Detroit was still smoldering under military occupation during the long, hot summer of 1967, when President Lyndon Johnson appointed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.
He charged the panel, better known as the Kerner Commission, with examining three questions: “What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?”
Johnson rejected the commission’s findings, but that didn’t stop it from producing one of the most influential documents in the government’s history.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission report, which became a bestseller. A half-century later, the three questions remain relevant as more recent disturbances after police shootings demonstrate.
It’s also a time for recollection by three men who were directly responsible for the report — former senator Fred Harris (D-Okla.), the sole surviving appointed member of the commission; staffers Victor H. Palmieri, the deputy executive director; and John A. Koskinen, special assistant to Palmieri. Koskinen was IRS commissioner until November.
One thing each spoke about in separate interviews was the controversy generated by the commission’s finding that “white racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II.”
Black folks, of course, knew that. Other folks couldn’t face the facts.
Harris said some advocated softer language like “intolerance” or “favoritism,” but he thought “we’d better tell the truth and that’s what we did.”
At 87 years old, Harris is an avid cyclist who snowshoes in the Sandia Mountains, not too far from his home in Corrales, N.M. Lately, he’s been almost constantly on the road, talking about “Healing Our Divided Society,” an Eisenhower Foundation book he co-edited with Alan Curtis, the foundation’s president and chief executive. Harris and Curtis were among the speakers at Tuesday’s 50th report card forum, held at George Washington University and sponsored by the foundation, the Learning Policy Institute and the Economic Policy Institute.
Palmieri said the Kerner report did not give Johnson the credit he deserved for civil rights legislation. The president “was plenty pissed off” with the commission, Palmieri said, because Johnson believed the hot summer, which included uprisings in Newark, and Milwaukee, “was all caused by agitators.” However, “there was no indication outsiders were involved,” Koskinen added.
Palmieri pointed out that “white racism” is only in the summary of a report that runs about 600 pages in paperback. The term might not have appeared anywhere in the document if The Washington Post had not reported on a leaked copy of the summary, Palmieri said, before some commissioners saw it.
Those who worked on the report and scholars who studied it agree that it and the War on Poverty Johnson declared in his 1964 State of the Union address included important policy prescriptions that started to attack many of America’s ills.
“Because of Great Society and War on Poverty policies, the African American achievement gap in reading decreased by half during the 1970s and early 1980s,” says the “Healing Our Divided Society” executive summary. “But with the elimination of major federal programs and resources during the 1980s, the achievement gap in reading grew once again and is now 30 percent larger than it was 30 years ago.”
Research demonstrates those policies “were working remarkably well until they were undermined by the Nixon and Reagan administrations,” said Michael P. Jeffries, an associate professor of American studies at Wellesley College, who spoke at the forum.
“Progress stalled not because the policies were failing, but because the Nixon administration dismantled the Office of Equal Opportunity and began a rhetorical assault on ‘the welfare state,’ ” Jeffries continued. “The attack on welfare dovetailed with [President Richard] Nixon’s attacks on crime and the Civil Rights Movement, and the racial implications were clear. ‘Poverty’ became a euphemism for ‘black poverty.’ Nixon and his colleagues intimated that the root causes of poverty were not racism and economic inequality, but black cultural pathology. This was a rejection of the findings of the Kerner Commission, which established that black suffering and unrest were the results of white racism and the absence of economic opportunity.”
It wasn’t only the Nixon and Reagan administrations. The welfare policies adopted by President Bill Clinton left many in his Democratic Party livid.
Needed now, Curtis said by email, is a “‘new will’ among the citizenry to generate the action and legislation needed to scale up and replicate what works.”
Instead, remaining anti-poverty programs are under attack by President Trump.
The Federal Insider reported last month that his proposed budget for fiscal 2019 would eliminate dozens of programs, including the Education Department’s student support and academic enrichment grants, the Health and Human Services Department’s low-income home energy assistant program and the Labor Department’s Indian and Native American Program.
Under the headline “Trump’s budget hits poor Americans the hardest,” my colleagues Caitlin Dewey, Tracy Jan and Jeff Stein wrote that Trump’s budget does that by “slashing billions of dollars in food stamps, health insurance and federal housing subsidies while pushing legislation to institute broad work requirements for families receiving housing vouchers, expanding on moves by some states to require recipients of Medicaid and food stamps to work.”
Forum speaker Linda Darling-Hammond, president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., said, “It’s really like the Reagan years all over again.”