Joan Wong

In July 1967, when President Lyndon B. Johnson formed a commission to analyze the riots then engulfing several major American cities, the radical wing of the civil-rights movement eyed his appointees with grave skepticism. Not only did the 11-person commission abound with the most conventional of politicians—including its chairman, Illinois Governor Otto Kerner—but a mere two of them were black. Racial militants might have tolerated that paltry number of seats had they been occupied by firebrands such as Stokely Carmichael, who popularized the term black power, or H. Rap Brown, who routinely railed against “the honkies.” These brazen embodiments of the new generation of civil-rights activism would have reliably conveyed the concerns and frustrations of black youth—a presumably vital task for the commission, given that most rioters ranged from 15 to 24 years old.

Instead of black insurgents, however, Johnson tapped the longtime NAACP doyen Roy Wilkins and Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, two men broadly regarded as more acquainted with executive suites than with edgy streets. Detractors viewed Wilkins as so fearful of bucking the Johnson administration that they branded him “Roy Weak-knees.” Although Brooke had recently become the first black person popularly elected to the Senate, national media observed that his time as state attorney general and his personal attributes hardly endeared him to black radicals, who stopped just shy of labeling him an Uncle Tom. “Because of his pale skin, his Episcopalian faith, his reserved New England manner,” Time magazine noted, Brooke “is looked upon as what might be described as a ‘NASP’—the Negro equivalent of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.” Both Wilkins and Brooke, moreover, had sharply repudiated the nascent black-power movement, going so far as to equate it with white supremacy. Whereas Brooke called Carmichael and the arch-segregationist Lester Maddox “extremists of black power and white power,” Wilkins termed Carmichael’s ethos “a reverse Mississippi, a reverse Hitler, a reverse Ku Klux Klan.”

With these pillars of the establishment speaking on behalf of African Americans, black-power advocates were convinced that the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders—as the body was officially named—would sanitize America’s ugly racial realities. A few months before the commission’s findings appeared in a document typically called the Kerner Report, the journalist Elizabeth Drew confirmed in these pages that “the word has gone out among the militant Negroes that the commission is a fink operation … and is not to be cooperated with.” She added: “No one here is betting … that the commission’s product will differ radically from one that [LBJ] wants.”

Surprisingly, when the Kerner Report surfaced, in February 1968, black-power supporters felt cheered, and President Johnson was chagrined. H. Rap Brown, who was in a Louisiana jail cell for inciting a crowd, released an exultant statement: “The members of the commission should be put in jail under $100,000 bail each because they’re saying essentially what I’ve been saying.” For his part, an infuriated LBJ canceled the White House ceremony where he had been scheduled to accept a bound copy of the report, avoided public commentary on the eagerly anticipated document, and refused to sign customary letters recognizing the commissioners for their service. But Johnson’s effort to ignore the report failed utterly. The Kerner Report became an instant publishing phenomenon; Bantam sold almost 1 million paperbacks in the first two weeks. Public appetite ran so strong that Marlon Brando read aloud excerpts of the volume on a late-night television talk show.

Fifty years have now elapsed since the Kerner Report appeared, but even in our current age of woke-ness, the document stands out for its unvarnished, unflinching identification of “white racism” as the fundamental cause of urban unrest. Works written by committees (especially government committees) have a well-deserved reputation for inducing somnolence, but the Kerner Report somehow managed to frame its indictment of racial oppression in several stirring formulations that have endured. “What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto,” the commission stated. “White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” The report warned, in perhaps its most celebrated passage: “Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”

Some aspects of the report may resonate even more loudly today than they did in the late 1960s. For example, the commission’s repeated emphasis on the role of police brutality in alienating black citizens and sowing the seeds of urban discontent now assumes added significance, given the many images of unarmed black men whose deaths at the hands of the state have been seared into the national psyche. Indeed, some of the report’s assessments could—eerily and depressingly—have been written yesterday to describe America’s recent racial disturbances, in locales ranging from Ferguson, Missouri, to Baltimore, Maryland: “Almost invariably the incident that ignites disorder arises from police action.” Apart from its sharply phrased critique of the riots’ origins, the report promoted an ambitious policy agenda, including major measures in the domains of education, employment, housing, and welfare.

How did a government document that black radicals anticipated would be a whitewash end up instead denouncing “white racism”? This improbable turn of events animates Steven M. Gillon’s deft, incisive, and altogether absorbing history of the Kerner Commission, which he convincingly depicts as “the last gasp of 1960s liberalism—the last full-throated declaration that the federal government should play a leading role in solving deeply embedded problems such as racism and poverty.”

The puzzle of the commission’s severe assessment of the conditions plaguing urban America only intensifies when one considers that Johnson held leverage over its chairman. It was widely understood that the Illinois governor hoped LBJ would nominate him to a federal judgeship. But Gillon, a history professor at the University of Oklahoma, makes clear that Kerner served merely as a figurehead. The commission’s executive director, David Ginsburg—a fixture of liberal legal circles since the New Deal—shaped the report’s general approach, tenor, and language more than any official commissioner did, helping forge a fragile consensus among its members. Yet identifying the report’s central force also fails to explain its bracing conclusions. After all, LBJ chose Ginsburg for the important, if under-the-radar, senior staff position precisely because he was a Johnson loyalist, one who, as Elizabeth Drew put it, enjoyed a reputation as “the insider’s insider.”

LBJ was far from inexperienced in the ways of blue-ribbon panels. During his five years in the Oval Office, he appointed a staggering 20 commissions. This prolific rate prompted at least one source to confer on Johnson the dubious nickname “the Great Commissioner.” (One suspects that Abraham Lincoln would not have been tempted to swap appellations.)

With LBJ’s hand-selected personnel at the helm of a well-oiled apparatus, the question remains: Why did the Kerner Report assume its pungent tone and advance bold proposals rather than simply blessing the Great Society programs in anodyne language? Three primary reasons emerge from Gillon’s meticulous re-creation of the proceedings.

First, the commissioners’ visits to riot-torn cities around the country proved galvanizing. Some members had a vague understanding of life in ghettos, but the conditions they witnessed firsthand were far more dire than anything they had imagined. Unemployment was pervasive, schools had insufficient funds and virtually no white students, and neighborhoods lacked access to adequate sanitation. More sobering still was the profound sense of disillusionment and anger that the commissioners encountered.

In Detroit, Michigan, and in Newark, New Jersey, where the two deadliest disturbances of 1967 occurred, many rioters declared that they would not fight for the United States, even in a major war. During one particularly unnerving field visit, in Cincinnati, Ohio, a young Presbyterian minister who held a degree from Columbia University calmly informed the commission that the recent spate of violence represented “just the beginning.”

Look, man, we’re hip to you white people. We know … it’s no good trying to appeal to your morals; you’ve shown you don’t have any morals. The only thing you believe in is your property—that’s what this country is all about, baby—so we are going to burn it down.

Second, such provocative encounters convinced the commission that only tough language would reach its dual intended audiences. For white Americans, the commissioners concluded that firm rhetoric was necessary to jolt them out of their collective slumber about the nation’s inner cities. Shortly before the report appeared, one member—Senator Fred Harris of Oklahoma—explained: “I believe that white people in America are decent people [and that] if they can be shown the terrible conditions in which other Americans live and how this threatens our society, they will join together to try to solve these problems.”

For black Americans, by contrast, tough rhetoric was required to prevent the black-power movement from gaining more adherents. The report expressly condemned black-power advocates for retreating from the integrationist vision and dismissed the self-styled revolutionaries as mere Booker T. Washingtons with attitudes. But for those criticisms to seem credible, the report also needed to contain language excoriating the nation’s racist past and present.

Finally, the Kerner Report was shaped by a desire to avoid the hostile receptions that had greeted two recent governmental tracts. Following the Watts riots in 1965, a California report explained the violence by invoking what came to be known as “the riffraff theory,” the notion that a group of perpetual misfits (many of whom had migrated from the South) had plotted the unrest. Scholars immediately assailed this view, and the commission’s own profile of the typical rioter in 1967 belied the stereotype: Generally, rioters were educated, lifelong residents of their city who—crucially—had at least seen or suffered police brutality. Also in 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report chronicling the increase in single motherhood in black families, with its emphasis on cultural and psychological factors, drew fierce criticism for “blaming the victim.” These cautionary tales primed the Kerner Commission to focus on structural obstacles confronting black communities, rather than on the supposed personal failings of the rioters.

Half a century later, the nation’s racial demographics have upended the black–white paradigm that prevailed in 1968; no serious analysis of race could now disregard that increased diversity. Even more distant from the current national climate, however, is the commission’s repeated insistence that the fate of inner-city African Americans stands inextricably connected to that of their fellow citizens. To take just one example, the report stated:

This Nation is confronted with the issue of justice for all its people—white as well as black, rural as well as urban … In speaking of the Negro, we do not speak of “them.” We speak of us—for the freedoms and opportunities of all Americans are diminished and imperiled when they are denied to some Americans.

Though such sentiments in 1968 may have been more aspirational than actual, the collective perspective now sounds lamentably alien.

Yet the continuities between the Kerner Commission era and contemporary realities seem even more pronounced than the ruptures. In the political realm, a direct line connects Richard Nixon’s successful campaign for the White House in 1968 to our most recent presidential election. Nixon disparaged the Kerner Commission’s findings as too permissive, playing up his promise to restore “law and order” in America. “I am the law-and-order candidate,” Donald Trump pledged to a crowd in Virginia Beach in July 2016, and since assuming office he has practiced a singularly divisive brand of politics, seldom missing a chance to pit “them” against “us.” Furthermore, while many African Americans have made momentous strides in the past five decades, cities still contain destitute neighborhoods filled with racial minorities, which—as in the late 1960s—serve as breeding grounds for despair and alienation. The Fair Housing Act of 1968—the only major tangible legislative achievement traceable to the Kerner Report—has failed to address those grim pockets of isolation.

When LBJ spoke briefly to the commissioners at the start of their undertaking, he tasked them with answering three basic questions about the recent unrest: “What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?” On the Kerner Report’s 50th anniversary, the stubborn persistence of racial ghettos gives rise to another, deeply disconcerting query: Why hasn’t it happened more frequently?

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