Kerner, Otto, Jr.

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KERNER, Otto, Jr.

(b. 15 August 1908 in Chicago, Illinois; d. 9 May 1976 in Chicago, Illinois), governor of Illinois and statesman who headed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders that issued the Kerner Report in 1968 (concerning racial divisions in America) and who in 1974 became the first sitting federal appeals court judge to be convicted of a felony.

Kerner's father, Otto Kerner, Sr., was a prominent Illinois politician who served as the attorney general of Illinois, as Cook County Circuit Court judge, and as a U.S. Appeals Court judge. Kerner's mother was Rose Barbara Chmelik. After graduating from high school in 1926, Kerner attended Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, receiving his B.A. degree in 1930. From 1930 to 1931 he attended Trinity College, Cambridge University, in England and then Northwestern University School of Law in Evanston, Illinois, graduating in 1934. On 20 October 1934 Kerner married Helena Cermak Kenlay. His wife's daughter from a previous marriage died in an automobile accident in 1954, and the Kerners adopted the daughter's two children; they had no other children. In 1934 Kerner went to work for the law firm of Cooke, Sullivan, and Ricks, but in 1935 he left to join his father's law firm, Kerner, Jaros, and Tittle, where he became a partner. Also in 1934 Kerner joined the Black Horse Troop of the Illinois National Guard, rising to the rank of captain by 1941. In March 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt called up the National Guard, and Kerner was transferred to the Thirty-third Infantry Division of the U.S. Army. In 1942, after the United States entered World War II, he was transferred to the Ninth Infantry Division and was promoted to major; he underwent training for field artillery and returned to action. Kerner saw action in North Africa and Sicily; he was decorated with the Bronze Star. Promoted to lieutenant colonel, he served in the Philippines and Japan from July to December 1945. Although he was discharged from active service, he remained in the National Guard until 1954, retiring as a major general.

In 1947 Kerner was appointed the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. In 1954 he was elected Cook County judge and was reelected in 1958. In 1960 he resigned from his judgeship to run for governor of Illinois. He defeated the sitting two-term Republican governor, William G. Stratton, by more than 500,000 votes, an impressive landslide, especially considering that his fellow Democrat John F. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in the presidential race by fewer than nine thousand votes in Illinois. Kerner proved to be a dynamic leader. In April 1961 he requested increases in corporate taxes and the state sales tax, meeting opposition from both Republicans and Democrats, but he used his considerable powers of persuasion to gain enough votes to pass his new sales tax and $3 billion budget through the state legislature on 29 June 1961, with his corporate tax plan passing on 18 July 1961.

The 1960s seemed to be a period of untarnished success for Kerner, but by 1962 he was sowing his own seeds of destruction. Through the state revenue director, Theodore Isaacs, Kerner became involved in illicit deals with gambling interests, especially the owners of horseracing tracks. In 1964 he was reelected governor in a closer contest than the one in 1960. There were race riots in Chicago in 1965, 1966, and 1967, and in each instance Kerner called out the National Guard to bring peace to the city. During 1966 Kerner purchased stock in a racetrack, paying $70,158 for stock that was worth $356,000. He then quickly sold the stock for its true value. In return for the favor, he helped push legislation desired by racetrack owners. In 1967 he falsified his tax returns by claiming the money he had earned as a long-term capital gain, which at that time meant that he could pay at a lower tax rate than if the income were a short-term gain (which it actually had been).

In July 1967 President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Kerner head of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (sometimes called the Kerner Commission). In March 1968 the commission issued what became known as the Kerner Report, an important document in the history of civil rights in America and very controversial. It would be debated for at least two decades, as America tried to achieve racial equality in its society. In sum, the report declared that America was becoming "two societies, one black and one white—separate and unequal." The phrase "separate and unequal" became part of the American lexicon when describing issues of discrimination on the basis of race. At the root of America's racial division, the report said, were bigotry and injustice caused by racism.

In May 1968 Kerner's wife was seriously ill, and he resigned from his governorship to be able to stay close to home. President Johnson nominated him to a position that would not require much travel, judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. It was, he said, the job he had always wanted. As the decade of the 1960s closed, he was respected for his honesty and fairness, but soon thereafter his career came apart. In December 1971 a federalgrand jury handed down nineteen indictments of corruption against Kerner. He denied the charges and insisted on remaining a judge, although he took a leave of absence from work while continuing to draw his salary. On 19 February 1973 he was convicted on seventeen of the charges, including tax evasion, fraud, perjury, and conspiracy to commit crimes, becoming the first sitting federal appeals court judge to be convicted of a felony. He faced eighty-three years in prison and a $93,000 fine but was sentenced to three years in prison and fined $50,000. In 1973 his wife died. In 1974 he entered the federal prison at Lexington, Kentucky, but was released early—6 March 1975—so that he could be treated for lung cancer. The last year of his life was devoted to advocating prison reform and to trying to prove that his "indiscretion," as he put it, was not particularly bad. He died in Chicago, still very well liked. His guidance of the Kerner Commission had a powerful effect on the writing and passage of civil rights laws and won him permanent admirers among civil rights groups.

The Illinois State Historical Library holds Kerner's personal papers and most of his official papers; the Illinois State Archives hold many of his official gubernatorial papers. Hank Messick, The Politics of Prosecution: Jim Thompson, Marje Everett, Richard Nixon, and the Trial of Otto Kerner (1978), offers a partisan account of Kerner's criminal convictions. Robert P. Howard, Mostly Good and Competent Men: Illinois Governors 1818–1988 (1988), includes an outline of Kerner's political activities. Quiet Riots: Race and Poverty in the United States (1988), edited by Fred R. Harris and Roy W. Wilkins, analyzes the Kerner Report. The best obituary is in the Chicago Tribune (10 May 1976).

Kirk H. Beetz