The commission’s report, written by the executive director, David Ginsburg, an establishment liberal lawyer of New Deal vintage, appeared at the end of February 1968. It became an instant million-copy best seller. Its language is bracing by the standards of any era: “What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” The report called for far-reaching policy reforms in housing, employment, education, and policing, to stop the country from becoming “two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”
Anne Applebaum: History will judge the complicit
It was too much for Johnson, who resented not being credited for his efforts to achieve civil rights and eradicate poverty, and whose presidency had just been engulfed by the Tet Offensive in South Vietnam. He shelved the report. A few weeks later, on the evening of April 4, Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis. The next night, Johnson—who had just announced that he wouldn’t run for reelection—spoke to a country whose cities were burning from coast to coast. “It is the fiber and the fabric of the republic that’s being tested,” he said. “If we are to have the America that we mean to have, all men of all races, all regions, all religions must stand their ground to deny violence its victory in this sorrowful time, and in all times to come. Last evening, after receiving the terrible news of Dr. King’s death, my heart went out to his family and to his people, especially to the young Americans who I know must sometimes wonder if they are to be denied a fullness of life because of the color of their skin.” To an aide, he was more blunt in assessing the uprising: “What did you expect? I don’t know why we’re surprised. When you put your foot on a man’s neck and hold him down for 300 years, and then you let him up, what’s he going to do? He’s going to knock your block off.”
King’s murder and the riots it sparked propelled Congress to pass, by an overwhelming and bipartisan margin, the decade’s last major piece of civil-rights legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which enforced fair standards in housing. Johnson signed it on April 11. It was too late. The very best reports, laws, and presidential speeches couldn’t contain the anger in the streets. That year, 1968, was when reform was overwhelmed by radicalization on the left and reaction on the right. We still live in the aftermath. The language and ideas of the Kerner Report have haunted the years since—a reminder of a missed chance.
The difference between 1968 and 2020 is the difference between a society that failed to solve its biggest problem and a society that no longer has the means to try. A year before his death, King, still insisting on nonviolent resistance, called riots “the language of the unheard.” The phrase implies that someone could be made to hear, and possibly answer. What’s happening today doesn’t feel the same. The protesters aren’t speaking to leaders who might listen, or to a power structure that might yield, except perhaps the structure of white power, which is too vast and diffuse to respond. Congress isn’t preparing a bill to address root causes; Congress no longer even tries to solve problems. No president, least of all this one, could assemble a commission of respected figures from different sectors and parties to study the problem of police brutality and produce a best-selling report with a consensus for fundamental change. A responsible establishment doesn’t exist. Our president is one of the rioters.