Kerner Com­mis­sion mem­ber hope­ful 50 years after ri­ots

South Florida Times - - FRONT PAGE - By RUS­SELL CON­TR­ERAS so­ci­ated Press, The As-

COR­RALES, N.M. (AP) - Nearly 50 years after the Kerner Com­mis­sion stud­ied the causes of deadly ri­ots in Amer­ica’s cities, its last sur­viv­ing mem­ber says he re­mains haunted that its rec­om­men­da­tions on U.S. race re­la­tions and poverty were never adopted.

But for­mer U.S. Sen. Fred Har­ris of Ok­la­homa also said he’s hope­ful those ideas will be em­braced one day, and he’s en­cour­aged by Black Lives Mat­ter and other so­cial move­ments. In an in­ter­view with

the 86-year- old Har­ris said he still feels strongly that poverty and struc­tural racism en­flame racial ten­sions, even as the United States be­comes more di­verse.

“To­day, there are more peo­ple in Amer­ica who are poor both in num­bers and greater per­cent­age,” Har­ris told the AP from his home in Cor­rales, New Mex­ico. “And poor peo­ple to­day are poorer than they were then. It’s harder to get out of poverty.”

The na­tion’s poverty rate was 14.2 per­cent in 1967 com­pared to 14 per­cent last year, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Cen­sus.

And de­spite five decades of civil rights and vot­ing rights ad­vance­ments, cities and schools “have re-seg­re­gated,” Har­ris said. He cited re­cent fed­eral data that showed the num­ber of poor schools with mainly Latino and black stu­dents more than dou­bled from 2001 to 2014.

Fifty years after work­ing on the Kerner Com­mis­sion to ex­am­ine the causes of race ri­ots in the 1960s, for­mer U.S. Sen. Fred Har­ris feels that poverty and struc­tural racism still stoke racial ten­sions in the United States. (Oct. 10)

The re­sult­ing ten­sions some­times play out in clashes with po­lice, as seen re­cently in St. Louis, Bal­ti­more and Char­lotte, North Carolina.

Only by get­ting the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion con­cerned about racial dis­par­ity, poor hous­ing and proper job train­ing will the United States fi­nally tackle the un­der­ly­ing causes of the ur­ban ri­ots of the 1960s and the po­lice-mi­nor­ity ten­sions of to­day, Har­ris said.

“We can help peo­ple to see that we didn’t solve these prob­lems,” Har­ris said. “No, they are still with us, and in some ways, poverty is worse.”

Of the Kerner Com­mis­sion’s mem­bers, who in­cluded for­mer Illi­nois Gov. Otto Kerner, New York Mayor John Lind­say and U.S. Sen. Ed­ward W. Brooke of Mas­sachusetts, only Har­ris re­mains.

The late Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son cre­ated the 11-mem­ber com­mis­sion in 1967 as Detroit was en­gulfed in a rag­ing riot. Five days of vi­o­lence would leave 33 blacks and 10 whites dead, and more than 1,400 build­ings burned. More than 7,000 peo­ple were ar­rested.

Dur­ing the sum­mer, more than 150 cases of civil un­rest erupted across the United States.

With other com­mis­sion mem­bers, Har­ris toured riot-torn cities and in­ter­viewed black and Latino res­i­dents and white po­lice of­fi­cers. Har­ris and his col­leagues soon dis­cov­ered that as black res­i­dents from the South moved into ur­ban cen­ters, white res­i­dents moved out and so did high-pay­ing em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties.

“Over and over, we were told, ‘we want jobs, baby,’ Har­ris said.

The panel con­cluded that the na­tion should spend bil­lions re­vi­tal­iz­ing strug­gling cities, im­prov­ing po­lice re­la­tions and end­ing hous­ing and job dis­crim­i­na­tion.

But amid the Viet­nam War and anti-war protest, John­son re­fused to meet with the com­mis­sion. John­son con­cluded the re­port would “ruin” him and that com­mis­sion mem­bers didn’t give his “Great So­ci­ety” pro­grams enough credit, Har­ris said.

“That was false,” Har­ris said, ar­gu­ing that the re­port gave John­son credit for tack­ling poverty and wasn’t aimed at hurt­ing him.

None­the­less, the re­port, re­leased March 1, 1968, be­came a best seller and a clas­sic study on poverty and racial in­equal­ity in the U.S.

Eric Tang, an African and African Di­as­pora Stud­ies pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Texas, said that be­fore the Kerner Com­mis­sion re­port, no gov­ern­ment doc­u­ment had ex­plic­itly named in­sti­tu­tional, sys­temic racism as an un­der­ly­ing cause of black un­rest in the U.S.

“These is­sues haven’t gone away, be­cause many of the key rec­om­men­da­tions weren’t im­ple­mented,” Tang said.

After Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon took of­fice, the fo­cus shifted to in­creased polic­ing in cities and con­fin­ing the poverty there, Tang said.

In re­cent years, high-pro­file po­lice shoot­ings of un­armed black and Latino men have sparked mul­ti­ple ur­ban racial con­flicts, protests and calls for po­lice re­forms.

Last year, then-San Fran­cisco 49ers quar­ter­back Colin Kaeper­nick be­gan tak­ing a knee dur­ing the National An­them be­fore foot­ball games to protest the shoot­ing of black men by po­lice. Other NFL play­ers joined, prompt­ing Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump to de­clare that any foot­ball player who con­tin­ued to do so should be fired.

Ron­nie Dunn, an Ur­ban Stud­ies pro­fes­sor at Cleve­land State Univer­sity, said since many of the is­sues re­main around racial in­equal­ity, the Kerner Com­mis­sion “could have well been writ­ten in 2017.”

“Un­til Amer­ica ac­tu­ally gets the po­lit­i­cal will to sus­tain its ef­forts to ad­dress the his­tory and the legacy and seg­re­ga­tion in the coun­try our democ­racy ... is not guar­an­teed to suc­ceed,” Dunn said. “We’re a more di­verse so­ci­ety now.”

The Kerner Com­mis­sion also crit­i­cized news cov­er­age of the dis­tur­bances, say­ing “news or­ga­ni­za­tions have failed to com­mu­ni­cate to both their black and white au­di­ences a sense of the prob­lems Amer­ica faces and the sources of po­ten­tial so­lu­tions.” It also crit­i­cized the national me­dia’s then racial makeup.

Sev­eral African Amer­i­can jour­nal­ists speak­ing at the ASNE-APME News Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence in Washington, D.C., said the me­dia still have some of the same prob­lems in cov­er­ing is­sues like Black Lives Mat­ter.

“We learn from his­tory that we do not learn from his­tory,” said Char­layne Hunter-Gault, an award win­ning jour­nal­ist who was the first African Amer­i­can woman to en­roll at the Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia.

Har­ris is work­ing on a book on the 50th an­niver­sary of the Cerner Com­mis­sion’s re­port, to be re­leased in March.

“I think if we can get peo­ple to see that these prob­lems are still with us,” Har­ris said, “that it’s in the in­ter­ests of all of us, to do some­thing about it.”


Fifty years after work­ing on the Kerner Com­mis­sion to ex­am­ine the causes of race ri­ots in the 1960s, for­mer U.S. Sen. Fred Har­ris feels that poverty and struc­tural racism still stoke racial ten­sions in the United States.

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