During the 1960s, "riots" exploded in more than 100 cities over a variety of race-based issues starting in 1964 and continuing through the decade, especially during a two-week period in July 1967, in Newark and in Detroit and then after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, and even into 1970 when local police killed two young men here at Jackson State University.
At the time, many white Americans looked on with "shock, fear and bewilderment" at the destruction that was included in the protests—much as many are doing now in the wake of the refusal to indict Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. How could anger and destruction possibly help anything? they asked then, and many are asking now—thereby "deepening the division" in the way a refreshingly honest commission warned about years ago.
To get at the causes of the riots, and potential ways to prevent them, President Lyndon Johnson assembled the 11-member National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders in July 1967 to explain the riots and compile recommendation for the future. The 1968 report—commonly called the Kerner Report and compiled by nine whites and two blacks, with one woman—pulled few punches, warning in a now-infamous phrase that the United States was "moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal."
The industry, political and police leaders correctly predicted in the report that, without serious efforts by "white society" at acknowledging conditions and then working to bridge racial gaps and repair disparities in segregated cities, the country would fall into a "system of apartheid" in urban areas. The commission went after many realities of black American life that are often (still) ignored by the white majority, and recommended a plethora of fixes from job creation, workforce training, better housing, improved public education and media that didn't feed white America's obsession with black crime, which was long an excuse for mistreatment and brutalization of African Americans.
They found that uprisings, such the Ferguson protests, are not the result of one "triggering" or "precipitating" incident. Instead, the actions were and are "generated out of an increasingly disturbed social atmosphere, in which typically a series of tension-heightening incidents over a period of weeks or months became linked in the minds of many in the Negro community with a reservoir of underlying grievances. At some point in the mounting tension, a further incident—in itself often routine or trivial—became the breaking point and the tension spilled over into violence."
To better understand conditions that eventually tip into riots and unrest—such as today's pattern of killing unarmed blacks for either minor crimes or misplaced fear, exacerbated by widespread white acceptance of it—read the full Kerner report at jfp.ms/kerner. Here are key points, pulled from the 1968 report (which used the then-common "Negro"):
• "Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American. This deepening racial division is not inevitable. The movement apart can be reversed. Choice is still possible. Our principal task is to define that choice and to press for a national resolution. To 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."
• "The vital needs of the nation must be met; hard choices must be made.... Segregation 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 it, and white society condones it."
The commission recommended these basic responses:
- To mount programs on a scale equal to the dimension of the problems;
- To aim these programs for high impact in the immediate future in order to close the gap between promise and performance;
- To undertake new initiatives and experiments that can change the system of failure and frustration that now dominates the ghetto and weakens our society.
The 'Disorders,' Explained
• "The civil disorders of 1967 involved Negroes acting against local symbols of white American society, authority and property in Negro neighborhoods—rather than against white persons. ... The overwhelming majority of the persons killed or injured in all the disorders were Negro civilians."
• "The final incident before the outbreak of disorder, and the initial violence itself, generally took place in the evening or at night at a place in which it was normal for many people to be on the streets."
• "Violence usually occurred almost immediately following the occurrence of the final precipitating incident, and then escalated rapidly. With but few exceptions, violence subsided during the day, and flared rapidly again at night."
• "Disorder generally began with rock and bottle throwing and window breaking. Once store windows were broken, looting usually followed."
• "What the rioters appeared to be seeking was fuller participation in the social order and the material benefits enjoyed by the majority of American citizens. Rather than rejecting the American system, they were anxious to obtain a place for themselves in it."
• "The proportion of Negroes in local government was substantially smaller than the Negro proportion of population. Only three of the 20 cities studied had more than one Negro legislator; none had ever had a Negro mayor or city manager. In only four cities did Negroes hold other important policy-making positions or serve as heads of municipal departments."
'Deeply Held Grievances'
The commission found 12 "deeply held grievances" of black Americans, ranking them in intensity starting at No. 1:
- Police practices
- Unemployment and underemployment
- Inadequate housing
- Inadequate education
- Poor recreation facilities and programs
- Ineffectiveness of the political structure and grievance mechanisms.
- Disrespectful white attitudes
- Discriminatory administration of justice
- Inadequacy of federal programs
- Inadequacy of municipal services
- Discriminatory consumer and credit practices
- Inadequate welfare programs
By the writing of the report, the commission found "little basic change in the conditions underlying the outbreak of disorder. Actions to ameliorate Negro grievances have been limited and sporadic; with but few exceptions, they have not significantly reduced tensions. In several cases, police militarization was the backward response: "In several cities, the principal official response has been to train and equip the police with more sophisticated weapons."
The Basic Causes
The commission found a number of causes, but zeroed in on the most basic: "Of these, the most fundamental is the racial attitude and behavior of white Americans toward black Americans. ... Race prejudice has shaped our history decisively; it now threatens to affect our future. ... White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II."
The report pointed to specific types of racism that had created the conditions in inner cities (excerpted verbatim):
- Pervasive discrimination and segregation in employment, education and housing, which have resulted in the continuing exclusion of great numbers of Negroes from the benefits of economic progress.
- Black in-migration and white exodus, which have produced the massive and growing concentrations of impoverished Negroes in our major cities, creating a growing crisis of deteriorating facilities and services and unmet human needs.
- The black ghettos where segregation and poverty converge on the young to destroy opportunity and enforce failure. Crime, drug addiction, dependency on welfare, and bitterness and resentment against society in general and white society in particular are the result.
The commission pointed out that many whites and blacks who had escaped what it called "ghettos" have "prospered to a degree unparalleled in the history of civilization. Through television and other media, this affluence has been flaunted before the eyes of the Negro poor and the jobless ghetto youth." It pointed to these additional ingredients:
• Frustrated hopes are the residue of the unfulfilled expectations aroused by the great judicial and legislative victories of the Civil Rights Movement and the dramatic struggle for equal rights in the South.
• A climate that tends toward approval and encouragement of violence as a form of protest has been created by white terrorism ... .
• The frustrations of powerlessness have led some Negroes to the conviction that there is no effective alternative to violence as a means of achieving redress of grievances, and of "moving the system." These frustrations are reflected in alienation and hostility toward the institutions of law and government and the white society which controls them ...
• A new mood has sprung up among Negroes, particularly the young, in which self-esteem and enhanced racial pride are replacing apathy and submission to "the system."
• The police are not merely a "spark" factor. To some Negroes police have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression. And the fact is that many police do reflect and express these white attitudes. The atmosphere of hostility and cynicism is reinforced by a widespread belief among Negroes in the existence of police brutality and in a "double standard" of justice and protection—one for Negroes and one for whites.
Read the full Kerner report at jfp.ms/kerner. This summary information came from historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6545/.
See the JFP's full archive of Ferguson coverage here.