Some lessons from ’67 report have yet to sink in

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”

President Lyndon Johnson shakes hands with some members of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the Kerner Commission) at the White House on July 29, 1967.

That warning was issued on Feb. 29, 1968, after a seven-month investigation into urban race violence in America in the summer of 1967.

And according to local social justice leaders and historians, what would become known as the Kerner Commission report and the warning it contained were largely ignored.

The Kerner Commission was established by President Lyndon Johnson to investigate the causes of the 1967 violence in Detroit and New Jersey.

Johnson appointed the 11-member commission on July 28, 1967, while looting was underway in Detroit. Rioting in Newark and New Brunswick, New Jersey, had occurred a week before.

The commission was tasked with answering three questions in all three cities: “What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again?”

Shirley Stancato, president and CEO of New Detroit, a social justice organization founded as the result of the city’s 1967 uprising, said the 426-page report was “right on” in terms of what it identified and its recommendations for addressing some of the issues.

The report’s findings were blunt: White racism was the cause of urban violence and white America bore much of the responsibility for black rioting and rebellion. The federal and state governments were blamed for failed housing, education and social service policies.

The report, officially called the “Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders,” listed unemployment as a key problem, saying the jobless rate for blacks in 1967 was more than double that of whites.

The commission called for the creation of jobs, construction of housing, and putting a stop to segregation. It urged government programs to hire more diverse and sensitive police forces and invest billions in housing programs aimed at breaking up residential segregation.

The commission recommended that local governments develop “neighborhood action task forces” to improve communication and the delivery of city services to urban residents.

But government officials did not learn from the extensive report, Stancato said.

“Clearly, they spent the time on it. The president was really courageous in saying, ‘Go do this.’ And they did it and dug deep. They did some really really good work,” Stancato said. “Basically, they put it on the shelf, and all of us know in strategic planning it has to be a living document.”

The report said the disorder did not erupt from a single “triggering” or “precipitating” incident.

“Instead, it was generated out of an increasingly disturbed social atmosphere, in which typically a series of tension-heightening incidents over a period of weeks or months became linked in the minds of many in the Negro community with a reservoir of underlying grievances,” it said.

“According to the Kerner Commission report, the main cause of all the urban uprising in the ’60s was police brutality,” said Jeffrey Horner, a Wayne State University Urban Studies and Planning senior lecturer. “In Detroit, it only got worse thereafter.”

African-Americans protest treatment by police in front of Detroit Police headquarters on July 13, 1967, 10 days before the uprising. The Kerner Commission blamed white racism for urban violence.

Horner is teaching a WSU course “Detroit Rebellion at 50: Retrospect and Prospect.”

“If there’s any one catchphrase from the Kerner Commission report, it’s that this country was moving toward two societies: one black, one white. So many of the recommendations in the Kerner Commission report said that we need to do a better job of having government talk to community groups,” said Horner, explaining government officials didn’t get involved on the “local community level” until the 1970s “when it was really clear that cities were not going to take care of themselves.”

Kevin Boyle, a professor of American history at William Smith Northwestern University, said police-community tensions in Detroit predated 1967 by 50 years, when the black population in American cities began to rise.

Boyle was born in Detroit in 1960. He studies the intersection of class, race and politics.

“The city was hyper-segregated. African-Americans lived overwhelmingly in poor neighborhoods, housing stock was inferior. There was a huge level of frustration in the African-American community,” Boyle said of the 1960s in Detroit.

Not much has changed, Boyle said. Segregation remains high.

“The fundamental premise holds true, that to a striking extent we have remained a society where African-Americans live separate from white Americans, especially in the metro area,” Boyle said. “We still have a high level of segregation in neighborhoods. We still have a poverty rate that is double of whites.”

In some ways, the justice system has become more troubled in race relations, Boyle said, and there is a far higher level of incarceration for blacks now.

Still, Detroit does not remain in 1967.

After the uprising, Detroit became a majority African-American city. Political leadership became fundamentally different with the election of Coleman Young as mayor in 1973, Boyle said. African-Americans today enjoy a level of political influence they didn’t have 50 years ago. The Detroit Police Department is also more reflective of Detroit’s racial makeup.

“The once overwhelmingly white police department looks fundamentally different today,” Boyle said. “We have made real advances in our recognition of race and racism in America as a whole. But there are other parts of the Detroit area where the situation is worse than ’67. Poverty rates are higher, industrial space is small, which means fewer good-paying jobs. The avenues out of poverty are narrowing.”

While the city’s recent development renaissance is “cool and exciting,” Boyle said, it is different than what the Kerner Commission was talking about in terms of making an economic investment.

“They were hoping for a development that would reach poorer African-Americans, and I don’t think that is what’s happening.” Boyle said.

In a section of the report, the commission attacked the mainstream media, saying it “long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective.”

In the last 50 years, the diversity of the media has improved but still does not reflect the larger societal diversity, said Tim Kiska, an associate professor of media studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

In 1967, the media was not integrated, with less than 5 percent being non-white, Kiska said.

“ ’67 took almost everybody by surprise,” he said. “It shouldn’t have, but if there were more black reporters, maybe we would have known about this.”

According to the 2016 survey by the American Society of News Editors, minority journalists comprised 17 percent of the workforce in newsrooms that responded to the survey. In 1978, when ASNE launched its Newsroom Employment Census of professional full-time journalists, 3.95 percent were minorities.

Kiska said the events of 1967, and perhaps the Kerner Commission report, spurred integration in the 1970s and onward.

“There is a bigger consciousness now about the African-American community. Before ’67, they didn’t get covered, period. End of story. Now there is a feeling of keeping an eye on the community,” he said.