During the summer of 1967, more than 150 cities erupted into violence, fueled by pent-up resentments in the cities’ black communities over police brutality and other forms of racial injustice. News networks broadcast the unrest around the country, and as the cities burned, many Americans watched in shock and horror.
President Lyndon B. Johnson responded by organizing a commission, comprised of lawmakers and law enforcement officials from around the country, to understand what caused the violence that left scores of people dead and caused millions of dollars in damages. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders — more commonly known as the Kerner commission after its chairman, Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner, Jr. — released its recommendations on Feb. 29, 1968. Today, 50 years later, the commission’s findings, that “the nation is moving toward two societies, one black and one white — separate and unequal,” still ring true.
But just as the report laid bare the inequality experienced by black Americans in urban areas and attempted to paint police brutality as a main cause of the uprisings, the Johnson administration doubled down on a law-and-order agenda. The president, still expected to run for re-election later that year, was driven by the fear that white voters would not sympathize with the commission’s findings. Crime was rising in many cities, but the commission urged the federal government to invest heavily in programs aimed at improving the lives of the cities’ black populations.
What’s more, the violence provided the support lawmakers needed to shift from the War on Poverty to the War on Crime, which funneled millions of dollars of federal resources to local police departments and undermined local efforts to address the racialized policing practices that had set entire cities on fire. In the wake of the violence, two seperate and opposing movements formed. While the black community pushed for police reform alongside socioeconomic improvement, the federal government responded by equipping police with new tools to control violent expressions of civil unrest.
Some historians see the commission as a missed opportunity to broach a national conversation on the role of police in black communities. Still others point out an important insight into the nature of police brutality — that poverty and segregation can foster police violence. A closer look at both the Kerner commission's findings and the ensuing fallout uncovers the tangled roots of protests in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore, St. Paul, Minn., Baton Rouge, La., and Chicago in recent years.
On July 12, 1967, police officers in Newark, N.J., arrested a black cab driver named Sam Smith for tailgating and allegedly driving the wrong way down a one-way street. A bystander who witnessed the arrest told several civil rights leaders in the city that Smith had been assaulted by the police while being taken into custody. The community leaders visited Smith in jail, noted his injuries, and demanded he be transferred to a hospital.
The police granted the request, but word had already begun to spread through the black community that officers had brutalized Smith. Residents slowly gathered around the police station where Smith had been held. What began as a nonviolent gathering soon erupted into a riot.
Residents threw rocks, smashing the station’s windows. Officers unsuccessfully tried to disperse the swelling crowd. As the riot grew, some protestors lobbed Molotov cocktails, setting a car on fire, while others looted stores.
The violence enveloped the city, and local police were ineffective at quelling the rising chaos. Mayor Hugh Addonizio asked the governor to call in the National Guard.
By the afternoon, 3,000 National Guardsmen descended on the city, but the protests continued for several days.
When the uprising finally ended five days after Smith’s arrest, 26 people were dead, 750 were injured, and more than 1,000 had been thrown in jail.
A few days later, Detroit residents clashed with the city’s police during a raid of an after-hours club.
It began in the wee hours of July 23, 1967. It was a hot and humid night, and residents flocked to a party at the Blind Pig, an illegally-operated club on the corner of Clairmount Avenue and 12th Street in Detroit. The city’s vice squad raided the club, shutting it down, but patrons would not leave. Outside, residents gathered to watch the commotion. The police began slowly hauling clubgoers away, and by the time they placed the last one in the back of a squad car, a small crowd had gathered on the corner.
The crowd began throwing bottles, sending one crashing through the window of a police car. The commotion drew thousands out of their homes and into the streets, and by dawn a full-blown riot was underway. People set buildings on fire, fought with the police and firemen who responded to calls for backup, and looted storefronts. The riot swelled and spread until the city was enveloped in flames.
The rioting raged for five days, prompting Mayor Jerome P. Cavanaugh to call in the National Guard. When the ashes settled, 43 people were dead, thousands more were injured, and nearly 7,000 people were arrested. The 12th Street riot was one of the worst in U.S. history.
The riots in Newark and Detroit were not isolated incidents. Three years earlier, during the summer of 1964, black residents in Harlem, Chicago, Philadelphia and Jersey City, N.J., had taken to the streets to protest police brutality.
That same year, Lyndon B. Johnson ran a successful campaign for the presidency, declaring open war on poverty. But the riots threatened his vision for a Great Society defined by equal rights and opportunity. By 1965, Johnson had reworked his agenda, adding programs aimed at combating rising crime. One of the most notable shifts came in the form of the Law Enforcement Assistance Act, which Johnson signed into law in the fall of 1965.
“The Great Society we are striving to build cannot become a reality unless we strike at the roots of crime, and strike again until we have brought it under our control,” read Johnson’s statement following the signing of the bill.
The bill was signed against the backdrop of rising crime rates and increasing segregation in America’s cities. The riots accelerated the flight of white residents to the suburbs, just as the second Great Migration pushed more and more African-Americans into urban areas. The predominately white police forces in increasingly black cities further exacerbated racial tensions. By 1968, a public opinion poll found that 81 percent of the respondents believed law and order had broken down in America.
By the time the Kerner commission report landed on Johnson’s desk, the foundation for a renewed focus on suppressing violence had already been laid, and the Law Enforcement Assistance Act had given the federal government new influence over local police activities.
The Act established the Office of Law Enforcement Assistance, which later led to the Office of Justice Programs in the Department of Justice, and tasked it with funding the development of new crime control methods. For the first time, the federal government was directly involved in improving the quality of state and local law enforcement programs.
The first draft of the commission’s report was penned by a group of social scientists hired to synthesize weeks of hearings and scores of interviews with witnesses of the violence. But the commission balked at the scientists’ first draft, entitled, “The Harvest of American Racism.” It offered a searing indictment of white racism toward black Americans, implicating the police as both a symbol and enforcer of white power. The scientists asserted that racism was a direct cause of the violent rebellions and urged the federal government to take action to prevent more unrest.
The initial draft asserted that black Americans would no longer tolerate living as second-class citizens, declaring that, “a truly revolutionary spirit has begun to take hold,” that black Americans were unwilling “to compromise or wait any longer” and would rather “risk death than have their people continue in a subordinate status."
But the bipartisan commission balked at the draft and compelled the scientists to tone down their findings before submitting a report to the president. They ordered the initial draft destroyed, and the second version put segregation and economic inequality at the center, shying away from the previous criticisms of the police. Today, the original draft rests in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., the word “DESTROY,” emblazoned across the front page.
“For all the criticisms of the police and the recommendations for change outlined in the report, they pale in comparison to the evidence that was actually produced,” said University of Oklahoma historian and author Steven M. Gillon. “The final document is a watered-down version of the evidence that had been collected in the field about the role the police played in creating the riots and responding in a way that made the situation worse.”
Gillon is the author of the forthcoming book, “Separate and Unequal: The Kerner Commission and the Unraveling of American Liberalism,” which explores the history of the commission. Gillon says the leaders Johnson appointed took issue with the scientists’ declaration that the police were poorly trained and that many in the black community no longer respected law enforcement.
Still, former Oklahoma Sen. Fred Harris, a Democrat and the last surviving member of the commission, said the members had a clear vision for addressing the fractured relationship between the police and the black community.
“We thought the police ought to look like the people they are dealing with,” he told The Marshall Project on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the report. “We were against the militarization of the police. We thought that tanks and automatic weapons had no place in urban areas. We thought the police ought to enforce the law on behalf of the community.”
“The police are not merely a spark factor. To some Negroes police have come to symbolize white power, white racism, and white repression. And the fact is that many police do reflect and express these white attitudes. The atmosphere of hostility and cynicism is reinforced by a widespread belief among Negroes in the existence of police brutality and the double standard of justice and protection — one for Negroes and one for whites.”
– Report of The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders
But Johnson had another focus.
“Racialized policing was not on the agenda and not on the program,” said Heather Ann Thompson, a Pulitzer Prize winning historian and author, “Economic development, that was Lyndon Johnson's hobby horse, so the commission becomes a game of political football around economic injustice.”
Thompson, who wrote a book detailing Detroit’s upheaval in the 1960’s and 70’s entitled, “Whose Detroit,” notes that the commission’s directives to invest in the black community were subsumed by Johnson’s focus on eliminating poverty and controlling crime. At the same time, in response to the violence, local leaders intensified their calls for police reform.
“The community was asking for community policing and other reforms, but simultaneously the federal government is advocating for more aggressive policing,” Thompson said.
Mayoral races in cities like Detroit, Philadelphia, Newark, and Cleveland, where the black population had grown weary of living in substandard conditions with ineffective policing, exemplified the push for reform. In the years following the riots, several black candidates made their way onto the ballots, thanks to the support of the cities’ black populations.
Many of the black mayoral candidates were calling for the integration of the police forces and civilian review boards to address complaints against the police. But success was mixed at best.
Cleveland had elected its first black mayor, Carl B. Stokes, in 1967. Before becoming mayor, Stokes served two terms in the Ohio House of Representatives. He wanted the police to treat black residents the same as whites, to integrate the department, and to end unnecessary violence against black people.
While Stokes’ suggestions were based largely on witnessing the injustices carried out by the police, his agenda gained credence from the 1966 Little Hoover Commission report. The commission, under the direction of Stokes' predecessor, conducted an in-depth study of the city’s administration and recommended major changes to the police department. Ultimately, Stokes’ vision was undermined by internal scandals and the Glenville riot in 1968, which left three Cleveland policemen dead.
In Detroit and Philadelphia, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction, away from reform. Residents elected former law enforcement agents to govern the cities, a decision widely understood as a reaction to the summer of violent protest. Instead of reform, residents pushed for greater law and order. In Philadelphia, former police commissioner Frank Rizzo became mayor. And in Detroit, former Wayne County Sheriff Roman S. Gribbs beat the city’s first black candidate, Richard H. Austin.
Under Gribbs, the police department launched a controversial anti-crime unit called STRESS, short for Stop the Robberies - Enjoy Safe Streets, to quell the robberies and petty violence that had taken over many of Detroit's black neighborhoods. The city’s black residents protested the new unit’s tactics, saying they were too aggressive. By the time Detroit’s first black Mayor, Coleman Young ended the STRESS program in 1974, officers had killed 20 civilians, the majority of whom were black.
Change progressed in fits and starts at the local level. While cities were divided over how best to respond to the riots and reform police departments, the biggest blow to meaningful improvement came from the federal government.
The Kerner commission had called for investment into urban areas to create new jobs, improve education, hasten integration, and improve housing conditions. Even though their suggestions aligned with the Great Society’s mission, Johnson was threatened by the findings, fearing that he would lose public support, especially from the white community who were reluctant to accept the role of racism in the riots. As crime rose, many saw stronger policing as the only way to address the violence. Johnson abruptly disbanded the commission and never publicly thanked its members for their work.
Johnson’s abandonment of the commission’s vision is perhaps most apparent in his signing of the Omnibus Crime Control Act of 1968, nearly six months after the Kerner commission submitted its report. The new law authorized $400 million in grants to states to provide new equipment and technical assistance to local police forces. It also built on the 1965 Law Enforcement Assistance Act, which had paved the way for increased federal involvement in local policing. The new law made the Office of Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, which was initially established under the 1965 act, permanent.
The federal government was now in the business of providing direct support to local police departments in the form of research, better weapons, and surveillance. Much of their work focused on understanding the social aspects of crime and preventing further riots.
“Under the new legislation, the federal government financially encouraged states to acquire surplus M-1 military carbines, army tanks, bulletproof vests, and walkie-talkies for local police by covering up to 90 percent of the costs of the riot prevention programs,” wrote Harvard historian Elizabeth Hinton in an journal article entitled “A War within our Own Boundaries.”
Hinton argues that Johnson’s Great Society programs coupled with his increasing focus on preventing violent uprisings in the black community, “laid the groundwork for contemporary mass incarceration.” What started as anti-poverty programs had morphed into programs to control violent crime.
The Kerner commission's findings are widely hailed as one of the most insightful and enduring analyses of racial and economic inequality in America. But the commission’s recommendations were largely ignored. In their place, Johnson and his successor, Richard Nixon, emphasized tough-on-crime law enforcement policies that would sweep up millions of black Americans into the criminal justice system, further fracturing the relationship between the police and the people they are sworn to protect.
When residents of Ferguson took to the streets in 2014 after a police officer killed teenager Michael Brown, national media pointed back to the Kerner commission’s findings, noting that little had changed since 1968 with respect to economic inequality and police-community relations.
In the ensuing years, residents in Chicago, St. Paul, Baton Rouge, and Baltimore broke out in protest when black men died after run-ins with the police.
On the surface, the cause of the protests seemed clear. In many instances, protesters were responding to an incident of fatal police force, while the officers involved were either acquitted, not indicted or not charged. In contrast to the Kerner commission, investigations into the causes of the riots have tended to focus directly on the role of the police. In Ferguson, the Department of Justice concluded that years of racially biased police practices had created an atmosphere of tension and resentment between Ferguson’s black residents and the police force, which turned to rage and protest after Brown was killed. The department’s report on Ferguson’s police lays out a set of guidelines aimed at creating “meaningful and sustainable reform” within the department.
In response to the civil unrest, President Barack Obama convened the Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Just as Johnson had gathered the Kerner commission to find out the causes of the riots, Obama empowered his task force to gather community input on how to improve policing and mend the broken relationship between the police and the black community.
But unlike Kerner, Obama’s task force came back with a report that centers on reforms to police departments. There is little mention of the role of poverty and enduring economic inequality in creating crime and violence. For Malcolm Holmes, a sociologist at the University of Wyoming, whose work focuses on police brutality, the task force's findings are understandable, but misguided.
“We talk about changes in policing — they are important, but I don't think anything is going to change until we deal with these underlying issues of social inequality,” Holmes said.
Holmes argues that the Kerner commission's findings actually provide a framework for ending police violence. His research shows that black people living in disadvantaged neighborhoods with high segregation are at the highest risk of police violence, and that it is the environment that puts residents at risk. In neighborhoods with high segregation and poverty, the police are more likely to use excessive force, which he interprets as a reaction to fear, prejudice against the black community, and past experiences with community violence. Holmes says it’s one of the reasons reforms focused on sensitivity and diversity haven’t been effective.
“You can't put the police officers in a training seminar for a day and expect them to change their worldview,” he said. “It flies in the face of what they see on the job.”
Holmes’s theory helps to explain why the Justice Department found that police still unnecessarily used excessive force in Detroit in 2003 and in Newark in 2014 despite the fact that the departments had become increasingly diverse.
In 2015, the Department of Justice released a resource guide for local law enforcement designed to help police departments across the country implement the recommendations outlined by Obama's task force. The guidelines focus on steps departments can take to build trust and support, strengthen police oversight, promote officer safety, and make use of new crime-fighting technologies. But the the Justice Department under the Trump administration has backed away from the Obama-era reforms, and has routinely promoted its commitment to tough-on-crime policies.
For Harris, the author of a new book entitled, “Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America 50 Years After the Kerner Report.” the original message of the commission is still just as important today as it was in 1968. It is racial and economic inequality, he insists, that drive both police violence and the subsequent community response.
“There is no way you can solve those problems with the police unless you get at these intertwined issues of race and poverty.”