“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.”
Fifty years ago, on March 1, 1968, these were the grim words of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, called the Kerner Commission after its chairman, Gov. Otto Kerner of Illinois.
President Lyndon Johnson had established the commission to examine the disorders and violent protests in Detroit, Newark and well over 100 other American cities during the summer of 1967, and earlier. What it found was searing. “What white Americans have never fully understood – but what the Negro can never forget – is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto,” the commission concluded. “White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”
Mostly moderate and mostly white men, the members of the bipartisan panel carried the imprimatur of the political establishment. Their recommendations attracted widespread public debate. The paperback edition of the report sold over two million copies.
Occupied by the Vietnam War and concerned about the legacy of his Great Society domestic agenda, Johnson distanced himself from the “two societies” warning. But the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy strongly endorsed the commission’s findings and recommendations before they were assassinated and before more protests erupted during that traumatic year of 1968.
The Kerner Commission recommended “massive and sustained” investments in jobs and education to reduce poverty, inequality and racial injustice. Have we made progress in the last 50 years?