An icon of the 60s reflects on the the new generation of civil rights activists

The Kerner Commission's last living member says: "They're all involved and engaged and I think this is a permanent thing."

A message reading “Black Lives Matter” is written across the cheek of Samaria Muhammad as she chants with fellow protesters in Atlanta on Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014 during a demonstration against the deaths of two unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers in New York City and Ferguson, Mo. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/DAVID GOLDMAN
A message reading “Black Lives Matter” is written across the cheek of Samaria Muhammad as she chants with fellow protesters in Atlanta on Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014 during a demonstration against the deaths of two unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers in New York City and Ferguson, Mo. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/DAVID GOLDMAN

Fred Harris’ memory of the long, hot summer of 1967 provides him with a clear-eyed, yet still optimistic, view of race relations in the United States today.

As the last surviving member of the 11-person Kerner Commission on Civil Disorders, the landmark 1968 report to President Lyndon Johnson on the root causes of rioting, looting and burning in urban centers the year before, Harris believes opposition to white racism and institutional oppression is fueling a resurgence of political energy for social change just as it did a half century ago.

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“I am seeing more activism now in the country than I’ve seen in many, many years,” Harris told me during an interview as he paused between sessions of  a forum commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission. “You see groups, diverse groups such as the Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March and community groups like Indivisible. They’re all involved and engaged and I think this is a permanent thing and a big thing.”

Harris knows a thing or two about social change. He played a critical role in both the research and the writing of the Kerner Commission report, which grew out of President Johnson’s confusion over the origins of the rioting.

Then, as now, careful study of the report offers a wealth of insights into the causes and cures for what ails this country. Indeed, in the struggle for racial equality and progress, the confusion of the past provides an opportunity for future clarity.

For those of us old enough to remember the ’60s and the unfulfilled promises of the Great Society programs, a fresh review of the report serves as a reminder of progress gained and how too much of it has been abandoned.  For a new generation of activists, who may seek a historical frame for their work, revisiting the report’s findings cast a guiding light upon effective strategies to copy and mistakes to avoid.

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Fifty years ago, anger boiled over in many black communities, often as the direct result of police shootings, sparking violent confrontations. At the height of the civil unrest, local police and the National Guard failed to control unrelenting uprisings. Eventually, Johnson felt compelled to send in the U.S. Army in an effort to restore an uneasy peace that, in many cases, lingers to this day.  The final cost of imposing law and order was exorbitantly high: In Newark, 26 people died and 1,324 people were charged with crimes as entire city blocks were burned to the ground; in Detroit, 33 black Americans and 10 white Americans died and 7,231 people were arrested.

In his grief and confusion over the carnage in the cities, Johnson called upon a body of experts with a desperate request: Tell the president what was going on across the nation that would generate such disturbances in black communities and offer the nation a course of action to avoid future unrest.

Harris, then a U.S. Senator from Oklahoma, joined ten other prominent Americans to answer what Johnson referred to as “three basic questions”: “What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?”

The commission’s report generated a shock to the nation’s psyche when it was released, the first U.S. government document to cite white racism for creating social inequality in America. It concluded that the United States was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal,” largely because white Americans accepted the racially segregated conditions woven into the fabric of the nation. The report stated:

Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans.

What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain, and white society condones it.

Harris and others attending the day-long “Healing our Divided Society” forum at George Washington University, noted that despite major gains in race relations and the overall improvement among racial minority groups, many of the issues that gave rise to the Kerner report remain troubling present today.

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“We made progress for about a decade [after the release of the Kerner report],” Harris said, citing the election of President Barack Obama as the first African-American president and the rise of a black middle class during the 1980. “But it has since slowed, stopped and reversed.”

As evidence of the reversal, Linda Darling-Hammond, president and chief executive of Learning Policy Institute, a California-based education policy and research organization and co-sponsor of the forum, noted that federal cuts to school programs such as Headstart and federally sponsored school nutrition programs have led to the creation of “apartheid schools” across the nation. As she recounted, many critical federal programs that were working to provide equity across racial lines had been deemed ineffective and a waste of taxpayer dollars during the Reagan administration and were, as a result, effectively underfunded.

“We’ve seen the achievement gap increase again, after making tremendous gains,” Darling-Hammond said in an interview. “Now it’s about 30 percent greater then at its smallest point. If we’d continued to stay on course with investments in schools, the achievement gap would have been gone by the year 2000.”

Alan Curtis, president of the Eisenhower Foundation, another of the forum’s co-sponsors, told me the Kerner report proposed a set of policy initiatives that have been abandoned by community and political leaders despite a track record of proven results. “There are evidence-based programs that work such as community policing,” he said. “We’re saying we should scale up those programs and scale down those that don’t work such as zero-tolerance policing programs.”

Harris said the perception that 60s-era programs had failed stemmed, in part, to mistakes the Kerner Commission made in promoting its work. The commission held 20 days of hearings and traveled across the country to interview more than 130 witnesses. But most of that work was done behind closed doors or out of public sight, a failing that resulted in a lack of transparency and political support.

“Its a damn shame that we didn’t have any media people with us, showing the nation what we were seeing,” Harris told me. “The American people never got a chance to see the conditions and the way black people lived in the same way that we [on the commission] did. Maybe if they had, they would have been more willing to do more to bring about change.”

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Worse, Harris said, President Johnson sent mixed signals of regarding the commission’s work. Like most Americans at the time, Johnson was utterly clueless about the cause of the disturbances that he, looking on in horror, regularly witnessed on the nightly news. 

As Harris recalled, the president charged the commission to “let your search be free, find the truth and express it in your report.”  But when the report was released, Johnson refused to accept its conclusions.

“He would not meet with us,” Harris said, adding Johnson felt the report’s findings were politically and personally damaging. “I thought that was really sad and unfortunate.”

But today, 50 years later, is a new day with new opportunities, he told me. The Kerner Commission report lives on, pointing the way to a better future.

“I’m still hopeful that we can get it right,” Harris said. “We made progress on every aspect of racial progress for a decade after the Kerner Commission was released. And now, people are engaging in politics and activism just as they were back then. That’s how you bring about change. I’m encouraged, not discouraged.”