Presidential commissions are the most malleable of Washington tools. They are deployed after searing national traumas, such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy or the 9/11 attacks. They tackle specific economic concerns, such as small-business development or the future of the aerospace sector. And sometimes they are even meant to counter nonexistent threats, such as President Trump’s short-lived Advisory Commission on Election Integrity.
When you’re not sure what to do but really want to seem like you’re doing something, announce a commission. You’ll usually get decent press, a fancy report and time enough for the public to move on.
That is what President Lyndon Johnson had in mind when he created the Kerner Commission to examine the riots that exploded across the country, from Watts to Newark to Detroit, in the late 1960s. Johnson hoped the panel would affirm his Great Society programs and civil rights leadership. Instead, a commission led and staffed by conventional, establishment figures leveled an unexpectedly dire warning in its best-selling March 1968 report: “Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” The 11-member panel blamed white racism and called for massive new government spending and reforms to redress the conditions afflicting black communities. The commission may not be especially well-remembered — save among aging, nostalgic liberals — but it should be, with controversial and consequential findings that resonate 50 years later.
“The Kerner Report represented the last gasp of 1960s liberalism — the last full-throated declaration that the federal government should play a leading role in solving deeply embedded problems such as racism and poverty,” historian Steven M. Gillon writes in “Separate and Unequal,” his compelling new history of the commission. The panel, formally named the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, also embodied the eternal contradictions and trade-offs between lofty goals and limited resources, between a problem’s diagnosis and the prospects for its cure. The Kerner Commission was right about race in America, but its very ambitions enabled the backlash against much of what it hoped to achieve.
“What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?” That is the mandate Johnson gave the members of his new commission in a Saturday morning White House meeting on July 29, 1967, less than a week after race riots left dozens dead and hundreds of buildings burned to the ground in Detroit. “Let your search be free,” he urged. “As best you can, find the truth and express it in your report.”
Except that wasn’t really what he wanted. The commission included Republicans, Democrats, labor leaders, business execs, law enforcement officials and members of Congress, but Johnson made sure to appoint loyalists such as Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner as chairman and lawyer David Ginsburg as executive director. The president expected them to assure the public that he was doing right by black America, yet also reassure white Americans that the problems in the country’s cities were not so scary. When Johnson later admonished Sen. Fred Harris, the commission’s youngest member, not to forget that he was a faithful LBJ man, the president added, “If you do, Fred, I’ll take out my pocketknife and cut your peter off.”
But the commission soon split into factions, more over substance than political allegiances. Harris and Vice Chairman John Lindsay, the charismatic New York mayor, argued strongly that racial discrimination and lack of jobs and opportunity for African Americans were key forces behind the riots, whereas businessman Charles “Tex” Thornton wanted the commission to state that the riots were caused by disrespect for law. “He feared that linking the riots to poverty gave people permission to loot and destroy property,” Gillon writes.
The commission dispatched teams of investigators to several cities that had endured rioting, and they returned with detailed reports featuring interviews with residents and officials, as well as statistics from local agencies and census data. “The evidence they gathered of persistent racial discrimination, and a growing gap between blacks and whites, was both overwhelming and irrefutable,” Gillon writes. They charted the disparities between urban black schools and suburban white ones, the daily discrimination in access to housing and employment, and the prevalence of police misconduct against black communities. The investigators tasked with studying the Detroit riots said that police there “often performed with no greater professionalism than one might expect from a huge armed force of white civilian extremists.”
Those field teams were packed with young idealists — including returning volunteers from some early Peace Corps cohorts — who doubted that Johnson’s Great Society efforts went far enough. Soon, senior commission staffers became convinced that conditions in black neighborhoods were so bad, and white power structures so indifferent, that there was a “rational dimension” to the riots. And after hearing testimony in Washington and visiting the affected cities, even skeptical commissioners started turning. “I’ll be a son-of-a-gun,” Thornton said, explaining that the experiences “brought me 99 miles further to the left than I thought I would be.”
Ginsburg cobbled a consensus around the theme of “white racism” for the final report — “broad enough to gain the support of Democrats and Republicans on the commission, yet elusive enough to avoid pointing fingers at specific institutions” — but that left a more practical matter: How would the commission answer Johnson’s final question, on preventing future outbreaks of violence?
Lindsay, who emerged as the commission’s dominant player, argued that attacking white racism was insufficient; the panel also had to address the poverty, substandard schools and inadequate housing in black neighborhoods that, in his view, flowed from racism. “It’s a plain example of national neglect,” he told his colleagues. The commission ended up calling for massive jobs programs, income supplements and major expansions of public housing, among many other initiatives. Lindsay and Harris believed that the commission needed to “shock the public into confronting the legacy of race in America and propose a more aggressive federal program to attack the roots of the unrest,” Gillon writes.
But as the potential costs of such efforts reached the tens of billions of dollars, the commissioners who were members of Congress expressed skepticism that anything like this could pass on Capitol Hill. And it wasn’t clear that such ambition was even the point. “How did we get into all these recommendations?” Thornton grumbled. “We’re a riot commission.” Only Ginsburg’s heroic efforts produced a unanimous report. Commissioners who barely knew one another trusted him to iron out their differences. He also deflected criticisms by reading lengthy portions of the draft report aloud in commission meetings, leaving less time for debate. (Slow clap.)
Officially published on March 1, 1968, the report became a sensation, selling nearly 1 million copies in two weeks. Even today, the 2016 edition reissued by Princeton University Press is a riveting read. It doesn’t just detail particular riots but recounts key events preceding them. It features a meaty chapter on the history of America’s racial conflicts since colonial times. It describes the frustrated hopes of African Americans in the nation’s cities. And its call to action is dramatic: “To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values.”
The commissioners had discussed whether the report should urge the administration to redirect funds away from the Vietnam War and toward domestic spending, but they decided the notion would be too fraught. Instead they wrote vaguely that the “great productivity of our economy” would finance reforms and asserted that America must “generate new will — the will to tax ourselves to the extent necessary to meet the vital needs of the Nation.”
The commission had identified vast social problems, and it decided that vast governmental solutions were the appropriate response. It is not an uncommon impulse, then or now, but it undermined the commission’s cause. “In their well-intended desire to provide a clear road map for change,” Gillon writes, “the commission overestimated both the public’s appetite for reform and the administration’s ability to achieve it.”
The Kerner Report generated substantial news coverage — the “white racism” charge was irresistible for headline writers — yet the president who launched it barely acknowledged it. Johnson was furious that the report neglected to praise his record, and he refused to publicly thank the commissioners. “He could not understand how the commission could think it was a good idea to recommend billions of dollars in additional social spending at a time when Congress would not fund existing Great Society programs,” Gillon explains. Good thing there was no pocketknife handy.
The commission’s conclusions also strengthened the emerging conservative backlash against Johnson’s Great Society. Richard Nixon seized on the report for his law-and-order campaign in 1968. “The major weakness of the presidential commission is that it, in effect, blames everybody for the riots except the perpetrators of the riots,” he told a radio show days after the report was published. Weeks later, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, and the violence that followed effectively ended the debate over the commission, Gillon writes. White Americans became even less willing to countenance appeals for racial justice or endorse massive new federal spending for cities.
“The report overestimated the will of white suburban voters to support programs that benefitted urban blacks at the same time that it underestimated their fear of racial unrest,” Gillon concludes. “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.”
And, if the 2016 election is any indication, it is still trying.
Many of the commission’s findings are relevant today — “hauntingly relevant,” historian Julian Zelizer writes in his introduction to the 2016 edition. No surprise, then, that Harris, the last surviving member of the commission, has co-edited a book of essays attempting to update the original report for its 50th anniversary.
“Healing Our Divided Society” includes worthy contributions from economists, criminologists, educators, journalists, nonprofit leaders and pollsters. It concludes that, despite areas of significant progress, conditions for many black Americans remain dire. Schools have resegregated. The wealth gap between white and black America, already substantial, widened severely after the Great Recession. And mass incarceration is a way of life. “Prison has become an economic development policy for rural whites and a housing policy for urban minorities,” it states in a typically damning passage. “A racially biased prison-industrial complex has been created.”
Yet, if the concerns recur, so do the blind spots. The ambition is vast — major job creation programs, tax credits, minimum-wage increases, single-payer health care and much more — but implementation is again hazy. The book’s shortest chapter, less than two full pages, is devoted to financing these reforms: Tax increases for wealthier Americans. Taxes on financial transactions. Elimination of tax loopholes. Higher estate taxes.
Like the original Kerner Report, “Healing Our Divided Society” calls for new political will to change course, and those specifics are even more amorphous. “We will need to tap into the infinite love that lies below the surface in our nation,” writes contributor Dorothy Stoneman, founder of YouthBuild USA, “listen to the hearts and minds of young leaders who have suffered from poverty and have a better vision, and build a dynamic movement that is a magnet to the best in all of us and together build a nation that is more wise, loving, respectful.”
Reformers must emphasize values and not just programs, the book declares, even if all its contributors offer their own pet policy ideas. “We know what works,” it affirms on more than one occasion, with a confidence that should inspire skepticism. “Now, we must build the will to do it.”
I wish a couple of Tex Thorntons — and definitely a David Ginsburg — had been thrown into the mix.
Some of the contributors do acknowledge the challenges of funding and approval — “I recognize that our politics will have to change for the full policy agenda I discuss to be enacted,” economist Jared Bernstein writes — while others look back on the lessons of the original effort. “The Kerner Commission reached the right conclusion at an inconvenient time,” Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne contends. “The prospects of financing the massive project of social reconstruction the commission called for were negligible.”
There are political moments when the nation needs prophecy more than policy, others when it requires wonks more than sages. The marvel and the tragedy of the Kerner Commission is that it attempted to do, and be, both.