The Fire Last Time

Days of rage: A National Guardsmen in Detroit during the riots of July 1967

Photo credit: The Tony Spina Collection, Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

In the new wave of opinion pieces about American racial unrest, a quotation from a 47-yearold government report often surfaces: “White society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

The line is from the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission. Named after commission chair Otto Kerner Jr., then governor of Illinois, the group assembled in the aftermath of 1967 riots in Detroit and Newark, New Jersey. Lyndon Johnson appointed the commission to address three questions: What happened? Why did it happen? And what can be done to prevent it from happening again and again? The commission’s report was unsparing, quotable (“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal”), and remarkably prescient. It warned of the militarization of police and deepening segregation in cities. And it sharply chastised the media, which had “too long basked in a white world looking out of it . . . with white men’s eyes and white men’s perspective.” Fred Harris, then a 38-year old senator from Oklahoma, is the last surviving member of the commission. He visited Baltimore’s Annie E. Casey Foundation in September to discuss American cities, then and now.

In the black section of Detroit there was an illegal drinking place called the Blind Pig. The police—one squad car with two policemen—came down there at about midnight to close the place down. This is midnight on a really hot night, and here’s this big drinking crowd, out on the street. Somebody—nobody knows who—threw a bottle that crashed into the windshield of the squad car. That’s how it all started.

We had 23 days of hearings and 150 witnesses, from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to J. Edgar Hoover. And we had a staff that went out to twenty-three cities and brought back facts about conditions. [New York City mayor] John Lindsay and I went out to select cities ourselves. In Cincinnati we met with this very militant group—well-educated young black men and women—who wouldn’t shake hands with us, who couldn’t even look at us. They said, “You white politicians, you ought to be studying yourselves. You’re the problem.”

Lyndon Johnson thought that there was some organization and conspiracy behind these riots, which was absolutely false. It was spontaneous. I tried to tell him personally that the conditions in these central cities are so terrible and there’s such hostility toward the police that any random spark could start up these riots, and that’s what happened. The commission’s thinking was, we should just say what we really believe: There’s no conspiracy here.

We were ready to file our report in March 1968—we planned to have a big ceremony and to ask the president to keep the commission going to help implement our recommendations. But a member of the commission said to Johnson, “This report is going to ruin you. It has nothing good to say about anything you’ve ever done about poverty or civil rights. It’s a disaster.” So Johnson—who never read the report—canceled the ceremony and refused to extend the commission’s life.

We were going to spend a whole week backgrounding with the media, so people would know why we were saying these things. But the Washington Post got a copy early. It was chaos. I remember a reporter called me and said, “I’ve got a 30-minute deadline; can you capsulize it for me?” Their headline was “White Racism Cause of Black Riots, Commission Says.”

A lot of white people felt, “Well, what about me? Hell, I’m having a hard time.“ My dad—a cowboy kind of guy, a small farmer—the way he heard what we said was “Mr. Harris, out of the goodness of your heart, you ought to pay more taxes to help black people who are rioting in Detroit.” You know, that didn’t appeal to him, frankly.

Today, the situation is tougher now for a city like Baltimore than it was then. These cities have lost population. The tax base has shrunk. Poverty is worse. And extreme poverty—that is, earnings of 50 percent or less of the poverty rate—is worse, and people have far less chance of getting out of it than they did back in our day.

If the Kerner Commission could have had a continued life, we would’ve done better, I think. Ferguson has just had a Kerner-like commission. [Missouri Governor Jay Nixon formed the sixteen-member Ferguson Commission in November 2014; its initial report was released in September.] It’s going to stay in operation—to lobby for and push for its recommendations.

If there was to be a commission in Baltimore, first, it should be regional, because the problem is regional. A white person living out in the suburbs may say, “What’s it to me that kids are getting a criminally inferior education, or have no chance to get a job? What do I care?” Well, those people are going pay for it one way or another. Second, it ought to stay in operation afterwards. We need to help people see what the facts are—and then help them see their own self-interest in it.

I always said to the people in the civil rights movement, I’m against violence. Violence is inhumane and counterproductive. You’ll never have as many guns as the government has. On the other hand, confrontation is important.

For me, there’s hope. Occupy Wall Street was criticized for not having a well-defined platform, but it put income inequality on the public agenda. Some people criticize Black Lives Matter for the same thing. But we’ve got to keep the spotlight on it. A commission can keep it on the public agenda and help people to see where their own interests are involved in solving these problems. The message should be: We’re all in this thing together.