Even though the Watts disturbance (pictured above) was from 1965, the destruction, violence and deaths from that turmoil went on to be repeated in other cities throughout America in the 1960s. So as profound and iconic as the Love-Ins and Flower Power movement was in the 1960s, so was the dramatic and violent upheaval in our urban centers during that decade.
After a particularly long and embattled Summer of 1967, President Johnson called for an inquiry as to the causes and the possible solutions to this seemingly endless pattern of violence and destruction that had overtaken our cities.
According to the Wikipedia entry on the Report:
The Commission’s final report, the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders or Kerner Report, was released on February 29, 1968, after seven months of investigation. The report became an instant bestseller, and over two million Americans bought copies of the 426-page document. Its finding was that the riots resulted from black frustration at lack of economic opportunity. Martin Luther King Jr. pronounced the report a “physician’s warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life.”
The report berated federal and state governments for failed housing, education and social-service policies. The report also aimed some of its sharpest criticism at the mainstream media. “The press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective.”
The report’s most famous passage warned, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”
Its results suggested that one main cause of urban violence was white racism and suggested that white America bore much of the responsibility for black rioting and rebellion. It called to create new jobs, construct new housing, and put a stop to de facto segregation in order to wipe out the destructive ghetto environment. In order to do so, the report recommended for government programs to provide needed services, to hire more diverse and sensitive police forces and, most notably, to invest billions in housing programs aimed at breaking up residential segregation.
Among other points, the Commission’s suggestions included:
“Unless there are sharp changes in the factors influencing Negro settlement patterns within metropolitan areas, there is little doubt that the trend toward Negro majorities will continue.”
“Providing employment for the swelling Negro ghetto population will require …opening suburban residential areas to Negroes and encouraging them to move closer to industrial centers…”
“…cities will have Negro majorities by 1985 and the suburbs ringing them will remain largely all white unless there are major changes in Negro fertility rates, in migration settlement patterns or public policy.”
“…we believe that the emphasis of the program should be changed from traditional publicly built slum based high rise projects to smaller units on scattered sites.”
The Law Enforcement Assistance Administration released federal funding for local police forces in response. Appointed by Johnson to serve as the commission’s executive director, David Ginsburg played a pivotal role in writing the commission’s findings.
President Johnson, who had already pushed through the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, ignored the report and rejected the Kerner Commission’s recommendations. In April 1968, one month after the release of the Kerner report, rioting broke out in more than 100 cities following the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
Not everyone was happy or even satisfied by the findings. Some called the report a broad-brush stroke over a complex situation. Others said the final results, calling the disturbances a reaction to White Racism too simplistic because the commission took for granted that the riots were the fault of white racism. That it would have been awkward to have had to confront the question of why liberal Detroit blew up while Birmingham and other Southern cities — where conditions for blacks were infinitely worse — did not. Likewise, if the problem was white racism, why didn’t the riots occur in the 1930s, when prevailing white racial attitudes were far more barbaric than they were in the 1960s?
Perhaps the report raised more questions than gave answers – and maybe those questions remained unanswered for decades after. But in 1969 they were talking about it – one year after the report was issued. And this episode of the program Newsfront, featuring a panel consisting of Saul Wallen from the New York Urban Coalition, Roy Innes, the national director of CORE and Hyman Bookbinder from the Office Of Economic Opportunity.
Here is that discussion, as it first aired on March 3, 1969.