Those words were written almost half a century ago by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, after its chair, Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, Jr.. President Lyndon Johnson established the eleven-member commission on July 28, 1967, in order to investigate the causes of the urban uprisings that had ravaged cities across the nation and to provide recommendations for the future.
Mounting civil unrest in the face of persistent racial discrimination had spawned riots in the black neighborhoods of major U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago, Newark and Detroit. In his remarks upon signing the order establishing the Commission, Johnson asked for answers to three central questions about the riots: "What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?"
The Commission's final report was released on February 29, 1968, after seven months of investigation. The report became an instant best-seller, and over two million Americans bought copies of the 426-page document. Its finding was that the riots resulted from black frustration at lack of economic opportunity. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. pronounced the report a "physician's warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life."
In light of recent events, it is worth recalling the Introduction to the Report:
The summer of 1967 again brought racial disorders to American cities, and with them shock, fear and bewilderment to the nation. [On] July 28, 1967, the President of the United States established this Commission and directed us to answer three basic questions: What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again?
To respond to these questions, we have undertaken a broad range of studies and investigations. We have visited the riot cities; we have heard many witnesses; we have sought the counsel of experts across the country.
This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white - separate and unequal.
Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American. This deepening racial division is not inevitable. The movement apart can be reversed. Choice is still possible. Our principal task is to define that choice and to press for a national resolution.
To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values. The alternative [is] the realization of common opportunities for all within a single society. This alternative will require a commitment to national action -- compassionate, massive and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and the richest nation on this earth. From every American it will require new attitudes, new understanding, and, above all, new will.
The vital needs of the nation must be met; hard choices must be made, and, if necessary, new taxes enacted. [Segregation] and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans. What white Americans have never fully understood - but what the Negro can never forget -- is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.
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.
Our recommendations embrace three basic principles: To mount programs on a scale equal to the dimension of the problems; to aim these programs for high impact in the immediate future in order to close the gap between promise and performance; and to undertake new initiatives and experiments that can change the system of failure and frustration that now dominates the ghetto and weakens our society.
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.
Sadly, the wisdom and insight embodied in the Kerner Commission Report, along with its myriad recommendations dealing with such issues as desegregation, equality of opportunity and equal treatment in housing, employment, education, voting and policing went unheeded. President Lyndon Johnson, who had actively supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, was annoyed by the Report's failure to give his own achievements the attention he felt they deserved. He later admitted, though, that although his efforts had "moved the Negro from D+ to C-, he's still nowhere. He knows it. And that's why he's out in the streets. Hell, I'd be there too."
On March 31, 1968, only a month after the Report was made public, Johnson announced that he would not run for re-election. Four days later, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
triggered new riots in cities across the nation. But the recommendations of the Kerner Commission Report were still in play, because Senator Robert F. Kennedy, a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, strongly endorsed the Commission's analysis and recommendations. But on June 6, 1968, Kennedy was assassinated.
Five months later, Richard M. Nixon was elected President of the United States. From that moment on, the lessons and recommendations of the Kerner Commission Report were largely laid to rest.
And so, here we are today, almost half a century later, and it remains as true now as it was in 1967 that "our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal." When will we learn?