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Eyes on the Prize
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The Kerner Commission Report (1968)

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A vacant lot on 12th Street in Detroit's Precinct 10 stands as mute evidence of the city's 1967 riot, the worst in modern American history. Photographed on April 29, 1970.

Appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, a commission chaired by Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois explored the reasons behind the Detroit riots of 1967. The commission presented a report in February 1968. "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal," the report said. "What white Americans have never fully understood -- but what the Negro can never forget -- is that...white institutions created [the ghetto], white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it."

Detroit had seemed immune to the race riots that overwhelmed dozens of American cities -- after all, the local economy was excellent and black culture and commerce were thriving in the music of Motown. However, urban renewal projects appeared designed to sweep away black neighborhoods, complaints about Detroit police abuse were not addressed, and blacks found limits to career advancement in the auto industry. Following five days of riots during which military tanks rolled through the streets, 41 were dead, hundreds injured and thousands left homeless.

As soon as the Kerner Commission Report was published, controversy emerged when a host of the social science researchers who worked on the study protested that the report had eliminated their major finding: the riots were actually protests against racial oppression. The Kerner Commission's recommendations for reform included suggestions for economic empowerment that came with a large increase in the federal budget -- but the president was unwilling to pay this price in the face of escalating military costs for the war in Vietnam.

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