toward two separate societies - black and white, separate but unequal.

HARRIS: Particularly for young Black people, we wanted to say to them, you're not crazy. There is systemic racism in this country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: The president is well aware of what the report contains, but we have heard nothing from the White House yet.

HARRIS: We set up a meeting with President Johnson, but then we were notified that Johnson had canceled the meeting. He was shocked and dismayed by our report.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: The Kerner Commission made a very exhaustive study and spent a couple of million dollars.

HARRIS: Johnson recorded his telephone conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: But they recommended that I spend 80 million, and I got no place to get the 80. I can't borrow it. I can't tax it. I can't get a tax bill of any kind.

HARRIS: It really hurt his feelings. Here he had done more against poverty and against racism than any president in history before or since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of '65. And people like him, I think, thought, well, God, I thought we - I thought we solved all that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: Every time you appoint one of these committees, you get more than you can do anything about.

HARRIS: We didn't think we ought to limit what we said about what was practical. Who the hell knows what's practical?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARRIS: I felt so strongly about what needed to be done and what massive change was needed. But we never were able to get across what the conditions that people were living in were to a big part of the country, didn't feel it in their stomach like we did. People like my dad - my dad, for example, he loved me, of course. But the way my dad heard the commission report was this. Mr. Harris, out of the goodness of your heart, you ought to pay more taxes to help poor Black people who are rioting in Detroit. And my dad's reaction was, to hell with that. People don't want to be called racists, but racism permeates everything about America. And we can't really understand the way our law system works and so forth unless we talk about race.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARRIS: All these years later, 53 years later, if we'd just do now what the Kerner Commission recommended, we could change things.

MARTIN: Fred Harris served in the U.S. Senate until 1973. Today, he is the last surviving member of the Kerner Commission.

Our story was produced by Mycah Hazel of Radio Diaries and edited by Joe Richman, Ben Shapiro and Deborah George. You can find more of their stories on the Radio Diaries podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.