Humphrey School News—September 13, 2018

Kerner Commission Report 50 Years Later: Divided We Stand?

Humphrey School symposium examines the impact of the Kerner report on race in America

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Professor Samuel Myers Jr. standing behind a podium speaking to an audience in Cowles Auditorium.
Professor Samuel Myers Jr. speaks to attendees of the 50th Anniversary of the Kerner Commission Report Conference on September 7, 2018. (Photo: Bruce Silcox)

Fifty years ago, in the wake of riots that tore through Detroit, Los Angeles and other cities and divided the country, President Lyndon B. Johnson pulled together an 11-person commission to investigate what happened and to provide recommendations for moving forward. The result was a landmark document known as the Kerner Commission Report on race in America.

When it was released in February of 1968, the report concluded that the riots resulted from frustration in the black community at the lack of economic opportunity, declaring that “the United States is moving toward two societies: one black, one white—separate and unequal.”

Five decades later, on September 6 and 7, nearly 200 people gathered at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs to commemorate the report and consider a vital question: how far has America come over the last 50 years in addressing the racial disparities that divide our country?

The general consensus was that while we’ve made progress, our nation still has a long way to go.

The symposium, which featured scholars, historians and urban leaders reflecting on the legacy and impact of the Kerner report, was co-sponsored by the Roy Wilkins Center for Human Relations and Social Justice at the Humphrey School, the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, the National League of Cities, the Russell Sage Foundation, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

"This conference gave us an opportunity—from a research perspective—to revisit the causes and consequences of the civil disorders that gave rise to the Kerner report, and reflect on its relevance in a 21st century America that is once again divided," said Professor Samuel Myers Jr., director of the Roy Wilkins Center for Human Relations and Social Justice and co-host of the conference.   

Former Senator Fred Harris stands behind a podium delivering a speech in the Mondale Commons. Who better to comment on the Kerner Commission’s influence than one of its original members? Fred Harris (pictured), former senator from Oklahoma and the last living member of the commission, delivered a keynote speech recounting the "wretched poverty and deeply entrenched racism" that he and other commission members observed when they visited cities most seriously affected by the race riots of the 1960s.   

The Kerner report recommended a National Plan of Action to address racial inequities in education, employment, housing, police-community relations, and welfare. And for a time, the nation did act and made progress in every one of those areas, Harris said.

"But with a lack of jobs, more conservative courts and government, cuts in social welfare programs, that progress has slowed and in some cases gone backward. Regression has been the trend since the mid-1970s," he added.

Researchers who examined various aspects of the Kerner report’s impact agreed with Harris' assessment. They found that while extreme segregation has declined and more African Americans have moved to the suburbs, racial disparities persist.

While black individuals have much improved access to better education, elite employment, higher incomes, and wealth, black neighborhoods remain economically stagnant. And those neighborhoods directly affected by the riots remain among the most economically disadvantaged, even 50 years later.

Next Steps

How to get the country back on track? The scholars who shared their work at the conference hold one key—evidence-based solutions.

"We have evidence of what works and what doesn’t," said Alan Curtis, president of the Eisenhower Foundation and co-editor, with Harris, of "Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America 50 Years After the Kerner Report." One solution that works to reduce poverty, he said, is to increase wages.

Former Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder at a podium speaking to an audience in Mondale Commons. Another key is a commitment for national action, according to L. Douglas Wilder (pictured), former Virginia governor and the first African American to be elected governor in the United States.

"Many good things have occurred over the past 50 years, but what's lost is the sustained national urgency for action. We don't hear it at all," Wilder said during his keynote address. "People have to continue to demand what is right, and criticize what is wrong, in order to make change happen."

Both Wilder and Harris say they’re encouraged by the unprecedented wave of activism led by citizens and advocates across the country, "the most I’ve seen in my lifetime," said Harris. They encourage the various groups advocating for their own causes to join together to increase their impact and influence.

The research papers presented at the conference have been compiled into a special collection, The 50th Anniversary of the Kerner Commission Report, which was commissioned by the Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences. Also forthcoming is a special edition of The Review of Black Political Economy.

Watch Senator Harris' speech

Watch Governor Wilder's speech

See photos from the conference

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