50 Years Ago – The Kerner Commission Report

by Wornie Reed, Ph.D.
Director, Race and Social Policy, Professor, Sociology & Africana Studies, Virginia Tech

Fifty years ago this month the Kerner Commission Report was released, shocking America by its frank discussion of white racism.

Before the smoke settled from the Detroit Rebellion of 1967, President Lyndon Johnson established The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission after its chair, Governor Otto Kerner, Jr. of Illinois, to examine the outbreaks that had occurred with increasing frequency and to report on (1) what happened and (2) why it happened.

With John Lindsay, the Republican mayor of New York, as Vice-Chairman, the Commission consisted of two U.S. Senators, two U.S. Congressmen, a corporate CEO, a police chief, a state commissioner of commerce, the President of the US Steelworkers of America, and the Executive Director of the NAACP. Not much was expected from this high-level mostly establishment group.

However, to the surprise of most observers, this blue ribbon commission did not provide the usual whitewashing. Instead, it offered the most forthright analysis and discussion of the racial situation in America that has ever been done by a high-level commission or committee—before or since. Martin Luther King hailed the Kerner Commission Report as a “physician’s warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life.”

The Report was published by Bantam Books and sold over 2 million copies, even though it was over 600 pages long. It made headlines across the country. Many people took it seriously, so much so that an IBM office in the Wall Street area of New York City devoted an entire weekly sales meeting to a discussion of the Report.

To answer the first question, “what happened?,” the Commission went in depth—over 200 pages—about the history of white-black race relations, especially the police and the Black community, describing white oppression and black rebellions through the decades. They concluded that “To some Negroes, police have come to symbolize white power, white racism, and white repression.”

Their description of the civil disorders of 1967 was “Negroes acting against local symbols of white American society, authority, and property in Negro neighborhoods–rather than against white persons.”

Insultingly, there was widespread speculation that the racial disorders of the mid-1960’s were organized by outside forces, i.e., communists—as if African Americans could not possibly be fed up enough with racial oppression to rebel on their own. The Commission’s response to that issue was “The urban disorders of the summer of 1967 were not caused by, nor were they the consequence of, any organized plan or ‘conspiracy.’”

The following two quotations from the Report show how the Commission answered the second question, “Why did it happen?”

• “Despite these complexities, certain fundamental matters are clear. Of these, the most fundamental is the racial attitude and behavior of White Americans toward Black Americans. Race prejudice has shaped our history decisively in the past; it now threatens to do so again. White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II.”

• “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 it, and white society condones it.”

In essence, the Kerner Commission was explaining institutional racism without using the term, which was new at the time. The term “institutional racism” was coined and first used in 1967 by Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture) and Charles V. Hamilton in their book Black Power: The Politics of Liberation.