DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Fifty years ago this week, President Johnson's commission on civil disorders released the Kerner Report. This was an attempt to explain why so many of the country's cities erupted in riots. Now many observers say this report can tell Americans a lot about the issues fueling racial tensions today. From NPR's Code Switch team, here's Karen Grigsby Bates.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: In July 1967, recognizing that five days of rioting in Detroit had left the entire country anxious and on edge, President Lyndon Johnson made a special television address to the nation.
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LYNDON B. JOHNSON: We have endured a week such as no nation should live through, a time of violence and tragedy.
BATES: In the same address, he announced a new initiative.
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JOHNSON: I'm tonight appointing a special advisory commission on civil disorders. Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois has agreed to serve as chairman.
BATES: The Kerner Commission was established while Detroit was still smoking. Princeton historian Julian Zelizer, who has written about the report's impact, says the president wasn't so sure he even wanted a commission.
JULIAN ZELIZER: He's very fearful from the start that the commission will end up blaming him. And at the same time, they'll say you have to do things that Congress - he knows - would never accept. And he would look bad.
BATES: The commission was populated with very mainstream politicians, civic and business leaders. But the conclusions it reached were pretty radical. Unless something was done, it famously warned America was in danger of becoming two societies - one black, one white, separate and unequal. It was, says Princeton's Julian Zelizer, a pretty startling opinion at the time. And he says it's still pertinent.
ZELIZER: In terms of criminal justice and the way race affects it, I think the findings are so relevant. And you could almost take portions of the report, adjust them obviously to contemporary times. But they would still resonate with what we're dealing with today.
BATES: Segregation in housing and education, lack of opportunity and police violence in communities of color were some of the reasons cited for the unrest then, just as they've been more recently in places like Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore. Much to the irritation of one member, most of the press reduced the intricate nuanced report to this.
FRED HARRIS: White racism cause of black riots, commission says.
BATES: That's former Oklahoma Senator Fred Harris, the only living member of the Kerner Commission panel.
HARRIS: I was 37 when I served on the commission. And who ever thought that, 50 years later, we'd still be talking about the same things? That's kind of sad.
BATES: At the University of Texas, historian Peniel Joseph says the national reaction to the commission's report was mixed.
PENIEL JOSEPH: Some people really applauded the candor of the report because the report really laid the blame for the violence at the feet of institutional racism and white oppression.
BATES: Not everybody agreed, though.
JOSEPH: Others felt that the report was just justifying violence. But it was something people paid attention to. And that was a best-seller for a time.
BATES: It's true. This government report by a panel of establishment types was published as a book. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders - usually called "The Kerner Report" - was a thick paperback, more than 600 pages. It became a best-seller and was in such demand that 23 editions were printed. Despite that, Fred Harris says Lyndon Johnson was done with his commission. Instead of the usual formal handshake and thank you to commission members...
HARRIS: He refused to meet with us to receive our report. And that's particularly sad to me because President Johnson did more against racism and poverty than any president before or since.
JOSEPH: He was being criticized from his left by people like Dr. King, saying that all the money he spent in Vietnam should've been spent on anti-poverty efforts and racial justice efforts.
BATES: Again, Peniel Joseph.
JOSEPH: And on his right, he was being criticized by conservatives who supported the war effort but rejected the Great Society and felt as if the Great Society was justifying law and disorder.
BATES: So the Kerner Report was put aside. But this week, a sequel to the original report was released. Its conclusion - widening inequality has become a threat to American democracy.
Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
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