White society deeply implicated in urban unrest, says Kerner Commission : Planet Money In 1967, President Johnson created a commission to investigate racial unrest in America. But, the answer they came up with was not the answer he was hoping for. | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.
NPR logo

BONUS: The Kerner Commission

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/893229176/893265739" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
BONUS: The Kerner Commission

BONUS: The Kerner Commission

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/893229176/893265739" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Nick Fountain. A little after the killing of George Floyd, we here at Planet Money were watching protests sweep across the country, looking for what economics could tell us about how centuries of racial inequity had led us to this very moment. And our newsletter writer, Greg Rosalsky, stumbled upon a dusty report written by a presidential commission more than 50 years ago that seemed like it could've been written this year in 2020. It was about systemic inequity and police misconduct and how they had combined to ignite a summer of protests and riots. So Greg wrote a newsletter about it. If you haven't already subscribed to the newsletter, you can do that at npr.org/planetmoneynewsletter. Do it.

And also, his research kind of inspired our friends at the podcast Throughline to take a deeper look into that dusty report because that's what they do. They're an awesome history show, and they look at the past to understand our current moment. So today, we're going to play that episode of Throughline. The hosts, Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah, start the show in Detroit in the summer of 1967.


SUSAN GOODEN: Early Sunday morning in July of 1967, there was a raid of a after-hours bar in Detroit.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Police had it under surveillance for several weeks. In the early hours of Sunday morning last, they raided the premises and discovered an after-hours drinking establishment.

STEVE GILLON: It was crowded. There were dozens of people there. They came together to celebrate someone who had been fighting in Vietnam. And they tried to arrest everybody. A large crowd gathered.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Their curiosity turned to hostility. They began shouting their disapproval.

GILLON: There are bottles thrown.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Several store windows were shattered. Garbage cans were upended and the contents set on fire.

GILLON: Eruption of violence. And that simply spread.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Several hundred rounds squeezed off. Now all of sudden, it's silent - tense quiet, everybody looking around.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: The fire has been raging for more than 30 minutes. The people have been evacuated, and yet the firemen are unable to respond.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: It appeared they couldn't control the situation.

GILLON: The local police simply are overwhelmed.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: The entire city appeared to be burning at that time.

GILLON: It went on for days and days. The governor calls out the National Guard...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: No matter what the police wanted to do, there's nothing they could do about it. It was in the hands of the people, the mob.

GILLON: ...And then eventually pleads with Lyndon Johnson to send in really hardened troops to Vietnam.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: Behind two tanks and at least 200 guardsmen, maybe more. And they've got a search light up on...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I've never seen a war like that with little kids, women, mothers. I just seen wars with men on men.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: The fifth-largest city in the country has earned a regrettable new title - the cradle of the bloodiest and costliest civil disturbance in the history of the American nation.


RAMTIN ARABLOUEI: Hey. I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

RUND ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: And on this episode of Throughline from NPR, the Kerner Commission.

ABDELFATAH: Since the killing of George Floyd over a month ago, protests against police brutality and structural racism have swept the nation and the world. It feels like a moment when a broader swath of society than in generations is acknowledging what needs to change.

ARABLOUEI: Maybe the closest parallel to what's happening today is the so-called long, hot summer of 1967, when the culmination of mid-1960s racial unrest swept through more than 150 American cities. Nearly all were provoked by growing inequality in employment, housing, education and police brutality.

ABDELFATAH: In Detroit, the damage was particularly bad - 43 people dead, hundreds injured, thousands arrested and countless people homeless.

ARABLOUEI: All of this forced a national reckoning, a hard look at the state of race relations and segregation in American life.

ABDELFATAH: When we come back, we're digging into that moment to figure out what happened, why it happened and what we did and did not do to set us on the path we're on today.


JOHN LEE HOOKER: (Singing) Oh, the Motor City's burnin'. And ain't no...

ARABLOUEI: During the summer of 1967, the headlines were filled with news of unrest in cities across the country. It even inspired some songs.


HOOKER: (Singing) My hometown's burnin' down to the ground worser than Vietnam.

ARABLOUEI: President Lyndon B. Johnson was unsure exactly how to respond to all this unrest. Yes, things were getting chaotic, but he was kind of offended. After all, he was the one who'd passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 which outlawed discrimination based on race. And he'd launched a War on Poverty, putting in place a set of progressive programs enacted throughout the mid-'60s known as The Great Society.


PRESIDENT LYNDON B JOHNSON: The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice.

GILLON: He couldn't understand, given everything he had done, that African Americans would reward him by taking to the streets and participating in these riots.

GOODEN: You know, I think he's thinking, we're making progress. What am I missing here?

ARABLOUEI: This is Susan Gooden...

GOODEN: I serve as dean of the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University.

ARABLOUEI: ...And Steve Gillon.

GILLON: I am a Professor of history at the University of Oklahoma.


ABDELFATAH: As things heated up in the summer of 1967, Johnson's aides were getting more and more nervous that he was losing control of the situation. They pleaded with him to make a speech to the nation.

GILLON: Johnson just refuses to do it. He just doesn't want to deal with it.

ABDELFATAH: So day after day, Johnson refused.

GILLON: And finally, on Thursday, July 27, Johnson shows up at the White House. And he says to Joe Califano, his domestic policy adviser, that he wants to do two things. He wants to give a speech to the nation that night, and he wants to announce the creation of a national commission to look into the causes of the riots.

ABDELFATAH: OK. So why the 180? Well, Johnson might have thought that if the commission's report linked the unrest to poverty, it might boost support for his Great Society programs.

GILLON: A lot of Johnson's aides objected to him creating the commission. Califano told them he'd be creating a Frankenstein - that once you create a commission like this, you have no control over it. But Johnson overrode those objections and went ahead with creating the commission.

ARABLOUEI: But here's the thing - creating a commission of this kind usually takes a few months. And Johnson's staff had less than 24 hours.

GILLON: So there's a frantic effort to make phone calls, to figure out who should be on the commission. It was clear that Johnson wanted a mainstream commission. He didn't want young, radical African Americans on the commission. He didn't want really hardcore conservatives on the commission. So he wanted to create a commission that was broad-based, but he also wanted a commission that he could control.


JOHNSON: My fellow Americans, we have endured a week such as no nation should live through, a time of violence and tragedy.

ARABLOUEI: By 10:30 that night, Johnson had his list of names ready.


JOHNSON: I am tonight appointing a special advisory commission on civil disorders. Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois has agreed to serve as chairman.

GILLON: Johnson chose him because he knew Kerner wanted a federal judgeship, and he thought he could use that as leverage to hold over him so that he would do what he wanted.


JOHNSON: Mayor John Lindsay of New York will serve as vice chair.

GILLON: He chose, reluctantly, John Lindsay, the liberal mayor of New York, to try to provide some balance on the commission.


JOHNSON: Its other members will include Fred R. Harris...

GILLON: A moderate to liberal senator from Oklahoma.


JOHNSON: ...Edward W. Brooke...

GILLON: Who was an African American senator from Massachusetts.


JOHNSON: ...James C. Corman, the United States representative from California...

GILLON: I.W. Abel, the labor leader, was there.


JOHNSON: ...William M. McCulloch, the U.S. representative from the state of Ohio, the Fourth District...

GILLON: Tex Thornton, a fairly conservative businessman from Texas who is now living in LA.


JOHNSON: ...Herbert Jenkins, the chief of police - Atlanta, Ga...

GILLON: Roy Wilkins.


JOHNSON: ...The executive director of the NAACP...

GILLON: Katherine Peden.


JOHNSON: ...The commissioner of commerce in the state of Kentucky.

GILLON: But she really - she rarely speaks. She rarely says anything at the commission.

ABDELFATAH: If you lost count, that's 11 commissioners in total - eight white men, two Black men and one white woman.

GILLON: So Johnson asked the commission to answer three questions. One is, what happened? Second is, why did it happen? And third, how can we prevent it from happening again? So that's all the instructions the commission got. They were given no instructions as to how they go about answering those questions.

ABDELFATAH: They also weren't given much money - initially, about a hundred thousand dollars. And even though Otto Kerner was technically the chairman, it became clear from Day 1 who was really in control.

GILLON: On that very first day, John Lindsay takes charge of the commission. And he continues to run the commission right up until the final day when the report is issued.

ABDELFATAH: Lindsay was much more liberal than Kerner. He had his own political ambitions and wasn't interested in pandering to Johnson's agenda.

ARABLOUEI: He and other commissioners pushed for more independence from the White House in order to figure out the answer to the first question - what happened to cause the riots?

GILLON: They hire a whole bunch of investigators, field teams that would go into these areas where there was unrest. And these field teams would interview local residents.

GOODEN: About their experiences in life and learning about their stories and seeing their communities and all of that.

GILLON: There would then be a team of social scientists. And the social scientists were charged with answering the second question - why did they happen? And then the commissioners were going to obviously filter all this information and come up with the answer to the third question, which is, what should be done?


ABDELFATAH: Meanwhile, Johnson was getting angrier by the day. This wasn't the commission he'd expected. It was highly ambitious and being led by a liberal. He tried to throw a wrench in the investigation by blocking any more funding for it. But the commissioners managed to recruit help from other departments.

ARABLOUEI: As information started to come in from the field, the commissioners traveled to different cities to see for themselves what was going on. And...

GOODEN: Those firsthand, upfront personal conversations, I think, allowed commissioners to hear, see and understand the realities of deeply entrenched, structural racial inequalities.

GILLON: They were struck by just how horrible the conditions were in these areas, how unresponsive local officials were.

ARABLOUEI: Everything, from housing to education to sanitation, was in desperate need of repair.

ABDELFATAH: Keep in mind most of these commissioners had spent little to no time in Black, urban neighborhoods. So this was all really shocking for them.


ARABLOUEI: There was one issue in particular that kept coming up in almost every city.

GILLON: The one common denominator that united all the riots is they were all initiated either by police brutality or by someone who believed they had witnessed police brutality.


GILLON: They were hearing stories from some of the local residents about how the police would beat people up for no reason at all, how they were constantly being harassed by the police. And one young kid said to them that the police are just thugs with badges.

ABDELFATAH: This finding set off a lot of debate among the commissioners, and the word riot was part of that debate. Given the issues Black Americans were facing, some of the field investigators thought those riots might be warranted.

GILLON: If you decide that they're rational, they're not riots anymore; they are uprisings. They are a form of protest. And it was the only thing that was available to them because all the other avenues of change were blocked off.

ARABLOUEI: But the more conservative members of the commission refused to support any report that condoned riots as rational.

ABDELFATAH: As the commissioners began to put pen to paper, they were determined to accomplish two things - come up with a report that had unanimous approval from the commissioners but still conveyed their findings accurately and write it in a way that the average American could understand.

ARABLOUEI: So they meticulously went through draft after draft, rewriting sections, cutting others, making compromises, finessing language, especially when it came to policing. The evidence suggested that police brutality was at the heart of the unrest. But finding the words proved contentious.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Very disappointed in the section - it condemns all police.

ABDELFATAH: Early drafts emphasized just how rampant police brutality was and how poorly police officers were trained to deal with racial unrest. And some commissioners thought the language was too strong.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Police have human fears, too, and they got cause to be fearful in the ghetto.

ABDELFATAH: Back to the drawing board again and again. Finally, after eight months, it was ready - a version of the report that every member of the commission agreed on.


ABDELFATAH: In February of 1968, the Kerner Commission completed its report. And, man, was it a report. The comprehensive 426-page document was intentionally written as a compelling narrative in the hopes that its policy proposals would really pop and catch the public's attention.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) The summer of 1967 again brought racial disorders to American cities and with them shock, fear and bewilderment to the nation. The worst came...

ARABLOUEI: The report's proposals were big. It proposed major changes to housing policies, urban planning, education, anti-poverty programs and policing, with a price tag ranging between $30 to $100 billion.

ABDELFATAH: A lot of these proposals aligned with President Johnson's priorities. However, at the heart of the report was something Johnson and many others did not see coming.

GILLON: The commission's belief that white racism was the cause of urban unrest.

GOODEN: The Kerner Report said - and I quote - "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."

ARABLOUEI: The report was set to be released on March 1.

GOODEN: What happens is it gets leaked to The Washington Post the day before.

GILLON: The members of the commission were so afraid that Johnson was going to try to bury the report that someone leaked it to the press.

GOODEN: And The Washington Post leads with a headline that says "White Racism Is Blamed In Riots" (ph) - or very close to that. And so that becomes the headline that gains a lot of momentum in the media.

GILLON: It made a huge splash. It was remarkable that a presidential commission got the type of attention that it got.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) The president's National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders gave this warning to Americans tonight.

GILLON: Front page of every major newspaper...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Our nation is moving toward two societies - one Black, one white - separate and unequal.

GILLON: ...Long stories inside detailing the findings of the commission, the recommendations for change.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Unless drastic and costly remedies are begun at once, the commission said, there will be continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values.


ARABLOUEI: And when the report was officially released through a publisher, let's just say it did better than most novels do today.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8: The report turned out to be a runaway bestseller. Seven-hundred-forty-thousand copies were sold the first three weeks. More than a million are now in print.

GILLON: Major newspapers - New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times - all praised it. Liberals also sort of embraced it and embraced its recommendations.

ABDELFATAH: But President Johnson wasn't so happy about the report's findings. Even though he had to give tepid support publicly, privately he was enraged. The main reason for his anger was the price tag and the scope of the report's recommendations.

ARABLOUEI: Things like creating 2 million jobs within three years, giving loans to high-risk business ventures, drastically increasing support to schools in Black communities, producing 6 million new housing units in five years and putting in place specific police reforms to curb police brutality.

GOODEN: President Johnson felt that the report did not give enough credit for the work that he and his administration had done through their Great Society programs and the War on Poverty.

GILLON: He thought it was so unrealistic for these people, this commission, to ask him to spend $30 billion when Congress is cutting funding for his existing programs. And he just felt that it made him look bad.

ABDELFATAH: When Roy Wilkins, one of the two Black members of the commission, was interviewed a few years after the report came out...

GOODEN: He said, I think that the word racism - and particularly white racism - frightened President Johnson. He didn't feel like the president wanted to go down in history as the president who had pointed his finger at his own people.


ARABLOUEI: But Lyndon Johnson wasn't the only person who was unhappy with the commission's report. There was a significant portion of the country who responded negatively, not only to its recommendations but to the report's emphasis on police brutality.

GILLON: Those newspapers from the South and the West were - just dismissed it as another liberal grab bag, another expensive government program that was unrealistic, that spent too much time criticizing the police and not criticizing the protesters themselves. Richard Nixon, who was gearing up for his presidential campaign, develops that line of attack, arguing that it spent too much time criticizing the police.

GOODEN: This is - part of his platform is the law-and-order platform. It dials back completely any implications for white Americans. It's more on individual behavior and lawlessness.

GILLON: So - while overall its impact was enormous in terms of the amount of coverage it got, it also revealed these deep cultural divisions that were emerging coming out of the 1960s.


ARABLOUEI: It was clear that neither President Johnson nor Congress was going to champion most of the proposals set forth by the commission. And Mayor Lindsay was vocal about his disappointment.


JOHN LINDSAY: As the vice chairman of that commission which spent seven long months analyzing last summer's riots and drawing up solid proposals to stop them at the source, I'm severely disappointed by the failure of the federal government to implement the commission's bipartisan recommendations. We are not moving fast enough or far enough. We are not convincing the people in the slums that our government truly wants to help them.

ARABLOUEI: And Otto Kerner echoed these sentiments.


OTTO KERNER: Well, there's been no action. There's really been no discussion about it in the committees in the Senate. It's just lying fallow - no movement at all, foregone.

LINDSAY: In my judgment, the primary responsibility for absence of action rests with the Congress of the United States.

GILLON: Most were disappointed that despite all the attention that it got, that most of the programs - the ambitious programs that they called for were not enacted. In terms of major initiatives that came out of the Kerner Commission that lasted, you know, there's just not a whole lot.

GOODEN: But I do think one of the lasting impacts of the report is that it does put white racism as a factor into structural inequities that we see and differences in outcomes that we see between white Americans and Black Americans. And that was huge, to have a presidential commission report making those claims.

ARABLOUEI: The Kerner Commission came along in a time of great upheaval in America. In addition to the unrest in many cities, there was the anti-Vietnam War movement and a series of political assassinations. And the findings of the Kerner Commission just added to this volatile environment.

GILLON: It created a sense that America was unraveling, it was falling apart. And it allowed Nixon to create this language of cultural populism. That was his appeal to law and order. So it definitely set the stage for not just Richard Nixon but the modern Republican Party.


GILLON: Every Republican candidate or president since then has - their appeal to law and order, in many ways, is sort of a hammer tap below the knee to bring back memories of racial unrest in the 1960s. So I think the Kerner Commission believed that having a bipartisan commission of mainstream people to produce a report like this, they really hoped that it would change the conversation in America about race and unrest. But it did not.

ABDELFATAH: In fact, following the Kerner Commission report, the police force in the United States became more powerful, not more regulated. Nixon's war on drugs gave police more leeway to arrest drug dealers and users, and many police forces began their steady process of militarization by acquiring surplus equipment and weapons from the military. And the harsh reality is that the diagnosis of the problem laid out in the Kerner Commission would be accurate in many American cities today.


ABDELFATAH: That's it for this week's show. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was produced by me.

ARABLOUEI: And me. And...

JAMIE YORK: Jamie York.

LAWRENCE WU: Lawrence Wu.

LAINE KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Laine Kaplan-Levenson.

JULIE CAINE: Julie Caine.

KIA MIAKKA NATISSE: Kia Miakka Natisse.

NATALIE BARTON: Natalie Barton (ph).

N'JERI EATON: N'Jeri Eaton.

ABDELFATAH: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Vokl.

ARABLOUEI: Special thanks to Alex Curley, Austin Horn and Alex Chong for their voiceover work. Thanks also to Camille Smiley and Anya Grundmann.

ABDELFATAH: Our music was composed by Ramtin and his band Drop Electric, which includes...

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

ARABLOUEI: If you have an idea or like something on this show, please write us at throughline@npr.org, or find us on Twitter - @throughlineNPR.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.


Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.