Kerner Commission Explores the Causes of Civil Disorders Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Kerner Commission’s report portrayed a nation divided along racial lines and recommended measures that should be taken to cure the maladies of hatred and violence besetting American society.

Summary of Event

The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, also known as the Kerner Commission, was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson as an immediate response to race riots in American cities during the summer of 1967. The most devastating riots occurred in Newark Newark riot (1967) and Detroit Detroit riots (1967) , within a two-week period in July. President Johnson established the commission to try to discover what had happened, why it had happened, and what could be done to prevent it from happening again. Kerner Commission National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, U.S. Civil unrest;United States African Americans;riots Racial and ethnic discrimination;African Americans [kw]Kerner Commission Explores the Causes of Civil Disorders (Feb., 1968) [kw]Civil Disorders, Kerner Commission Explores the Causes of (Feb., 1968) Kerner Commission National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, U.S. Civil unrest;United States African Americans;riots Racial and ethnic discrimination;African Americans [g]North America;Feb., 1968: Kerner Commission Explores the Causes of Civil Disorders[09670] [g]United States;Feb., 1968: Kerner Commission Explores the Causes of Civil Disorders[09670] [c]Government and politics;Feb., 1968: Kerner Commission Explores the Causes of Civil Disorders[09670] [c]Social issues and reform;Feb., 1968: Kerner Commission Explores the Causes of Civil Disorders[09670] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Feb., 1968: Kerner Commission Explores the Causes of Civil Disorders[09670] Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;racial uprisings Kerner, Otto Lindsay, John V. Wilkins, Roy

Both President Johnson and the commission gave priority to the maintenance of law and order in the affected cities and to determining if a conspiracy had existed that created a chain reaction of riots. It was important to the president and to the members of the commission to determine the historical factors which caused the riots of 1967. It was this question that provided the commission with the opportunity to focus on systemic problems of racism in American society. The paramount observation of the commission was tersely stated: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one white, one black—separate and unequal.”

President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, had shown much compassion in committing the United States to eliminating segregation in schools and public facilities. The Kennedy administration was short-lived, but it did inspire a helpful political mood for government action against the more conspicuous forms of racism. President Johnson, as Kennedy’s successor, pledged to continue the battle for civil rights for minorities.

In July, 1967, President Johnson appointed the commission, giving it a mandate to investigate the origins of the recent disorders in American cities. The president pledged to use national resources to remedy historical racism and social injustice. In typical folksy prose, President Johnson beseeched Americans to pray for the day when “mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” He pledged to work for better jobs, housing, and education for African Americans.

Otto Kerner, the governor of Illinois, was selected by President Johnson to chair the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. John V. Lindsay, the mayor of New York City, was appointed vice chair. The other members represented a cross-section of American politics, leaning toward moderates. Exceptions to this tendency were Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Fred Harris Harris, Fred , U.S. senator from Oklahoma, whose work on behalf of Native Americans had sensitized him to the pains of racism.

A starting point for the commission was to examine racism in its historical framework. The causes of the 1967 riots, according to the report issued by the commission in February, 1968, were inherent in the structure and dynamics of American society which established the pattern of interracial relations. African Americans had always struggled for equality in law and in social life. Some African Americans, particularly at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, supported separatism and self-help. Black power Black Power movement proponents of the 1960’s, such as Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, revitalized this philosophy, originally championed by Booker T. Washington Washington, Booker T. . Black power supporters were actually promoting many of the objectives of white racism through their emphasis on black history, separatism, and racial solidarity, the commission noted.

Some African Americans, in the early years of the twentieth century, had organized to challenge Booker T. Washington’s program of political accommodation to white racism. Washington was convinced that blacks could earn the respect of white society through hard work. Political rights, such as the franchise, could wait for an undetermined future date. W. E. B. Du Bois Du Bois, W. E. B. and Monroe Trotter Trotter, Monroe began and led the Niagara Movement Niagara Movement which rejected separatism, condemned Jim Crow Segregation laws, and took up protest and agitation for racial equality in law and in social life. The Niagara group placed the responsibility for African American poverty and violence on white racism and demanded the abolition of all distinctions based on race and color.

Booker T. Washington fought back. He had the support of southern whites and many conservative northern philanthropists who wanted to preserve the racial status quo. Nevertheless, Washington failed to subdue Du Bois and his followers. In 1909 and 1910, Du Bois was able to enlist a small group of white liberals, some of whom could trace their ancestry back to the abolition movement of the nineteenth century, and socialists to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People National Association for the Advancement of Colored People;civil rights protests . Du Bois became the editor of The Crisis, Crisis, The (periodical) a semiofficial journal of the NAACP which was adamant in its condemnation of white racism and in its demand for full equality for African Americans.

The NAACP aimed its protest against the whole nation, insisting on the right to vote, equal protection under the law, equal pay for equal work, and the dismantling of segregation in public accommodations, in schools, and in the armed forces. A variety of tactics was used by the NAACP, including boycotts, publicizing lynching (while pressing for antilynching legislation) and other atrocities against African Americans, and bringing lawsuits.

It was in these early years that the NAACP prepared the groundwork for Brown v. Board of Education (1954) Brown v. Board of Education (1954) , with cases pertaining to white colleges and universities and their refusal to admit African Americans to their graduate and professional schools. In 1936, Thurgood Marshall Marshall, Thurgood , counsel for the NAACP, successfully contested before the courts the exclusion of African Americans from the law school at the University of Maryland. Two years later, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a Missouri plan that banned African Americans from the University of Missouri law school as violating the “separate but equal” doctrine.

The federal government ignored the plight of African Americans in northern cities and in the countryside of the southern states. Southern congresspeople, in fact, were able to expand de facto segregation in the District of Columbia, although they failed to enact Jim Crow laws. The nation’s capital became another bastion and an important symbol of Jim Crowism and the subordination and segregation of African Americans in virtually every segment of society.

White prejudice and the frequent use of extralegal violence, violence often sanctioned by the larger community, by whites against African Americans who broke social or political norms were principally responsible for black riots in the twentieth century. White racism, according to the commission’s report, created a pattern of failures among African Americans. The commission referred to pervasive racism and segregation, black migration from the South to the North, and the black ghettos, implicating white institutions for creating the ghettos. The commission urged the American people to commit themselves to the elimination of the ghettos through massive and sustained action, backed by the will and resources of the richest nation on earth.

The goals of society, according to the commission, needed to focus on creating a single American identity, a single society in which race and color would not determine a person’s dignity or limit the choice of job, residence, or even partner in marriage. To reach these goals, the commission recommended the elimination of all forms of racial segregation in the United States by giving to African Americans the right to choose their jobs, where they would live, and what schools they would attend. The commission proposed the formation of grassroots institutions based in the ghettos and in rural areas, thereby making government more responsive to citizens on the local level. The commission insisted on destroying not merely the legal status of racism but also the legacy of racism by devising an array of programs to integrate American society.


The assault by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders on institutionalized racism was a comprehensive proclamation which indicted white racism while condemning black violence and committing the nation to build a single, nonracial society. The impact of the commission’s report was felt by African Americans and other minorities in many ways. Black Americans in general, but especially the young, began to see the federal government as compassionate and committed to eradicating legal and de facto racism throughout America.

In the area of employment, the commission proposed a comprehensive program to meet the needs of the unemployed and the underemployed through active recruitment, job training, affirmative action in the public and private sectors, and stimulation of public and private investment in poverty-stricken areas, both in the cities and in rural communities. The commission recommended the creation of two million jobs through a combination of government and private efforts over a three-year period.

Education Education;segregation in a democratic society is necessary to provide citizens with the capacity to participate in the political process and to enjoy fully the fruits of their collective endeavors. Schools in the northern ghettos and segregated schools in the South and West had failed to discharge their obligations to educate African Americans adequately. The commission recommended scores of reforms to remedy this failure. Many of the rioters in 1967, the commission observed, were high school dropouts. It also cited the disparity in educational achievement between African Americans and whites in the same grades. Public schools were not teaching African Americans basic verbal skills. The commission cited results of the Selective Service Mental Test showing that during the period between June, 1964, and December, 1965, 67 percent of black candidates but only 19 percent of whites failed the examination.

To rectify the failure to educate African Americans and other minorities, the commission supported the elimination of de facto school segregation, which was connected with residential segregation in the North. It recommended increasing the funding for schools in the inner cities, improving community-school relations, spending more money on early childhood education, and enforcing Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited giving federal financial aid to any program that discriminated against African Americans. The commission also supported year-round education for disadvantaged students and expanded opportunities for higher education and vocational training for African Americans and other disadvantaged groups.

The commission made other comprehensive proposals, addressing almost every conceivable segment of social life. It recommended a national system of income supplements, eliminating discrimination in housing, the construction of smaller housing projects (that is, “scattering”) to break down racial isolation, an expansion of the rent supplement program and an ownership supplement program, and the opening up of areas outside ghetto neighborhoods to black occupancy. Many of the commission’s recommendations became law. Its greatest impact, however, was perhaps in beginning the process of attaining racial equality. Kerner Commission National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, U.S. Civil unrest;United States African Americans;riots Racial and ethnic discrimination;African Americans

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boger, John Charles. “The Kerner Commission Report in Retrospect.” In Race and Ethnicity in the United States: Issues and Debates, edited by Stephen Steinberg. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2000. A review of the report of the Kerner Commission and its legacy in the context of a general decrease in racially focused public policy at the end of the twentieth century. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clark, Kenneth Bancroft. Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power. New York: Harper & Row, 1965. Describes the psychology of racial inferiority and self-hatred of African Americans. The author shows how the larger society shapes and warps the ghetto.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Negro Protest. Boston: Beacon Press, 1963. Views of three leading figures in the civil rights struggle are given: Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin. An interesting ideological contrast among the three is provided.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Finch, Minnie. The NAACP: Its Fight for Justice. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1981. Attention is given to the legal struggles of the NAACP from its inception through the 1960’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Franklin, John Hope. From Slavery to Freedom. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1947. A recounting of Negro history from 1619 to the twentieth century. The author, unfortunately, concentrates on too many trifles.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Franklin, Robert Michael. Liberating Visions: Human Fulfillment and Social Justice in African American Thought. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1990. W. E. B. Du Bois’s vision of African Americans stood the test of time. This brilliant, though often unsuccessful, agitator and conscience of the nation is described here.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harlan, Louis. Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, 1856-1901. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972. Washington is depicted as paternalistic and self-centered. His philosophy is presented as convoluted. Washington himself is portrayed as more interested in controlling his empire than in battling segregation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kerner Commission. “The News Media and the Disorders.” In Our Unfree Press: One Hundred Years of Radical Media Criticism, edited by Robert W. McChesney and Ben Scott. New York: New Press, 2004. Excerpt from the Kerner Commission Report dealing with the effect of the media on racial and social unrest in 1960’s America. Bibliographic references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rose, Arnold Marshall. An American Dilemma: The Negro in America. New York: Harper & Row, 1948. This work shocked America by unabashedly condemning American racism and exposing its hypocrisy. This was an important work in shaping American sociology in the post-World War II era.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilkins, Roy. Standing Fast: The Autobiography of Roy Wilkins. New York: Viking Press, 1982. Wilkins is an articulate and consistent advocate of racial equality. He gives much insight into many of the major triumphs of the NAACP, especially its Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. New York: Oxford University Press, 1955. Explodes the myths of a gentle and benign South following Reconstruction. The author revises history to tell the truth about segregation and racism in the United States.

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