Separate And Unequal: The Kerner Commission 50 Years Later

Separate And Unequal: The Kerner Commission 50 Years Later

3:34pm Mar 06, 2018
President Lyndon B. Johnson presents one of the pens used to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to James Farmer, Director of the Congress of Racial Equality on August 6, 1965.
National Archive/Newsmakers

Across the country many cities were on fire in 1967. Tensions between blacks and whites were inflamed, leading to massive riots from Birmingham to Milwaukee to Detroit and Los Angeles.

President Lyndon B. Johnson wanted to know why. He assembled a group of elected officials and thought leaders to uncover the impetus for the violence. The National Advisory on Civil Disorders soon became known as the Kerner Commission, named for then-Illinois governor Otto Kerner, who served as chair of the commission.

A months-long investigation led to a final report with stark warnings about federal social services, biased media coverage of minority communities and economic disparity between the races.

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

The commission made several recommendations including breaking up segregated high rise projects, diversifying police forces and providing pathways to employment for African-Americans. But it was poorly received by Johnson and his administration and in the end, largely ignored by the White House. However, the 462-page report went viral, becoming a bestseller in 1968 and sparking both more riots and more conversations about how to make a better future for all Americans.

Fifty years later, the Kerner Commission report is again big news. Many of the issues it raised still exist in American society today and it’s unclear what role the federal government should play or might be expected to play to help address institutional racism.

We revisit the recommendations of the Kerner Commission in the context of the ongoing struggle for racial equality.


Steven Gillon, History professor, University of Oklahoma; author of numerous books, including his newest “Separate and Unequal: The Kerner Commission and the Unraveling of American Liberalism”; resident historian for The History Channel.

Valerie Wilson, Director, Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy (PREE); @ValerieRWilson

Ronald Davis, Past director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) of the Department of Justice (DOJ) during Obama administration; Executive Director, Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing; Retired police captain; current principal, 21st century policing LLC; @rondaviscp

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