Kerner Commission

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KERNER COMMISSION. In the summer of 1967, serious rioting broke out in many American cities, causing property damage estimated at between $75 and $100 million and resulting in eighty-four deaths. In Detroit, federal troops were deployed to quell unrest. That city suffered the most serious rioting, with forty-three deaths, seven thousand arrests, and 1,383 burned buildings. In July 1967, President Lyndon Johnson created the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to investigate the causes of the civil unrest and to recommend remedies. Johnson suspected that the commission would find evidence of a political conspiracy among urban black militants. The commission was more popularly known by the name of its chair, Otto Kerner, whom Johnson appointed because of his long legal career as a judge and prosecuting attorney and his political experience as a former Democratic governor of Illinois. Other important members of the commission included Oklahoma senator Fred Harris, NAACP executive director Roy Wilkins, and New York City mayor John Lindsay. Lindsay's efforts were of particular importance as he played an important role in the drafting of the commission's final report, which was issued on 1 March 1968.

The commission found no evidence of a political conspiracy at work in the rioting. Rather, the panel concluded that economic deprivation and racial discrimination created great anger in the ghettos and thus created the conditions for rioting. In its most famous phrase, the report found that "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal" and that a program of racial integration and economic uplift was the only preventative step that could be taken to avoid rioting in the hot summers of the future. The commission called for steep increases in federal aid to the cities, a federal jobs program to employ one million workers, and an increase in the minimum wage, among other redistributive policy proposals. The report attracted a vast amount of public attention as a commercial press reprint of the report sold two million copies and made the best-seller lists. The policy impact of the report was minimal. Urban riots peaked out after the difficult summer that prompted the formation of the commission and a conservative Republican administration came to power in January 1969. With its linkage of white racism with black poverty, the report entered into the lexicon of social science and policy analysis debate.


Lipsky, Michael, and David J. Olsen. Commission Politics: The Processing of Racial Crisis in America. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1977.

United States. National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. Report of the Commission on Civil Disorders. New York: Dutton, 1969.

Richard M.Flanagan

See alsoCivil Rights Movement ; Great Society ; Riots, Urban, of 1967 .