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The Kerner Commission — 40 Years Later
Tomas and Nathan Young
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March 28, 2008

Barack Obama's March 18, 2008 speech, "A More Perfect Union," focused attention issues of race and class in America today. Forty years ago race and class was on the minds of Americans too — when The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders released its report on the urban riots of 1967. That report, more commonly known as the Kerner Report, with its stark conclusion that "Our nation is moving towards two societies — one white, one black — separate and unequal" — was a best-seller. It was also the source of great controversy and remains so today.

Referencing the Kerner Commission report has become rhetorical shorthand in some ways. For critics it suggests wasteful federal spending programs — for others, societal goals and potentials not yet met. In covering the 40th anniversary report USTODAY headlined its 40th anniversary coverage "Goals for Black America Not Met." The article raised some ire when quoting Robert Rector of Heritage Foundation: "Rector says the report ignores a major cause of poverty: single-parent homes. He says 70% of black children do not have a father in the home." That sentiment earned this response from Elliott Currie, a member of the Kerner Commission, 40th Anniversary Task Force: "The implication is that it's the heedless behavior of black men rather than the strains of a blighted economy and a legacy of discrimination that is responsible for the continuing crisis of poverty and racial disadvantage 40 years after the Kerner Commission."

40th Anniversy Kerner Report: One/fifth the wealth Review the Commission's original findings and the subsequent progress reports below. Then weigh in on the state of America 40 years later on the Blog.

Bill Moyers talked with Fred Harris who now teaches politics at the University of New Mexico and is one of the last living members of the original Kerner Commission.

Fred Harris
Fred Harris, photo by Robin Holland Fred R. Harris was born in Walters, Oklahoma, a small town in the southwestern part of the state. In addition to practicing law in Lawton, Oklahoma, he served for eight years as a Democratic member of the Oklahoma State Senate. He served in the United States Senate from 1964 to 1973.

Harris was a member of the Select Committee on Small Business as well as the Government Operations, Public Works, and Finance committees. As chairman of the Subcommittee on Government Research, he introduced legislation to create a National Foundation for Social Sciences, designed to provide the social sciences with the visibility that the National Science Foundation gives to the natural and physical sciences.

President Lyndon B. Johnson named him to the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Kerner Commission) in the summer of 1967. In 1969 Harris was elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

In 1971, Harris decided not to run for the Senate and instead announced he was seeking the Democratic nomination for president. Lack of money, however, forced him to bow out before the primaries. He again threw his name into the presidential ring in 1976 running a down-to-earth "new populist" campaign. Following weak showings in the New Hampshire and Massachusetts primaries, he abandoned his presidential quest, left Washington D.C., and moved to New Mexico. Harris currently serves as a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico.

Published on March 28, 2008.

Guest photo by Robin Holland

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References and Reading:
The Eisenhower Foundation: Forty Year Update of the Kerner Riot Commission
The Commission has released 25 and 30-year updates of the Kerner Report. Those reports and the preliminary findings of the new report are online at the site.

Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders
Read the executive summary and conclusion of the original report.

"30 years after Kerner report, some say racial divide wider"
CNN's 1998 report on the 30th anniversary of the report.

"The Kerner Commission Report and the Failed Legacy of Liberal Social Policy"
Stephan Thernstrom, Fred Siegel, and Robert Woodson, Sr. June 24, 1998. The Heritage Foundation's assessment of the report and its legacy.

Kerner Plus 40
The Annenberg School for Communication and the Center for Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies (IFAJS) at North Carolina A&T State University have undertaken a joint project to determine how this nation has responded to the Kerner Commission's recommendations.

ONLINE NEWSHOUR: A Nation Divided? The 1998 NEWSHOUR report on the Kerner Commission update. The findings sparked a debate over the state of racial equality and what should be done to improve the situation. Elizabeth Farnsworth explores the debate with four experts.

Revolution '67
Aired on POV on PBS, REVOLUTION '67 is an account of events too often relegated to footnotes in U.S. history the black urban rebellions of the 1960s. Focusing on the six-day Newark, New Jersey, outbreak in mid-July 1967, the film reveals how the disturbance began as spontaneous revolts against poverty and police brutality and ended as fateful milestones in America's struggles over race and economic justice.

Also This Week:

THE JOURNAL looks at an update of the Kerner Commission Report, which blamed the violence on the devastating poverty and hopelessness endemic in the inner cities of the 1960s and includes an interview with former Oklahoma Senator Fred Harris, one of the last living members of the Kerner Commission.

Forty years after race riots in Detroit, Newark, and dozens of other cities stunned the nation, has anything changed? Bill Moyers interviews Newark Mayor Cory Booker for a frontline report on race and politics today.

Find out what America's mayors really want for their cities and from the candidates. Plus, 10 things you probably didn't know about our cities.

The Kerner Commission and the media — then and now.

Tell us about the state of your city.

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