Kerner Commission

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Kerner Commission
National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders
Seal of the President of the United States
President Lyndon Baines Johnson is sat with three other committee members at a table in the Cabinet Room of the White House. Behind them, nine more committee members are stood, two of them only partially visible.
President Lyndon Baines Johnson with some members of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Kerner Commission) in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Washington, D.C.
Established byLyndon B. Johnson on 28 July 1967
Related Executive Order number(s)11365
PurposeInvestigate the causes of a recent outbreak of race riots, with a particular focus on the 1967 Detroit riots.

The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission after its chair, Governor Otto Kerner Jr. of Illinois, was an 11-member Presidential Commission established by President Lyndon B. Johnson in Executive Order 11365 to investigate the causes of the long, hot summer of 1967 in the United States and to provide recommendations for the future.[1]

The report was released in 1968, after seven months of investigation. For causing the riots, it blamed lack of economic opportunity, failed social service programs, police brutality, racism, and the white-oriented media. The 426-page report was a bestseller.


President Johnson appointed the commission on July 28, 1967, while rioting was still underway in Detroit, Michigan.[2] Mounting civil unrest since 1965 had spawned riots in the black and Latino neighborhoods of major U.S. cities, including Los Angeles (Watts riots of 1965), Chicago (Division Street Riots of 1966, the first Puerto Rican riot in U.S. history), and Newark (1967 Newark riots).[3] In his remarks upon signing the order establishing the commission, Johnson asked for answers to three basic questions about the riots: "What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?"[1]

Report summary[edit]

The commission's final report, the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders[4] or Kerner Report, was issued on February 29, 1968, after seven months of investigation. The report became an instant bestseller, and over two million Americans bought copies of the 426-page document. Its finding was that the riots resulted from black frustration at the lack of economic opportunity. Martin Luther King Jr. pronounced the report a "physician's warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life."[3]

The report berated federal and state governments for failed housing, education and social-service policies. The report also aimed some of its sharpest criticism at the media. "The press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men's eyes and white perspective."

The report's best known passage warned: "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal." The report was a strong indictment of white America: "What white Americans have never fully understood — but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it."[5]

Its results suggested that one main cause of urban violence was white racism and suggested that white America bore much of the responsibility for black rioting and rebellion. It called to create new jobs, construct new housing, and put a stop to de facto segregation in order to wipe out the destructive ghetto environment. In order to do so, the report recommended for government programs to provide needed services, to hire more diverse and sensitive police forces and, most notably, to invest billions in housing programs aimed at breaking up residential segregation.

Among other points, the commission's suggestions included:

  • "Unless there are sharp changes in the factors influencing Negro settlement patterns within metropolitan areas, there is little doubt that the trend toward Negro majorities will continue."
  • "Providing employment for the swelling Negro ghetto population will require ...opening suburban residential areas to Negroes and encouraging them to move closer to industrial centers..."
  • "[c]ities will have Negro majorities by 1985 and the suburbs ringing them will remain largely all white unless there are major changes in Negro fertility rates, in migration settlement patterns or public policy."
  • "[w]e believe that the emphasis of the program should be changed from traditional publicly built slum based high rise projects to smaller units on scattered sites."

The Law Enforcement Assistance Administration released federal funding for local police forces in response. Appointed by Johnson to serve as the commission's executive director, David Ginsburg played a pivotal role in writing the commission's findings.


President Johnson, who had already pushed through the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, ignored the report and rejected the Kerner Commission's recommendations.[6] In April 1968, one month after the release of the Kerner report, rioting broke out in more than 100 cities following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.[7]

Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and Donald Trump espoused a law and order platform that favored strong policing and suppression of riots. As the report predicted, incidents of police brutality continued to spark riots and protest marches even after the 1960s had ended, including the 1980 Miami riots, 1989 Miami riot, 1992 Los Angeles riots and West Las Vegas riots, 1992 Washington Heights riots, St. Petersburg, Florida riots of 1996, Cincinnati riots of 2001, 2013 Flatbush Riots, 2009 and 2010 riots associated with the shooting of Oscar Grant, 2014 Oakland riots, 2014 Ferguson unrest, 2015 Baltimore protests, 2016 Charlotte riot, 2016 Milwaukee riots, 2017 Anaheim protests, 2017 St. Louis protests and the 2020 George Floyd protests.

Continuation of the Commission[edit]

The Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation (the Eisenhower Foundation) was formed in 1981 to continue the work of the Kerner Commission and of the 1968 National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence (the National Violence Commission). Kerner Commission Executive Director Ginsburg, Kerner Commissioner and Senator Fred Harris (D, OK) and Kerner Commissioner and Senator Edward Brooke (R, MA) were among the founding trustees of the Eisenhower Foundation. The Foundation has released 25 year, 30 year and 40 year updates of the Kerner Commission's final report.

To mark the 30th anniversary of the Kerner Report, the Eisenhower Foundation in 1998 sponsored two complementary reports, The Millennium Breach and Locked in the Poorhouse. The Millennium Breach, co-authored by commissioner Harris, found the racial divide had grown in the subsequent years with inner city unemployment at crisis levels.[8] The Millennium Breach found that most of the decade that followed the Kerner Report, America made progress on the principal fronts the report dealt with: race, poverty, and inner cities. Then progress stopped and in some ways reversed by a series of economic shocks and trends and the government's action and inaction.

Harris reported in Locked in the Poorhouse, "Today, thirty years after the Kerner Report, there is more poverty in America, it is deeper, blacker and browner than before, and it is more concentrated in the cities, which have become America's poorhouses."[8]


At a 1998 lecture commemorating the 30th anniversary of the report, Stephan Thernstrom, a conservative voice and a professor of history at Harvard University, argued: "Because the commission took for granted that the riots were the fault of white racism, it would have been awkward to have had to confront the question of why liberal Detroit blew up while Birmingham and other Southern cities — where conditions for blacks were infinitely worse — did not. Likewise, if the problem was white racism, why didn't the riots occur in the 1930s, when prevailing white racial attitudes were far more barbaric than they were in the 1960s?"[9][10]

Others refute this criticism by pointing to the importance of expectations; in Alabama and other states black people could only survive by "knowing their place", in the North black people expected fair treatment.[11]

Members of the commission[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Johnson, Lyndon B. (July 29, 1967). Woolley, John T.; Peters, Gerhard (eds.). "Remarks Upon Signing Order Establishing the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders". The American Presidency Project. Santa Barbara, CA: University of California.
  2. ^ Prowse, Gwen (2020-06-24). "How a 50-year-old report predicted America's current racial reckoning". Vox. Retrieved 2020-06-26.
  3. ^ a b Toonari. "Kerner Report". Africana Online. Archived from the original on 7 January 2010. Retrieved 23 November 2009.
  4. ^ "Summary of Report" (PDF).
  5. ^ National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (2016). The Kerner Report. Princeton University Press. p. 2.
  6. ^ Risen, Clay (2009). "King, Johnson, and The Terrible, Glorious Thirty-First Day of March". A nation on fire : America in the wake of the King assassination. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0-470-17710-5.
  7. ^ "'Our Nation Is Moving Toward Two Societies, One Black, One White—Separate and Unequal': Excerpts from the Kerner Report". History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web. George Mason University.
  8. ^ a b Harris, Fred R.; Curtis, Lynn A., eds. (1998). Locked in the Poorhouse: Crisis, Race, and Poverty in the United States. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc.
  9. ^ Manly, Howard (February 28, 2008). "An unfilled prescription for racial equality". Black History. Bay State Banner. 43 (29). Boston.
  10. ^ "The Kerner Commission". National Museum of African American History and Culture. 2018-01-08. Retrieved 2020-06-26.
  11. ^ Scott Martelle, Detroit, Chicago Review Press 2012; Page 194-195
  12. ^ Bates, Karen Grigsby (February 27, 2018). "Report Updates Landmark 1968 Racism Study, Finds More Poverty And Segregation". Retrieved 2020-06-26.

Further reading[edit]

  • Gillon, Steven M. (2018). Separate and Unequal: The Kerner Commission and the Unraveling of American Liberalism, Basic Books, ISBN 0465096085; ISBN 978-0465096084.
  • Hrach, Thomas J. (2016). The Riot Report and the News: How the Kerner Commission Changed Media Coverage of Black America. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press. ISBN 978-1-62534-211-9. OCLC 930997446.

External links[edit]