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“The American Dream Does Not Yet Exist for All Our Citizens”: Kerner Commission Members Discuss Civil Unrest

President Lyndon Johnson formed an 11-member National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders in July 1967 to explain the riots that plagued cities each summer since 1964 and to provide recommendations for the future. The Commission’s 1968 report, informally known as the Kerner Report, concluded that the nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Unless conditions were remedied, the Commission warned, the country faced a “system of ’apartheid’” in its major cities. The Kerner report delivered an indictment of “white society” for isolating and neglecting African Americans and urged legislation to promote racial integration and to enrich slums—primarily through the creation of jobs, job training programs, and decent housing. President Johnson, however, rejected the recommendations. In April 1968, one month after the release of the Kerner report, rioting broke out in more than 100 cities following the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. In the following statements to a joint Congressional committee, two Commission members summarized their findings and recommended the creation of jobs. In 1998, 30 years after the Kerner Report, Harris co-authored a study that found the racial divide had grown in the ensuing years with inner-city unemployment at crisis levels. Opposing voices argued that the Commission’s prediction of separate societies failed to materialize due to a marked increase in the number of African Americans living in suburbs.


Senator HARRIS. . . .

I would first like to take this opportunity at the beginning to speak briefly about some of the fundamental issues—rather broader than unemployment and underemployment alone—which the Commission believed lie at the heart of our urban and racial crisis.

My colleagues and I on the Commission said that three basics causes, always present in the American experience, but never so intensely as now, have merged and reinforced each other in post-World War II years to create the inflammatory mixture which has exploded in the form of our terrible urban disorders of the past several years. Those three causes, we said in effect, are racism, powerlessness, and poverty.

Racism has been central to American history. We have always temporized and compromised with it, but have never come close to destroying it. Racism is the No. 1 mental health problem of America; it cripples far more children and adults than schizophrenia or mental retardation. And I speak both of the victims of racism as well as those who are taught it. Some people have mistakenly assumed that when the Commission spoke of racism we had in mind just the intense personal animosity many whites express toward Negroes and members of other minority groups. Not at all. We were equally concerned with the sort of racism you cannot see very well if you are white but which Negroes experience every day of their lives-the racism built into the very institutions of American society, the racism which systematically and quite impersonally excludes most Negroes from a decent education, from a livable home, from a chance to set up and run a business, and—most important of all—from a decent, dignified job at a living wage.

Lack of political power is the second factor which underlies disorders. This is a country now in which most of our people live in and around cities, where human relationships are very impersonal, where decisions affecting the lives and environment of large numbers of people are made by huge, distant corporations, or inaccessible planning commissions or zoning boards. Everyone I think, experiences the desire to have more power over his own life, and over the private and governmental decisions which affect his life. We all feel restless and uneasy about the fact that we don’t have that kind of power. For a poor person, that feeling of powerlessness is worse. And if that person is young, it is worse still. And if he is poor, young, and black as well, that sense of powerlessness is simply overwhelming.

The Commission, as the committee knows, made very detailed recommendations in both these fields. We were not sure how racist attitudes could be changed but we made very detailed recommendations about how to change behavior. For example, we recommend giving the Federal Government cease and desist powers in the employment field, on contracts and in other types of employment where Federal funds are involved with respect to the really basic need of each individual, and especially a poor person, to exercise some control over his environment and life, we spoke of multiservice centers, governmental centers down in the ghettos where people actually live, and a greater effort to involve people in decisionmaking and to incorporate them again into society.

Measured in numbers of poor people, poverty has been declining for some years in America. But a higher and higher proportion of the remaining poor are people who won’t be helped very much, if at all, by an expanding economy. Economic growth in this country occurs essentially through the expansion of highly complex, technical industries which have very little use for people with low skills, physical infirmities, large families, or who are too old or too young to be employed. And it is these classes of the poor which have been growing proportionately larger in recent years.

For a variety of reasons, which I would like to discuss in some detail, the Commission on Civil Disorders felt that tremendously expanded employment and job-training opportunities were the single most important recommendation we could make toward the solution of these three underlying causes of urban disorder.

We stated that “Unemployment and underemployment are among the persistent and serious grievances of disadvantaged minorities. The pervasive effect of these conditions on the racial ghetto” we said, “is inextricably linked to the problem of civil disorder.” . . .

I am personally convinced that there will be no more important piece of social legislation before the Congress this session than the Emergency Employment and Training Act. That statement may sound like an exaggeration but, for a number of reasons, I do not believe that it is. First, in every survey of ghetto grievances examined by the Commission, the difficulty or impossibility of finding and keeping suitable and dignified employment at a decent wage was invariably cited as either the first or second most important complaint of ghetto residents. (The grievance competing for first place with employment problems was the attitude of the police toward ghetto residents.)

Second, since the elimination of poverty in its simplest and most fundamental form—that is, poverty as lack of money—requires only that we provide poor people with sufficient income, the Clark bill would make considerable progress toward that end by allowing 2.5 million people now living in poverty to earn a decent income for themselves and their families.

Third, the jobs and job training provided by this bill—unlike other more direct methods of income maintenance—will repay their costs many times over through the contribution made to national productivity and national income by employees trained and put to work under the legislation. The GI bill of rights is a wonderful example of the great benefits America can realize from an investment in human resources development.

Fourth, I think it is important for social and psychological reasons that we try to relieve poverty as much as possible through employment rather than through alternative income maintenance schemes. If a person can work, a job is preferable to other forms of income maintenance because, as the Commission found:

The capacity to obtain and hold a “good job” is the traditional test of participation in American society. Steady employment with adequate compensation provides both purchasing power and social status. It develops the capabilities, confidence, and self-esteem an individual needs to be a responsible citizen and provides a basis for a stable family life. . . .


Representative CORMAN. I appreciate the opportunity afforded me to express myself on matters which are of the gravest concern to us all. The continuing explosions of frustration and bitterness in our streets remind us that the American dream does not yet exist for all our citizens. Daily news reports warn of the ever-deepening crisis in our cities. As you know, the present deterioration of urban life prompted the President to create a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. As a member of that Commission, I became aware of the tragedy which has befallen a substantial number of our Nation’s youth. Ill educated, and without salable skill, these young people are unable to secure employment. Without a stake in the existing social structure, they have become hostile to authority and thoroughly embittered. These people are often at the core of the social unrest gripping our cities. The Commission found that young Negroes, aged 14–24, are “responsible for a disproportionately high share of crimes in all parts of the Nation. In 1966, persons under 25 years of age comprised the following proportions of those arrested for various major crimes: burglary, 81 percent; larceny, about 75 percent; auto theft, over 80 percent.” We must take action to reclaim these individuals, both for their own sake and for the sake of American society.

The past 7 years, for some Americans, has been a period of great economic progress and affluence. Yet, in spite of this urge of economic growth, the unemployment rate for Negroes in 1967 was more than double that for whites. For Negro teenagers, the situation has not perceptibility improved since 1961. In 1961, the unemployment rate for Negro teenagers was 27.6 percent; in 1967, it was 26.5 percent. The 1968 manpower report of the president, released last month, states that:

No inroads have been made into the extremely serious problem of nonwhite teenage joblessness. While the unemployment rate for white teenagers dropped as the economic climate improved, among nonwhite teenagers the rate in 1967 was actually higher than in 1960. One out of every four nonwhite teenagers was unemployed in 1967, almost 2.5 times the proportion for white teenagers, whereas in 1960 the ration was less than 2 to 1.

This problem will be compounded, because the number of nonwhite young people expected to enter the labor force by 1975 will be even greater. It is estimated that the number of nonwhite workers will increase by 26 percent, while the number of young white workers will grow by only 18 percent. The search for jobs will be made even more difficult, because employers will be seeking larger numbers of workers whose education and training has equipped them for positions in a highly technical economy.

The problem which is before us now is one of utilizing neglected human resources. People without jobs are people without basic economic security, self-sufficiency, or self respect. Employment is the only longrun solution which can allow an individual to become a contributing member of his society, and not merely a recipient of its charity. Any other help we provide will only be temporary. Thus far, there has been little evidence that Negro teenagers do not want to work. Whenever job programs are announced, they turn out in large numbers to find the jobs are not there. In Oakland, for instance, a job fair attracted 15,000 people—250 were placed in jobs. What we have found is that Negro teenagers would not accept dead end employment—jobs that pay little and promise no advancement or training.

I would like to underline what Senator Harris said. I do not think there are any of us who did not go through a period of his life where he had a menial job to do for a little wage. But each of us knew that it was temporary. It was a step toward something much better. For the young Negro who looks at the adult males around him and sees that they never moved out of those positions, it is quite a different thing.

They want to be part of the affluent America they see depicted on television, and will no longer be content to be trapped behind a broom. What we must now undertake is a program which will reach the alienated youth of the ghetto. We must no longer tolerate job programs which merely make work, or programs which promise employment and then fail to deliver. These endeavors have only produced a cynicism which views our efforts as a cruel hoax. What we need are jobs—jobs which provide training at work while paying a living wage. Jobs which promise advancement.

The President in his manpower message to Congress has requested for fiscal year 1969 an appropriation of $2.088 billion for manpower programs to reach an estimated 1.3 million Americans. The National Alliance of Businessmen called on by the President to provide job opportunities in the business sector has already pledged 111,000 jobs—66,000 of them permanent, 45,000 of them summer jobs for poor young people. The President has asked the alliance to put 100,000 people on the job by June 1969.

The Commission has recommended that 1 million new jobs be created over the next 3 years in both the public and private sectors. This would be a major step toward achieving our goal of full employment. It is now estimated that there are 500,000 hard-core unemployed who live within the central cities. Nationally, 2 million are unemployed, and 10 million are underemployed, of whom approximately 6.5 million work full time and earn less that the annual poverty wage.

The Commission strongly urges that public employment programs, such as operation mainstream and new careers, which are under the Economic Opportunity Act, be consolidated and expanded to provide necessary work-experience and on-the-job training. Our man power policy has not fully explored the potential which exists in the sector of public employment. . . .

Source: Congress, Joint Economic Committee, Employment and Manpower Problems in the Cities: Implications of the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, 91th Congress, 1968 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1968).