The Prescient Warnings of the Kerner Commission

In his new book, historian Steven M. Gillon revisits the presidential commission created to investigate the riots of 1967.
Publish date:
Social count:
President Lyndon B. Johnson with some members of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, also known as the Kerner Commission, in the Cabinet Room of the White House on July 29th, 1967.

President Lyndon B. Johnson with some members of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, also known as the Kerner Commission, in the Cabinet Room of the White House on July 29th, 1967.

During the "long hot summer of 1967," as riots peaked in scores of American cities, President Lyndon B. Johnson did what presidents love to do whenever confronted with a crisis: He formed a commission. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known more commonly as the Kerner Commission (after its chairman Otto Kerner, also the Democratic governor of Illinois at the time), sought to investigate three key questions: What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?

The urgency around these questions was profound. Johnson felt that his leadership, as reflected in his Great Society programs, was under attack. The rioting often took place in poor, black neighborhoods after an incident of police violence, and by the time it had cooled in September of that year, dozens of people had died and thousands more had been injured. In some instances, Johnson also deployed the National Guard. In February of 1968, after months of testimony and visits to riot-stricken cities, the 11-person commission released its explosive final report, which pointed to "white racism" as one of the main drivers of the violence and suggested ambitious government intervention to help prevent future unrest. The report's most famous line was a warning: "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal."

In his new book, Separate and Unequal: The Kerner Commission and the Unraveling of American Liberalism, Steven M. Gillon, a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma and a scholar-in-residence at The History Channel, explores the inner dynamics of the commission, which in many ways reflected the ideological divides of mid-century America. He also investigates how its findings mirrored, in his words, "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.” Gillon and I recently spoke about his book, and about why society continues to ignore the findings of the Kerner Commission.


Why this book? And why this book now?

Watching TV one night, I saw the disturbances erupting in Ferguson, Missouri [in 2014], and heard references to the Kerner Commission. I'd assumed that someone had already written a book about it, because its recommendations and analyses are so well known. But then I looked online and found that there'd been no books written about it. This, I thought, would be a great way not only to talk about the past but also to provide some deeper understanding of what's taking place today. I thought that the commission's diagnosis—that America was becoming "two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal"—would be very relevant to the world we're living in today.

Separate and Unequal: The Kerner Commission and the Unraveling of American Liberalism.

Separate and Unequal: The Kerner Commission and the Unraveling of American Liberalism.

Part of what's so fascinating about your book is how it manages to illuminate the commission's competing ideologies. Could you describe this tension a bit?

There were 11 commissioners, and two criteria Johnson used to select them. One was that the commissioners needed to have supported his civil rights legislation: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They also had to have not spoken out against the Vietnam War. There were really two people who drove the commission: John Lindsay, who was then the liberal Republican mayor of New York City, and a successful businessman named Charles "Tex" Thornton, who also supported Johnson but was sort of on the conservative fringe of Johnson's coalition. Another key person was Fred Harris, who was a close ally of Lindsay. The two believed, from the very first day, that the commission should address the underlying causes of racial unrest. For them, that included poverty, a sense of powerlessness, and unresponsive institutions. They didn't want a commission that would only make recommendations about how law enforcement should respond to the riots. They wanted a commission with a broad moral scope, that would deal with the social climate in which the riots took place. On the other end of that thinking, Thornton believed that the commission's sole responsibility was to view the riots as a law-and-order issue and come up with recommendations the police could use to respond.

How did these very strong personalities affect the commission's work?

The final report was unanimous—11–0, with the final 50 pages or so detailing numerous recommendations that generally focused on housing, education, and welfare and income. But there were heated confrontations on many of the particular proposals. Sometimes, they ended up passing 6–5. And yet, all the commissioners wanted the commission to have the moral authority to say something about the racial situation of America in 1968, and they knew that they needed to come to a unanimous decision if they wanted that authority. So even Thornton, who had grave problems with many of the recommendations, eventually signed on to produce a unanimous report. These personalities were a microcosm of the fault lines emerging in society at the time.

And this is what the subtitle of the book—"The Unraveling of American Liberalism"—is getting at, right? At these emerging fault lines?

Yes. What was surprising was that the same fractures that were emerging in American society existed on the commission itself. It was sort of a harbinger of the change that would take place in American politics in a short period of time. You had people like Lindsay and Harris who believed that liberalism wasn't going far enough to address the problems of black Americans. You had moderates who thought that there was only so much they could possibly do. And then you had people like Thornton, who believed that it was simply an issue of law and order. That reflected the debate in society in general. The great irony was that Thornton got voted down on just about every motion he made. But he, more accurately than anyone else, predicted the future of American politics: how politicians like Richard Nixon would grab onto the law-and-order issue and create a new conservative coalition that would, in effect, weaken liberalism.

In the book, you write: "To a great degree, LBJ rejected the report because it hurt his feelings." In this light, how much would you say Johnson understood, or at the very least was willing to acknowledge, the tenuous position of black Americans in the '60s?

That's a great question. Johnson was something of an enigma. On the one hand, he'd done more for black Americans than any president since Abraham Lincoln. He spoke eloquently about the plight of black Americans at a speech at Howard University. He proposed numerous programs designed to aid black Americans beyond the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which were two of the most momentous pieces of legislation in the 20th century. So he had a profound understanding of the plight of black Americans.

But he had little empathy for the riots. And he took them personally. He couldn't understand why black Americans would take to the streets to protest against the president who'd given them so much. So he convinced himself that the riots were caused by a handful of agitators going around to those communities and creating discontent. That became a major source of contention on the commission because Johnson was absolutely insistent that one of the conclusions it come to was that there wasn't broad discontent in American society among black Americans; rather, it was simply the result of agitators like H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael. So he had general empathy for the plight of black Americans, but he also became increasingly angry that that was the way in which black Americans were supposedly "thanking" him for all he'd done.

It's easy to revisit this history in 2018 and see it as "newly relevant," when in fact the point of the commission's report was that the problems it addressed are, by definition, entrenched. What are your thoughts on how the these findings resonate 50 years later?

Well, I think that if you put the commission in a larger historical context—in the context of other presidential commissions that have been used to investigate riots—you have the same pattern, which is this: There's a disturbance, a commission is set up to investigate it, the commission identifies the deep and profound causes of the disturbance, and then the commission's findings are simply ignored. Nothing happens. And that was certainly true after the Kerner Commission. The quote I end the book with is from Kenneth Clark, one of the social psychologists who provided the studies that led to Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, and he referred to this pattern as an "Alice in Wonderland": You see the same show over and over again. So what I've been struck by is that, with Ferguson and other disturbances we've had recently, there's a similar pattern.

Was the commission's prediction accurate? Has America become "two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal?"

To an extent. On the one hand, it's impossible to deny the enormous progress that's been made over the past five decades. There's been a loosening of racial attitudes, a lessening of racial anxieties and stereotypes. There's been the emergence of a thriving black middle class. Black Americans are still underrepresented but also better represented in media and business. And we elected a black president. So you can't look at the past 50 years and say that we, as a society, are worse off than we were 50 years ago.

But on the other hand, I believe that, for the people who've been left behind—especially in some decaying urban cores, some of which are the same places where the riots took place in 1967, places like Detroit and Newark—very little has changed. And if anything, I believe that they're more segregated from [white] society than they were 50 years ago. They've become increasingly separated from the mainstream, and they have fewer opportunities and less hope than they had five decades ago. So it's a split image of a society that, in general, has made enormous progress, but has really left behind a segment that faces conditions worse than they were in the '60s. And I think that, somehow or other, we need to change the conversation on race in America today in a way that makes this segment a part of it, and start talking positively about steps we can take to address racism—which still exists—and help people who've been left behind. I think that this sort of thinking is almost completely absent from the national narrative.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.