The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


The report that could have stopped Ferguson


If you’re a member of the United States Congress, chances are you spend a good chunk of your waking life in meetings. Committee meetings, town hall meetings, meeting with donors, meetings with fellow Senators or Congressmen, special commission meetings. So, perhaps it wasn’t so unusual for Senator Fred Harris of Oklahoma to get a phone call in the summer of 1967, asking him to attend a few more. Then again, maybe it was: the man on the other end of the line was President Lyndon B. Johnson, who wanted him to serve on the newly formed National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.

“I said, well, I hadn’t expected that,” recalls Harris. “But I’ll do the best I can.”

Residents of Harlem rioted in 1964 in response to a white policeman shooting a young, black teenager. Sound familiar?

Residents of Harlem took to the streets in 1964 in response to a white policeman shooting a young, black teenager.

The commission was tasked with investigating the violent riots that had ripped across the country, from Watts in Southern California to New York City and Newark, New Jersey, and now Detroit. The commission members were given three major questions to answer: what had happened? Why had it happened? And what could be done to prevent it happening again?

Johnson also left Harris with a stern warning that he should take his work on the commission seriously — the president wanted to uphold his reputation as the progressive man who had passed the Civil Rights Act.

“He said, ‘Another thing, Fred.’

I said, ‘Yes, sir, Mr. President.’

He said, ‘I want you to remember you’re a Johnson man.’ He said, ‘If you forget it, I’ll take my pocket knife and cut your blank off.’

He didn’t say ‘blank.’”

So, Harris and the rest of the commission went to the streets of black neighborhoods in cities across the country that had seen riots. He talked with anyone he could find, asking them all what had happened, and why.

Rumors were rampant that the riots had been a huge plot orchestrated by black militant groups, including the Black Panthers. Even official police accounts proposed conspiracy theories to explain the violence, claiming rooftop snipers had attacked police and the national guardsmen called in to respond to the violence.

What Harris and his colleagues found from their conversations was an entirely different story from what many white Americans had come to believe. These communities weren’t being manipulated by outside forces, but instead faced enormous challenges stemming from massive unemployment, substandard housing, failing schools, and the de facto racial segregation in many northern and western cities. Harris was surprised to learn just how segregated these communities were when he went to a barbershop in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and asked how relations were between black and white citizens in the city. The answer was that they were basically non-existent.

“Things were so segregated in these cities that living there in Milwaukee in the black section, they didn’t see any white people at all, except the police.”

The presence of white police forces patrolling the streets, often enforcing order with violence, inflamed all of these tensions even more. People Harris spoke with told him they were harassed on an almost daily basis by the police. And there was no effective way for residents to report unfair and brutal police practices.

“Hostility was so high in all of these black sections of the cities of the country where the riots had occurred that almost any random spark would set them off.”

Returning to Washington, the commissioners presented their final report, famously concluding that “our nation is moving towards two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” Until the immense pressures facing so many black communities in cities like Newark and Detroit were lifted, the potential for violence would continue. Their final report recommended integrating housing and creating jobs to break up the racial homogeneity of urban communities, as well as a number of changes to how police forces operated. Fred Harris again:

“We said that police in a neighborhood ought to look a lot like the people in the neighborhood. They ought to be a part of the neighborhood. And we recommended what can be called community policing, that the police and other services of government ought to be out there in the community, available to people, and be a part of the community. And there ought to be grievance mechanisms before things get bad. There ought to be a way by which people could feel that if they made some complaint about the police or whatever, it would be taken seriously and acted upon.”

The Kerner Commission’s recommendations never gained much traction. President Johnson took offense, believing that the findings didn’t support him and his policies strongly enough, and refused to meet with the commissioners, or let their investigation continue. Without his backing, many of the commission’s suggestions languished. While some communities did try to make the shift towards community policing, the underlying problems of segregation and racial inequality have remained in many communities to this day. In fact, Harris coauthored a report in 1998, long after the Kerner Commission had been disbanded, that found that unemployment and housing disparities between black and white Americans had grown even larger.

Harris remains hopeful, though, that by bringing these issues to the fore, we might be able to prevent future tragedies.  “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” he said, quoting Thomas Jefferson. It may be the price Americans must pay to repair the rift between the “two societies” which still exist nearly half a century after the Kerner Commission report was written.

Listen to our episode on the history of policing in America.

You can read the full text of the Kerner Commission Report here.

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