A 50 year plea persists

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN | 3/12/2018, 11:30 a.m.
“In 1968, the Kerner Commission concluded that America was heading toward ‘two societies, one Black, one White – separate and ...

Children's Defense Fund

“In 1968, the Kerner Commission concluded that America was heading toward ‘two societies, one Black, one White – separate and unequal.’ Today, America’s communities are experiencing increasing racial tensions and inequality, working-class resentment over the unfulfilled American Dream, white supremacy violence, toxic inaction in Washington, and the decline of the nation’s example around the world.”

This quote is an introduction to Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years After the Kerner Report, a newly released update on just how far our nation still has to go to fulfill the Kerner Report’s goals. The original report was released Feb. 29, 1968, by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders created by President Lyndon B. Johnson to study the causes of the “racial disorders” that had erupted across the country during the summer of 1967, resulting in weeks of devastating rioting, violence and deaths. The “long, hot summer” of 1967 followed earlier riots during the summers of 1964, 1965, and 1966 and left many Americans terrified that violence would continue to escalate with no end and no solutions.

But the Kerner Commission, as the National Advisory Commission came to be called after its chairman, Illinois Governor Otto Kerner Jr., did not believe our country was doomed to a permanent cycle of rioting and racial division. Its report determined that ending the violence needed to start by acknowledging the persistent American truth at its root: we were a divided society, still separate, still unequal.

The 1968 report offered specific recommendations, many focused on creating economic opportunity for Black citizens imprisoned in concentrated segregated poverty. Others addressed the need to hire and train more diverse police forces. An entire section was devoted to education with special concern about the poor reading and math skills and low graduation and employment rates of millions of Black students stuck in predominantly Black, poor and unequal schools.

The 1968 Kerner Report concluded that all of its proposed solutions were not just doable, but essential: “It is time now to turn with all the purpose at our command to the major unfinished business of this nation. It is time to adopt strategies for action that will produce quick and visible progress. It is time to make good the promises of American democracy to all citizens – urban and rural, White and Black, Spanish-surname, American Indian and every minority group … These programs will require unprecedented levels of funding and performance, but they neither probe deeper nor demand more than the problems which called them forth. There can be no higher priority for national action and no higher claim on the nation’s conscience.”

But Healing Our Divided Society shows that despite progress in many areas over the last 50 years, we still have not completed the urgent business of making the promises of American democracy good for all and the call for sustained national action must continue. The new report, co-edited by former Oklahoma Senator Fred Harris, the only surviving member of the original Kerner Commission, and Alan Curtis, CEO of the Milton Eisenhower Foundation, includes chapters by scholars and policy experts seeking to chart our nation’s course forward.