The Kerner Commission’s last living member says we still need to talk about racism

Updated September 27, 2021 at 2:18 PM ET

It may seem that Americans are only now discussing racism and all its ramifications out in the open after last year’s nationwide protests against police brutality and the glaring social inequalities exposed by the pandemic.

But in 1968, a government report openly discussed racism in the United States in a way that sent shockwaves through the country.

It came after what’s been called the “long, hot summer of 1967,” when Black residents in cities across the U.S. erupted in violence as the result of longstanding racial discrimination. The worst unrest happened in Detroit, where 43 people were killed in five days of fires and looting; and in Newark, N.J., where 26 people were killed.

Some claimed the riots were carefully organized by Black militants. Others claimed there were reckless extremists involved: snipers waiting to attack police officers.

Fred Harris was a senator representing Oklahoma at the time. “People were frightened and looking for some kind of explanation,” he told Radio Diaries.

President Lyndon Johnson appointed 11 people, including Harris, to a commission to find answers.

Johnson appointed a commission to find out the cause of the unrest

“He said it this way,” Harris recalled. ” ‘Answer three questions: What happened? Why did it happen? And what can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?’ ”

In addition to holding 20 days of hearings with various leaders, from Martin Luther King Jr. to J. Edgar Hoover, the commission sought answers on the ground. They divided into teams, visiting riot cities including Detroit, Newark and Cincinnati to talk to Black residents and observe the state of Black communities.

“Families were living in really terrible conditions,” Harris recalled. “Awful housing, no jobs, and almost criminally inferior schools. Talking to actual people in the riot cities turned out to be a really searing experience.”

All of this research was combined in a report that totaled more than 1,400 pages. The most damning words were in the introduction: “This is our basic conclusion. Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal. … Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American.”

The report starkly blamed white racism as the cause of the riots, saying on page 91: “White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II.”

The Kerner Report was a sensation

The commission was chaired by Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner and it became known unofficially as the Kerner Report. It shocked the political establishment and the public when its conclusions were made public in March 1968. The Kerner Report was quickly condensed into a book, and according to historian Julian E. Zelizer, became a bestseller, selling 740,000 copies. CBS’s Harry Reasoner said that America had been “indicted” with “a charge of white racism.” South Carolina Attorney General Daniel McLeod said that the report “unfairly and improperly castigated the white race.”

“People don’t want to be called racist,” Harris told Radio Diaries. “The shock value of that was just enormous.”

The report created an American identity crisis — forcing white Americans to understand that they had a role in causing the unrest they feared. Many disagreed with the report, including Harris’ own father.

“The way my dad heard the commission report was this: Mr. Harris, out of the goodness of your heart, you ought to pay more taxes to help poor Black people who are rioting in Detroit,” Harris recalled. “And my dad’s reaction was, ‘to hell with that!’ ”

The biggest stamp of disapproval, however, came from President Johnson. Though he created the commission, he saw its accusations as a slap in the face to his own legislation against poverty in the past. Johnson ultimately rejected the report, and its suggestions were not pursued.

“It hurt his feelings,” Harris said. “He had done more against poverty and racism than any president in history. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of ’65. People like him thought, ‘I thought we solved all that.’ ”

Harris regrets that the commission didn’t bring the news media with them to show the public their trips to the riot cities.

“We never were able to get across what the conditions that people were living in were to a big part of the country,” Harris said. “Didn’t feel it in their stomach like we did.”

However, he has little regrets about what was said in their report.

“Fifty-three years later,” Harris said, “if we’d just do now what the Kerner commission recommended, we could change things.”

Fred Harris served in the Senate until 1973. Today he is the commission’s last surviving member.

This story was produced by Mycah Hazel and edited by Joe Richman, Ben Shapiro and Deborah George of Radio Diaries. You can find more of their stories on the Radio Diaries Podcast.

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