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We Can’t Afford to Fail This Time
On the evening of July 12, 1967, in Newark, New Jersey, two white police officers badly beat a black cab driver named John William Smith in the course of arresting him for a traffic violation. News of this spread like wildfire through the African American community, and angry crowds gathered outside the police station. Though Smith was injured, but not dead, riots erupted across the city that night. By the time order was restored on July 17, whole blocks lay smoldering and twenty-six people, mostly African Americans, lay dead.
The riot in Newark was one of the most violent flashpoints in what became known as the “long, hot summer of 1967,” in which simmering racial tensions boiled over into the streets all across America. In all, 164 race riots consumed many of the nation’s largest cities and smaller towns. The violence in Newark, and a riot in Detroit later that month, stand out as the two most destructive and deadly urban uprisings, with 82 percent of the deaths reported in those two cities alone. According to a government study, the “overwhelming majority of the persons killed or injured in all of the disorders were Negro civilians.” Though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 brought hope to many, the plight of African Americans in the northern and western cities remained defined by poverty, unemployment, lack of educational opportunities, and toxic policing. In short, systemic racism shaped all facets of black lives. Voting rights meant little when daily survival was a constant struggle.
President Lyndon B. Johnson—whose War on Poverty and Great Society programs aimed to eradicate poverty and level the playing field for marginalized Americans—could not accept that his programs were failing to solve the problems of America’s inner cities. By 1967, cities exploded for the third consecutive summer as communities raged against generations of oppressive systems and discrimination. “Race riots,” as they came to be known, had become an oft-debated topic, and by 1966 white Americans’ support of civil rights causes began to wane, as many felt that LBJ’s civil rights agenda was moving just a little too fast and as they perceived a more radical turn in the civil rights movement.
That same year, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sat down with journalist Mike Wallace to discuss the race riots. “I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years…. I would hope that we can avoid riots because riots are self-defeating and socially destructive.” While he never compromised his commitment to nonviolent resistance, Dr. King expressed an understanding of why African American communities were rising up. Communities that had been ignored for too long were essentially doing whatever they could to get the attention of their leaders, and in 1967 they had the ear of a sympathetic president who was willing to listen and respond.
In a nationally televised address, LBJ announced that he would be answering Michigan Governor Romney’s call for federal troops, and three days later, on July 27, in another national address, LBJ announced that he would be creating the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. The commission consisted of eleven members, including a governor, a mayor, congressional members, the NAACP’s executive director, and a chief of police. Known as the Kerner Commission, the group was tasked with studying the urban crisis and answering three questions: “What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again?” Johnson spoke passionately to the nation that night, making clear his genuine desire to address the problems of the inner city. After all, he still had dreams of being the president who fed the hungry and clothed the poor.
After seven months of extensive inquiries, interviews, and visits to America’s charred cities, the commission published its findings on February 29, 1968, concluding that “[o]ur nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Further, it stated that “[s]egregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans. 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, and white society condones it.”
In language now prophetic, the commission warned that “[t]o pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values. The alternative is not blind repression or capitulation to lawlessness. It is the realization of common opportunities for all within a single society. This alternative will require a commitment to national action—compassionate, massive and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and the richest nation on this earth. From every American it will require new attitudes, new understanding, and, above all, new will…, Violence and destruction must be ended—in the streets of the ghetto and in the lives of people.” (emphasis added)
Despite his earlier desire to heed the recommendations of the Kerner Commission and take necessary actions to address inner-city problems, President Johnson was a changed man by February of 1968. The Tet Offensive in Vietnam had demoralized a nation already weary of war and had claimed the president and many of his Great Society dreams as its casualties. After the commission issued its report, Johnson did his best to downplay it, while many white Americans refused to accept its conclusion that racism had created the problems of the inner cities. The assassinations of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy followed, and that summer, Americans stood by as the Democratic Party crumbled and as Richard Nixon’s “law and order” campaign carried him into the White House. The Kerner Commission’s findings would fade into the background, as the nation shifted its attention to mourning the loss of two beloved leaders, ending the war in Vietnam, and, in time, Watergate.
Thus, fifty-two years ago, the Kerner Commission concluded that systemic racism lay at the root of racial inequality and that the only way to address it was to confront it through compassionate action, open minds, and sufficient resources. Yet, we failed. We failed, as a nation, to acknowledge the commission’s findings and heed its warnings. We failed, in 1968, to confront the issue of race in America. And, we have failed many times since then.
Today, as we mourn the tragic murder of George Floyd at the hands of police, we find ourselves in a position eerily similar to America in 1968. And 1992. And 2014. We know that systemic racism continues to threaten the lives of black men and women. We once again find ourselves taking to the streets to protest 400 years of institutional racism, which has taken the form of toxic police culture, persistent poverty, unequal educational opportunities, mass incarceration, and disparities in access to health care. Now is our opportunity to change the narrative and to learn from the failures of the past. We must have the moral courage to confront America’s original sin and commit to the long, hard work of individual and societal change, while demanding that our leaders dedicate the necessary resources to address systemic racism on all levels. In the words of rapper and activist Killer Mike, who has been a powerful leading voice in the black community over the past few days, “we must plot, we must plan, we must strategize, organize, and mobilize.”
We simply cannot afford to fail again.
Alice George, “The 1968 Kerner Commission Got It Right, But Nobody Listened,” Smithsonian Magazine, March 1, 2018, smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution.
“Our Nation Is Moving Toward Two Societies, One Black, One White—Separate and Unequal”: Excerpts from the Kerner Report,” History Matters, historymatters.gmu.edu.
Lyndon Baines Johnson, Address to the Nation Regarding Civil Disorder, July 27, 1967, MP594, LBJ Library, Austin, TX.
Martin Luther King, Jr., interview with Mike Wallace, CBS Reports, September 27, 1966.
Newark, New Jersey. Details from Chapman University, Frank Mt. Pleasant Library of Special Collections and Archives, "aerial view shows a violently looted section of New Jersey's largest city after it witnessed a second night of racial disorder, late July 13th and early July 14th. Fire-bomb hurling Negroes rioted through downtown streets in a night-long rampage of burning and looting. One Negro was shot to death, a dozen other persons suffered gunshot wounds and at least 340 persons, including 27 policemen and firemen, were injured."