Protests For Racial Justice: A Long History
- How the protests, urban disorder and violence that affected over 150 U.S. cities in 1967 led President Lyndon Johnson to appoint the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, better known as the Kerner commission.
- What recommendations the commission offered on policing and racial inequality.
- How President Johnson’s failure to take action on the report’s findings provides context for the ongoing challenges of police violence and racial inequality.
- U.S. History
- Civil Rights
- Black History
- Criminal Justice
- Cultural and Social Change
- Lyndon Johnson
- Race in America
- 1960s America
- The Postwar Era (1945-1980)
- The Modern Era (1980-Present)
In the summer of 1967, Black neighborhoods in 150 cities including Newark and Detroit erupted in violence. Images of police battling protesters and buildings in flames appeared regularly on the evening news.
The wide-ranging violence stunned the nation, and President Lyndon B. Johnson quickly assembled a commission headed by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner to study the causes and propose solutions.
That summer, many Americans blamed the violent outbreaks on young Black men and “outside agitators.” But eight months later Gov. Kerner delivered his report and turned those assumptions upside down.
The commission’s report placed the blame on white racism and political inaction for the “explosive mixture” that had been building up for decades over police brutality, inadequate housing, high unemployment and inequality caused by endemic discrimination.
“Our nation is moving toward two societies – one Black, one white,” the 400-page report warned. “Separate and unequal.”
The report detailed sweeping changes needed in Black communities to prevent future trouble, and urged some $30 billion in new spending.
It became a paperback best-seller, but President Johnson turned his back on it, while the Republicans quickly capitalized on the need for “law and order,” and helped Richard M. Nixon win the presidency later that year.
But the words of the Kerner report continue to haunt American history as the road not taken: “Race prejudice has shaped our history decisively; it now threatens to affect our future.”
- How was the urban disorder of 1967 related, in part, to police violence? How did the response of the police and National Guard often make the situation worse rather than better?
- What did President Johnson appoint the Kerner commission to study? What were the commission’s conclusions and recommendations?
- How did President Johnson respond to the Kerner commission? Why?
- According to a 2018 update to the Kerner report, have child poverty and school integration improved or worsened since 1968?
- The urban violence and disorder in 1967 are sometimes referred to as riots and rebellions. What term does your history textbook use? Which do you think is better? What’s the difference between a riot and a rebellion? How does the choice of term affect our understanding of what happened? Is there a more accurate word or phrase?
- Under President Johnson, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, widely regarded as the most transformative civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. And yet Johnson largely ignored the findings of the Kerner report. Given the context of the times and of his presidency, why do you think Johnson chose to ignore the report? Why have the presidents who followed him generally made the same choice? Why has it been harder for American politicians to convince the public to support urban antipoverty programs than to gain support for antisegregation laws?
- In terms of the interplay between racial inequality and police violence, what are the changes and continuities from 1967 to today?
- In the study of history, it’s more productive to study what happened rather than what might have happened. But studying “the events that didn’t happen” is sometimes a useful exercise in making sense of the past. What might have happened if President Johnson had fully endorsed the findings of the Kerner commission? Given the status of his presidency in 1968, would he have been able to convince Congress to support action on those findings? If there had been legislation in response to the events of 1967 that was as transformative and sweeping as the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, how might the United States be different today?
Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem
Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.
Analyze the role of citizens in the U.S. political system.
Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.
Skill 5.B: Explain how a historical development or process relates to another historical development or process.
Theme 5: Power and Politics (PCE).