Kerner Commission Report

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Kerner Commission Report


From 1965 through 1968, a total of 329 racial disturbances erupted in 257 U.S. cities, causing 300 deaths and millions of dollars in property damage. In summer 1967 rioting broke out in several cities, causing 84 deaths and an estimated $75 to $100 million in property damage. Federal troops had to be brought in to quell the disorder. In Detroit alone, in 1967 43 people died and 1,383 buildings were burned. Alarmed, on July 28, 1967, President Lyndon Johnson created the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, commonly known as the Kerner Commission after its chairman, Otto J. Kerner Jr., the governor of Illinois, to investigate the causes of the civil disturbances and to provide recommendations for the future.

The other members of the bipartisan commission appointed by President Johnson included John Lindsay, the mayor of New York; Senator Fred R. Harris, Democrat of Oklahoma; Representatives James C. Corman, Democrat of California, and William M. McCulloch, Republican of Ohio; I. W. Abel, president of the United Steelworkers of America; Roy Wilkins, director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Senator Edward W. Brooke, Republican of Massachusetts; Charles B. Thornton, chairman of Litton Industries, Inc.; Katherine Graham Peden, Kentuckys commissioner of commerce; and police chief Herbert Jenkins of Atlanta. A large staff headed by David Ginsburg, a Washington, D.C., lawyer, was drawn from the liberal establishment that had supported the civil rights movement. The 426-page report, issued on February 28, 1968, quickly became a best seller, selling more than 2 million copies, and influenced thinking on race relations in the United States for the forthcoming decade.

President Johnson suspected that a political conspiracy was responsible for encouraging black urban militants to incite racial uprisings. But the commission found no evidence of a political conspiracy; instead, it blamed the racial upheavals on the frustrations and grievances of inner-city blacks, which were caused by persistent economic deprivation and racial discrimination. The most frequently quoted sentence from the report warned that the United States was moving toward two societies, one black, and one whiteseparate and unequal (National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders 1968a, p. 1) The problems of racial discrimination, poverty, high unemployment, poor schools, inadequate schools, poor health care, and police bias and brutality were cited as major contributing factors to the United States racial apartheid. Unless these problems were remedied, the report predicted, the racial divide in the United States would widen. The commission called for sweeping reforms: a large increase in federal aid to cities, a federal jobs program, a system of income supplementation, and an increase in the minimum wage.

None of the proposals were implemented during the Johnson administration, and they were largely ignored after the election of President Richard M. Nixon in 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. hailed the report as a physicians warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life. (Report of the Select Committee on Assassinations, U.S. House of Representatives 1979, pp. 356357.) Critics, though, argued that by blaming the problems of the black community on white racism, the report spawned an enduring sense of black victimization and hopelessness.

SEE ALSO Black Power; Civil Rights; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Discrimination; Discrimination, Racial; Integration; Johnson, Lyndon B.; Nixon, Richard M.; Policing, Biased; Race; Race Relations; Race Riots, United States


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

Meranto, Philip, ed. 1970. The Kerner Report Revisited. Institute of Illinois Bulletin 67 (121).

National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. 1968a. Report of the Commission on Civil Disorders. New York: Dutton.

National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. 1968b. Supplemental Studies for The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

W. Wesley McDonald