The Dire Diagnosis on U.S. Race Relations That Never Gets Old

The 1968 Kerner Commission report harshly described a country increasingly polarized by race. Its findings inspired positive change, but also more polarization.

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On March 1, 1968, a federal commission convened by President Lyndon Johnson to investigate deadly and destructive riots in Newark, Detroit, and scores of other American cities during the summer of 1967, released a damning report attributing the violence to “white racism.” In their opening remarks, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders—popularly known as the Kerner Commission—called for aggressive new programs to end racism and poverty. “Our nation is moving toward two societies,” they warned, “one black, and one white—separate and unequal.”

The Kerner Commission, which LBJ had created to help forge consensus on how to deal with the unrest, had now issued a report that seemed to harden differences and intensify racial hostility. It widened the gap between black and white and provided fodder to Republicans, who used its recommendations as a political weapon against Democrats. Nevertheless, there were some changes that the commissioners might legitimately think of as successes.

Given White House hostility and congressional indifference, the report failed to produce a harvest of new legislation. But legislation alone cannot judge the short-term impact. The executive director of the International Association of Chiefs of Police credited the commission’s recommendations for helping police departments to respond to the riots that followed the King assassination. “There is no question that the lessons learned from the report by the police and National Guard made it possible to handle the riots which sprang up” after King’s death, he observed. “I believe considerable credit for the collection and dissemination of meaningful lessons belongs to the commission and the work it stimulated.”

The report forced the press to engage in self-examination. After King’s assassination, the Columbia Journalism Review surveyed television coverage and concluded that broadcasters had taken to heart the commission’s recommendations regarding the responsibilities of the media and passed the test “more than satisfactorily.” It found that newspaper and television executives agreed that their efforts had been inadequate and that the commission’s criticisms that they focused too much on violence and not enough on the underlying conditions that led to the unrest were well founded. The same survey showed that newspapers and magazines, along with radio and television stations, were making efforts to increase the hiring of African Americans and to expand and improve their coverage of black life in the cities. CBS, for example, aired a seven-part series of one-hour specials called Black America during the summer of 1968. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller announced the formation of a committee to help blacks and Puerto Ricans find jobs in journalism and to promote more balanced coverage of racial affairs.

The commission report also played an important role in passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968. President Johnson had first introduced the legislation in 1966. That year Senate liberals fell 10 votes short of securing the two-thirds majority needed to end a filibuster by imposing cloture. The following year, they suffered defeat by a similar margin. Conservatives passionately opposed the bill. Louisiana Senator Allen Ellender, who had led the opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, declared that the bill represented “the ultimate in social extravagance in the United States.” He charged that “every cherished liberty” would be “trampled underfoot” if the legislation became law.

Minnesota’s Walter Mondale led the fight for a cloture vote in 1968. If all members voted on the motion, he needed the support of 67 of the 100 senators to end debate and move forward to a vote on the bill itself. On February 20, after five weeks of debate, the Senate showed unexpected support for the open-housing amendment, but the cloture vote still fell short. Mondale worked out a compromise with minority leader Everett Dirksen to water down the original legislation. On March 1, Mondale failed for the third time to win a cloture vote. Open housing was in grave danger and possibly doomed.

The Kerner Commission report breathed new energy into the movement for passage. The Washington Post and other newspapers used the report’s ominous warning to renew their call for fair housing. Senate liberals, including commission members Fred Harris and Edward Brooke, referenced the report’s evidence to add weight to their appeal for passage. “Rarely,” Mondale told his colleagues, “is a report as timely as this one.” Mondale placed into evidence a statement signed by 14 business leaders who supported the bill. Among those who signed was Tex Thornton, who had been an outspoken critic of open-housing legislation while on the commission. On March 4, the cloture motion won by exactly the two-thirds vote of those present and voting. On March 11, the filibuster broken, the Senate passed the open-housing bill by a vote of 70 to 20.

The action then shifted to the House, where the legislation faced an uncertain future. The House had already passed its own version of the legislation. Supporters of the bill wanted the House to accept the Senate version without change, but most Republicans and conservative Democrats insisted that the bill should go to conference, which would have slowed down, if not killed, the legislation. The fate of the bill rested in the hands of the Rules Committee. On April 9, the committee met while the funeral services for Martin Luther King Jr. were taking place.

Most observers expected the committee to vote to send the bill to conference. But in a surprising move, John B. Anderson, a 46-year-old conservative who had supported Barry Goldwater and was on record opposing fair housing, switched his vote. By an 8–7 tally, the committee defeated a motion that would have opened the way for the bill to be sent to the Senate-House conference. “John Anderson was the real hero,” said Maryland’s Charles M. Mathias, who led a small bloc of Republican liberals and moderates who supported the bill. Anderson followed his vote with an eloquent speech. “I legislate not out of fear,” he said, “but out of concern for the America I love.”

Like everyone else, Anderson had been shocked both by King’s assassination and by the violence that followed. He believed that, in the wake of those events, the federal government needed to take steps to reassure African Americans that they were sympathetic to their concerns. But Anderson also credited the Kerner Commission report for swaying him to change his position on open housing. After reading the entire report, he “emerged convinced that we are living in a time of crisis today that threatens the very salvation of our democratic system.” On April 10, with the motion to move to conference defeated, the House voted 250 to 171 to approve the Senate’s version of the open-housing bill.

Perhaps it had been naive to believe that a government report, no matter how powerful and persuasive, was going to change minds.

These short-term victories—more effective policing, improved media coverage, and passage of the Fair Housing Act—were significant for the commission’s report, but its long-term legacy is less clear. Lindsay and Harris had fought for a summary that would grab attention and generate flashy headlines. Soon they began to worry that reporters were focusing only on the report’s most provocative language and ignoring its detailed descriptions of the problems facing America’s cities. Harris recalled that he knew the commission had a perception problem after talking to his father, a small farmer in southwestern Oklahoma who had worked hard his whole life and had little to show for it. Based on the media reports he had seen, his father interpreted the report as saying, “You should pay more taxes to help out the black people who are rioting in Detroit.” That did not make a lot of sense to his dad. “I’m already paying a lot in taxes and getting nothing for it,” he responded. “Why doesn’t someone pay attention to me? Is it because I’m not rioting?”

Lindsay was probably right in believing it necessary to include striking language in the summary about “two societies” and “white racism” to ensure that the report would garner the attention it deserved. But the downside to this strategy was that the summary distracted attention from the heart of the report—the thoughtful narrative about the cause of the riots and the detailed, statistical evidence to support the existence of persistent discrimination. Lindsay and Harris assumed that racism persisted because most middle-class whites were unaware that it existed, and they thought that if confronted with clear evidence that discrimination imposed undue hardship on African Americans, white suburbanites would embrace new social programs, accept higher taxes, and demand more aggressive efforts to integrate their communities. “I believe that white people in America are decent people,” Harris told the New York Times in February 1968, and that “if they can be shown the terrible conditions in which other Americans live and how this threatens our society, they will join together to try to solve these problems.”

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But there was little reason to believe that Lindsay’s strategy would work. The sensational language in the report was certainly distracting, but it also seems unlikely that evidence-based arguments would have been effective. The fact was that whites saw public policy as a zero-sum game where policies intended to help blacks would hurt them. Polls showed that whites by overwhelming majorities opposed federal efforts to integrate schools or housing. Whites invoked the deeply held American values of individual rights and local control to justify their privilege. Perhaps it had been naive to believe that a government report, no matter how powerful and persuasive, was going to change minds.

The report overestimated the will of white suburban voters to support programs that benefited urban blacks at the same time that it underestimated their fear of racial unrest. In so doing, it further alienated a key group of voters whose power would only grow in the decades that followed. The Democratic Party would spend the next five decades trying to lure them back into the fold. White House speechwriter Harry McPherson believed that the report accelerated the unraveling of the old Roosevelt coalition. The rhetoric about white racism, he noted, “scared the be-Jesus out of a lot of [white] members of this coalition.” It seemed to send a signal that “nobody really gave a damn about their concern—that the city was going to be burned down; that you could not walk in it at night anymore, and all the rest... Programs were being shaped to take care of Negro needs and not to meet any of the needs of the other members of the coalition.” Despite the political blowback, the report would shape the conversation about race in American for a generation. For many years, it was almost impossible for a congressional committee or a journalist dealing with subjects related to poverty and unemployment to avoid referencing the report.

Adapted from Separate and Unequal: The Kerner Commission and the Unraveling of American Liberalism by Steven M. Gillon. Copyright © 2018 by Steven M. Gillon. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, a division of PBG Publishing, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.