Last surviving member of famed Kerner Commission coming to town

LaDonna Harris shares a laugh with her husband, Sen. Fred Harris, of Oklahoma, on Aug. 29, 1968. | Sun-Times Print Collection

This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the Kerner Commission Report.

Rocked by a string of riots that destroyed urban communities in more than a dozen cities, President Lyndon B. Johnson created the Commission in 1967 to investigate the root causes of the riots.

Illinois Governor Otto Kerner Jr. served as chair, with New York Mayor John Lindsay co-chairing. Edward Brooke, the first African-American elected to the United States Senate, Fred R. Harris, senator of Oklahoma, and Roy Wilkins, executive director of the NAACP, were among the 11 commission members.

Harris, the only surviving member of the Commission, will be at the University of Illinois at Chicago on March 1 to lead a panel discussion about the report’s findings at an event being sponsored by the Great Cities Institute.

Harris is co-editor of “Healing Our Divided Society,” a 50th anniversary update of the 1968 Kerner Report.

“African-American and Hispanic inequality is growing worse again,” Harris told me in a telephone interview.

“Cities are re-segregating. Schools are re-segregating and condemning African-American and Hispanic kids to inferior schools and an almost impossibility to get out of poverty,” he said.

The frustration among black youths over the lack of economic opportunities and mistreatment at the hands of police is as palpable today as it was in 1968.

Frankly, the cause of the riots should not have been such a mystery.

African-Americans who had fled the unjust and harsh treatment in the South found themselves stuck in racial ghettos in northern cities. Worst yet, although these African-Americans were willing to work hard to achieve their goals, they found that the cards were stacked against them.

For instance, the Kerner Report came out a year after I graduated from Dunbar Vocational High School, fully trained to work as a secretary.

But even with the help of my father’s employer — a Jewish man with a network of business associates — the only job I could land was in a mailroom.

The frustration of black youths in cities like Chicago and Detroit erupted into violence that spread like wildfire.

After seven months of “investigating,” the Kerner Commission released its findings on Feb. 29, 1968.

“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal,” the Commission wrote in its summary.

It was an accurate prediction.

“Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans,” the Commission said.

“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,” the Commission concluded.

The Kerner Report should have been a blueprint for developing a more egalitarian society. Instead, inaction has made the document little more than a political gesture.

“We made progress on virtually every aspect of race and poverty after the Kerner Report for about a decade,” Harris said.

“Then we had automation and globalization and disappearing jobs. Conservatives cut taxes for rich people and cut programs that were for the benefit of middle-class, working-class and poor people and that’s what got us into this terrible mess,” he said.

There are millions more people in poverty today than there were 50 years ago, Harris pointed out.

“Poor people today are in deep poverty with virtually no way to get out of it. Inequality of income wealth has greatly increased. And all of these things are bad for the rest of us in this country. Doing something about them would be good for everybody,” he said.

What is most troubling, is that the top five deeply held grievances in cities impacted by the riots 50 years ago are likely the top five grievances today.

They are: (1) Police practices, (2) unemployment and underemployment, (3) inadequate housing, (4) inadequate education, and (5) poor recreation facilities and programs.

“Disrespectful white attitudes” and “discriminatory administration of justice,” ranked 7th and 8th respectively.

Obviously, the Kerner Commission Report wasn’t taken as seriously as it should have been.

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