On February 29, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, commonly called the Kerner Commission after its chairman, Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois, dropped its report on Lyndon Johnson's desk. After the Newark and Detroit riots the year before, which had given white America a fright, the President had set up the Commission "to investigate the origins of the recent disorders in our cities."
Besides analyzing the nature and causes of the riots, the Report listed what most needed doing in order to stave off future racial violence: create two million jobs in three years; eliminate de facto segregation in schools, North and South; provide and fund on-the-job training for hard-core unemployed; pass a federal open-housing law; scare up six million units of decent cheap housing in five years.
The stark fact was that, in the atmosphere of '68, this total package had no more chance of being put through Congress than the fat lady had of being put through the wringer. Louisiana Democrat F. Edward Hebert called it "propaganda ad nauseum." But the dynamite in the Report was in one short sentence:
"Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black and one white - separate and unequal. "
This sentence shocked American sensibilities not because it unwrapped a discovery - most Americans, white and black, had long since privately perceived this - but rather that an official body, appointed by the President, should have come right out and so bluntly said it. This sentence, when linked with the terminal unfeasibility of the Report's curative package, and especially when linked with the emerging trends in the black Movement, brought to mind thoughts that could, in 1968, drastically lower the temperature of the marrow in one's bones.
The Movement of racial protest was turning toward violence. Not accidental violence, not tripped rage, not just looting and rampage in hot summers, but systematically planned terroristic violence. Some of it may have been rhetoric, but terminology tells its own kind of truths: "Movement" was giving way to "revolution," and 1968 was the year when "Negro" went out of circulation and "black" came in. Young leaders of "the black revolution" like Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, and LeRoi Jones had begun to call Martin Luther King an Uncle Tom, or "De Lawd," because of his advocacy of nonviolence. New York Congressman Adam Clayton Powell called him Martin Loser King. Just before the Kerner Report was issued, Eldridge Cleaver published Soul on Ice , which flew in the face of lynch law - elevated black violation of white womanhood to the level of right-minded compensatory politics. The clenched fist was the salute of black power. Black students all over the country were moving into the zone of tropics beyond the latitude of words. In March, three of them were killed, and 34 injured, by police, on account of their militancy, in Orangeburg, S.C.; and later the nation was treated to photographs of black students with rifles slung over their shoulders at Cornell - the language of bullets in the Ivy League.
The Kerner Report, as it turned out, was useless as a coolant. Lyndon Johnson, having asked for it, pouted when he got it - for it implied that his Great Society was a dud, perhaps even a fraud. "They always print that we don't do enough," Johnson said when the Report hit the Oval office. "They don't print what we do."
The document went on a shelf - except for that two-societies sentence, which in coming weeks hung like cordite fumes in city streets.
There were not, in fact, just two Americas in 1968, but, rather, a whole series of pairings: the Dream had many double faces. One of the things Americans were finding out in those months was that the national psyche was infinitely splittable. Blacks railed at whites, the young shocked the old, the coasts boggled the plains, hippies freaked out hardhats. Democrats were developing other divisions besides the old and honorable one of North and South. SDS, in the very moment of its apparent ascendancy, was becoming mortally cut up over issues of style and line.
For that year the biggest gap was between those who noisily wanted, and those who quietly feared change. It is too easy, looking back at 1968, to focus on those who were forever in the foreground of the media - the Huey Newtons and Abbie Hoffmans; the Norman Mailers; even the Eugene McCarthys. The majority of Americans weren't like them; didn't like them.
Richard Nixon would put his finger on a truth - only much later did we discover that this was about as far as he usually went with that commodity - in the phrase "the silent majority." At the balance point of all the oppositions, there was a Middle America, and not just in the geographic sense. It had its busy life. It was probably more deeply shocked by the events of the year than were those out at the poles, but it went on with its habits. It would watch the TV specials - Pogo , "How Life Begins," A Midsummer Night's Dream ; but it also loved "Flipper" and "Perry Mason" and "Bonanza." It would nod agreement when it heard that the censors had blipped out a line from a Smothers Brothers show, "Ronald Reagan is a known heterosexual" - with the reason given for the cut that "the average truck driver would misunderstand what it meant." It would probably prefer Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and Planet of the Apes to Rosemary's Baby and In Cold Blood . It liked the billboard rented by the Logan, Ohio, Mothers' Association, which in huge letters gave advice to any young man who drove past: "BEAUTIFY AMERICA - Get a Haircut." It went for the Ford Mustang, which carried the fastback principle about as far as it could go; and for the Pontiac Grand-Prix, with its bold radiator and long hood and curving instrument panel. It put on its coffee tables a toy of that year called Swinging Wonder; large ball bearings, suspended by threads from a little wooden frame, would strike each other in perfect illustration of Newton's Third Law of Motion - and of 1968's dualities: "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction."
New cars are required to have seat belts. . . . Defying a commutation by Queen Elizabeth, Rhodesia hangs three black prisoners. . . . Gallup: 49 percent consider U.S. troops in Vietnam a mistake. . . . Formed in Los Angeles, at a time when most young men were trying to stay out of the Army: The Committee to Fight Exclusion of Homosexuals from the Armed Forces . . . McCarthy, aided by swarms of college students who are "clean for Gene," gets an astounding 42 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary . . . .