A half-century ago, American liberalism unraveled. When discussing the symptoms and warning signs that preceded the crackup, most people overlook the Kerner Commission on civil unrest and its deliberations. When they do discuss the commission, they justifiably laud the final report, released 50 years ago today, for its bold willingness to acknowledge the role of white racism and inequality in sparking urban unrest — and for offering a set of policy proposals designed to revitalize liberalism by forging a new “political will” to address the problems facing urban America.
If we set aside the report and look instead at the debates among the commissioners and its public reception, we can see the fragile nature of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s consensus and how the Kerner Commission, for all its laudable work, contributed to the unraveling of American liberalism.
Johnson created the commission in July 1967 after bloody and destructive riots in Newark and Detroit that marked the culmination of four consecutive summers of racial unrest. Riots ripped through more than 100 cities during the “long hot summer” of 1967. Nearly every week produced new violent images of angry confrontations between police and protesters.
For many white Americans, urban riots appeared to be part of the crime epidemic that swept the nation in the 1960s. Johnson had to walk a fine line. If he appeared too sympathetic to the demands of protesters, he would alienate many middle-class whites. If he took a hard “law and order” line, he would anger liberals who wanted to address the root causes of the riots. A presidential commission seemed an ideal option: It allowed him to demonstrate leadership without committing his administration to a specific course of action.
The president filled the 11-member commission with mainstream figures from both parties. There were two African Americans, two Republican and two Democratic members of Congress, one woman and representatives from both business and labor. Johnson assumed this mix would produce a mainstream report that would endorse the broad outlines of his existing domestic agenda and insulate him from attacks from the right and left.
Instead of reinforcing Johnson’s fragile consensus, however, the commission exposed the fault lines that were emerging in American society.
Generational and ideological differences split the young field-team members — many of whom had been radicalized by their service in the Peace Corps or their time spent in the civil rights movement in the South — from the mainstream liberals who dominated the senior positions on the commission. These younger radicals, who traveled to riot-torn cities and witnessed firsthand the horrible conditions there, saw liberalism, with its emphasis on slow, gradual change, as too timid to address the problems plaguing the cities and instead called for a major restructuring of American society with some form of income redistribution.
Deep ideological conflicts among the commissioners themselves reflected the larger public debate over race and riots. New York City’s Republican Mayor John Lindsay and Oklahoma Democratic Sen. Fred Harris pushed the commission to assume a wide-ranging mandate “to take on the broad problems that lie behind the riots.” Lindsay urged the other commissioners to see the riots as the product of poverty and hopelessness in urban areas — poverty that was, in many cases, created by racism and enforced by discrimination.
Their chief adversary was Charles “Tex” Thornton, a self-made business tycoon, who viewed the uprisings, along with surging crime rates and demonstrations against the Vietnam War, as representative of a broader breakdown of authority. He feared that linking the riots to poverty gave people permission to loot and destroy property. People had always been poor, he argued, but they never used it as an excuse to burn down cities.
Despite their deep disagreements and numerous threats to issue minority reports, all the commissioners believed that if their report were to have any impact, it would need to be unanimous. As such, both sides compromised. For example, Lindsey gave up on his demand for a guaranteed national income, while Thornton accepted tough language about police restructuring. Even then, they only reluctantly agreed to endorse the final report.
Though the report managed to navigate deep divisions, the public found no such consensus. Public reaction to the report split along the geographic and cultural dividing lines that would become increasingly familiar to Americans in the decades to follow. Liberals, African Americans and major news organizations endorsed the report’s condemnation of white racism and the acknowledgment that the federal government should play an aggressive role in combating the underlying conditions that caused the riots.
Many white voters, however, were no longer willing to accept liberalism’s focus on racism or attempts to combat its economic consequences with federal tax dollars. Whether they were southern Protestants, working-class ethnics or part of the masses that had fled to the suburbs, white voters rejected the assumption that they bore responsibility for the conditions in the nation’s cities.
They complained that the commission’s conclusions failed to address their fears of social disorder. The report, they claimed, rewarded the rioters by promising millions in new spending while blaming the victims of lawlessness. Instead of pleas for more federal spending on cities, they wanted to see criminals and rioters punished.
Once-loyal members of the consensus that propelled Johnson to a smashing victory in 1964 and gave him the political capital to enact his Great Society reform agenda, now looked to the Republican Party, with its promises to restore “law and order,” to represent their interests. GOP leaders were ready to oblige.
The Kerner Report revealed the depth of racial animosity in America and the limited reach of the Great Society.
For the past five decades, it has been impossible to talk about race and riots without referencing the Kerner Commission and its searing critique of racism in America. In many ways, however, the commission’s 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.
The reception of the report exposed a deep cultural fault line that would shape American politics and society for the next 50 years. A Democratic Congress would continue to pass progressive legislation for another decade, but none of the legislation came close to the ambition and scope of the Kerner Commission recommendations, because the public consensus necessary to muscle through such legislation no longer existed. Without the commissioners realizing it, their report represented not the start of a new age of consensus, but the end of a political era.