How Johnson, white Americans ignored the commission that investigated the riotous summer of 1967

Michigan (Public) Radio, currently remembering the Detroit riots of 1967 (Wikipedia), has produced a dramatic and fascinating account of the Kerner Commission’s findings on the causes and possible solutions to the summer of racial unrest in 1967, which came to be known as the Long, Hot Summer. And why and how they have been ignored for forty-nine years.

When the Kerner Commission spoke, proclaiming the United States was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white –  separate and unequal,” a fearful Democratic Party shut its ears:

“The report put the responsibility for all of this stuff on white society and white institutions. That, I think, was a surprise to some white Americans and I think that was part of the reason he [President Lyndon Johnson] was very careful not to upset the large segment of white society. That was why I think it happened like that.” — Professor Joe T. Darden, Michigan State University

President Lyndon Johnson’s response was more personal. He was hurt that his Great Society programs weren’t praised by the Commission and had made the Vietnam War, not the so-called War on Poverty his budget priority.

“And Bobby [Kennedy] just gave me hell today for not carrying out the Kerner Commission study. Well, I didn’t realize when I appointed Kerner that this son-of-a-bitch from New York, [Mayor John] Lindsey, would take charge. He did take charge and he recommended I hire two-and-a-half million people on federal payroll. And I just, I’ve not wanted to reflect on Kerner and criticize the Commission. At the same time, I couldn’t embrace it because I’ve got a budget,” Johnson said in a secretly recorded phone conversation.

Yesterday’s radio report is also remarkable for its frank admission that economic inequality among races in the United States may be getting worse, not better. Have a listen.

Previous coverage on this blog of the Kerner Commission’s investigation of who rioters were, and what tactics they chose, is here: Kerner Commission report on 1967 riots seems eerily familiar.

Kerner Commission report on 1967 riots seems eerily familiar

Following the 1967 wave of urban uprisings in Black communities, President Lyndon Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to investigate “What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?” As part of the relatively small field of social science on rioting, it is best known for its alarming statement that “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal,” a dire prospect for a country that had dismantled the legal doctrine of “separate but equal” just a dozen years before.

Less often quoted is the Commission’s in-depth study of the nature and process of rioting. Altogether, Malcolm McLaughlin records in a recent book (Long, Hot Summer of 1967: Urban Rebellion in America), in the first nine months of 1967, “almost 170 cities in 34 states and the District of Columbia had experienced an uprising of some sort, and almost 40 communities had more than one. Few corners of urban America were left untouched.” In its effort to document and understand the riots, Kerner Commission reached the following conclusions, many of which seem very descriptive of the past year’s flashpoints of unrest from Ferguson, Missouri to Baltimore, Maryland.

The “typical” riot did not take place. The disorders of 1967 were unusual, irregular, complex and unpredictable social processes. Like most human events, they did not unfold in an orderly sequence. However, an analysis of our survey information leads to some conclusions about the riot process.

In general:

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.Read More »