When Shall We Overcome?
In 1968, the year after riots erupted in cities throughout the US, the Kerner Commission, established by President Lyndon B. Johnson, famously concluded that the country was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” Sadly, it is a conclusion that still rings true.
NEW YORK – In 1967, riots erupted in cities throughout the United States, from Newark, New Jersey, to Detroit and Minneapolis in the Midwest – all two years after the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles exploded in violence. In response, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed a commission, headed by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, to investigate the causes and propose measures to address them. Fifty years ago, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (more widely known as the Kerner Commission), issued its report, providing a stark account of the conditions in America that had led to the disorders.
The Kerner Commission described a country in which African-Americans faced systematic discrimination, suffered from inadequate education and housing, and lacked access to economic opportunities. For them, there was no American dream. The root cause was “the racial attitude and behavior of white Americans toward black Americans. Race prejudice has shaped our history decisively; it now threatens to affect our future.”
I was part of a group convened by the Eisenhower Foundation to assess what progress had been made in the subsequent half-century. Sadly, the Kerner Commission report’s most famous line – “Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal” – still rings true.