Justice  /  Origin Story

The History of the “Riot” Report

How government commissions became alibis for inaction.

After Kerner got the call from Johnson, he announced, “Tomorrow, I go to Washington to help organize this group of citizens for the saddest mission that any of us in our careers have been asked to pursue—why one American assaults another, why violence is inflicted on people of our cities, why the march to an ideal America has been interrupted by bloodshed and destruction. We are being asked, in a broad sense, to probe into the soul of America.”

Kerner wanted open hearings. “My concern all the time about this commission has been that at the conclusion our greatest problem is going to be to educate the whites, rather than the Negro,” he said. Kerner did not prevail on this point. J. Edgar Hoover testified on the first day, to say that the F.B.I. had found no evidence of a conspiracy behind the riots, and that he thought one good remedy for violence would be better gun laws. “You have to license your dog,” he said. Why not your gun? Martin Luther King, Jr., told the commission, “People who are completely devoid of hope don’t riot.”

Maybe the most painful testimony came from Kenneth B. Clark, the African-American psychologist, at the City College of New York, whose research on inequality had been pivotal to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. He told the commission:

I read that report . . . of the 1919 riot in Chicago, and it is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of ’35, the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of ’43, the report of the McCone Commission on the Watts riot. I must again in candor say to you members of this Commission—it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland—with the same moving picture re-shown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction.

The historical trail is blood spilled in a deeply rutted road.

John V. Lindsay, the handsome liberal mayor of New York who served as the vice-chair of the commission, got most of the media attention. But Kerner did his work. When the commission travelled, Kerner went out on the street to talk to people. He went for a walk in Newark, and stopped to speak to a group around the corner from Prince Street. They told him they had three concerns: police brutality, unemployment, and the lack of a relocation program for displaced workers. One man told the Governor that he hadn’t had a job in eight years.