Besides testing our endurance, COVID-19 has given us all time to reflect and stew.
It is the stewing that is hurting us.
The stewing is what blew the tops off urban cities during the summer of 1965, and again last month when upset people took to the streets to protest the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Although the incidents occurred a half-century apart, the roots of the unrest were the same.
Young people across the nation got so frustrated over the ongoing police brutality; they took their battle out on their local businesses, destroying hundreds of essential shops and retailers.
In 1967, white America blamed young Black boys for the violence, an accusation that was later refuted by the famed Kerner Commission report released in 1968, finding it was white racism that opened the door to violent protests.
“This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal,” the Commission found.
Forty-three people were killed and 342 were injured in Detroit, the city hardest hit in the 1967 riots. An estimated 1,400 buildings were destroyed.
Violent protests broke out in more than a dozen other cities.
President Lyndon B. Johnson created the commission to investigate the root causes of the civil uprising.
This time around, elected officials bemoaned the role “outside agitators” played in the chaos, but there were minimal injuries.
The deaths of 17 people have been attributed to the protests over George Floyd’s death.
Although the Kerner Commission offered solutions to address the inequities caused by the racial divide, the urgency of acting on those solutions quickly faded from the public consciousness.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Kerner Commission report was revisited in a live town hall meeting.
The Rev. Marvin Hunter, the great-uncle of Laquan McDonald, and former Illinois governor Pat Quinn, led a discussion with a panel of legal and political experts on why the Kerner Commission’s report is still relevant today.
The gathering was to be live-streamed on YouTube and Facebook.
The famed report did not sugarcoat the roots of the violence that tore up neighborhoods, some of which have still not been redeveloped.
“Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American,” the commission found.
On the 50th Anniversary of the Kerner Commission, Fred R. Harris, a former senator from the state of Oklahoma, and the last surviving member of the commission, had some sobering words about our failure to heed the warnings of the report.
“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 in an interview while in the city for an event that was sponsored by UIC’s Great Cities Institute.
For many young Black boys that participated in the looting and arson that destroyed blocks on the West and South sides, it was the only time their voices were heard.
Yes, they set fires.
Yes, they looted.
But they also forced white America to address race issues.
“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 said.
And while many of us old-timers can remember the glow of the fires and the rubble of the destruction, fewer appreciate what that violence brought about.
In the wake of the unrest, there emerged a consensus among political, activist and religious leaders, that national action—compassionate, massive and sustained,” was needed.
“From every American it will require new attitudes, new understanding, and, above all new will,” the commission urged.
Tragically, our leaders failed to heed the warnings of the Kerner Commission.
And so, the grievances that sparked the 1967 civil unrest: police brutality; underemployment and unemployment; inadequate housing; inadequate education and poor recreation facilities and programs; and the discriminatory administration of justice continue to simmer.
But as the commission pointed out then, and it remains true today: Violence may grab our attention, but it “cannot build a better society.”
If you are looking for answers about what should happen next, turn to the Kerner Commission’s report.
Our marching orders remain the same.