Holy Week: Prophecy
Part 5: Leaders hope to stop that which had been foretold
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Matthew Nimetz: Do you want something?
Vann R. Newkirk II: I’ll take …
Nimetz: If anyone wants a cookie …
Newkirk: Thank you. I’ll grab one after we finish. [Laughter.]
All right, so did you actually start that July?
Nimetz: Let’s see … I started ’66, let’s see; I clerked in ’65, ’66—yeah, ’67 … July ’67.
Newkirk: So you started it in the long, hot summer?
Nimetz: Yeah, it was tough and we had the Detroit riots as I was arriving—actually, the day I arrived, the riots …
Newkirk: Matthew Nimetz started working at the White House in the summer of 1967—the long, hot summer, when Detroit, Newark, and dozens of other places erupted in riots for days. The summer before King was assassinated.
Reporter: This is part of Springfield Avenue, Newark. On the night of July 13, 1967, hundreds of rioters smashed windows and looted these stores. Losses in the city were put at $10,251,000. The rioting cost the lives of 23 persons. Hundreds of others were injured.
Reporter: We are back on 12th Street in Detroit’s northwestern district, where it all began early Sunday morning. The state troopers [and] city police, here on the scene of this particular fire and numerous others in the city of Detroit, for the first time are under orders to shoot any looters or arsonists seen running from the scene.
Nimetz: We did a lot of work on riot preparation, riot control, what we would do with riots. This whole idea of the military going into our cities was a unique thing and very, very difficult, very questionable.
Newkirk: By the time Matthew started working for President Johnson, the ghettos in America had gone up for three straight years. But the uprisings in Detroit and Newark in 1967 became notorious, both for their destructiveness and for how brutally police and the military cracked down on them. White Americans were perplexed: Why were the Black ghettos rioting so regularly, so often? President Johnson resolved to find out.
Lyndon B. Johnson: We need to know the answer, I think, to three basic questions about these riots: What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?
Newkirk: To answer these questions, Johnson appointed a commission. They would travel to Black ghettos across the country, researching, interviewing, trying to find answers. He called it the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, nicknamed the Kerner Commission, after its chair. In order to head off another summer of riots, the commission had to work fast. By February ’68, two months before King’s assassination, the powder keg was already lit: State troopers fired into a crowd of Black students protesting a segregated bowling alley outside South Carolina State University.
Cleveland Sellers: See, the police were standing on the side of that hill, and while I’m going down, the shots hit me.
Reporter: Three Negros were killed and 36 others were injured in a fight with police.
Newkirk: The Orangeburg massacre, they called it. The Kerner Commission’s report was released to the public the same month.
Harry Reasoner (journalist): For the last few days, this country has lived under indictment: a charge of white racism, national in scale, terrible in its effects. The evidence to support that charge has now been presented—more than 1,400 pages of testimony, findings, conclusions, the full text of a report released just last night.
Newkirk: Committees in Washington don’t usually do much. They’re the kind of thing a president approves when they want to be seen as doing something. The commissioners were mostly white, mostly moderates, not radicals by any stretch. So when Otto Kerner came out saying stuff like this:
Otto Kerner: Our nation is moving toward two societies: one Black, one white …
Newkirk: … it was a bit of a shock.
Kerner: … separate and unequal.
Newkirk: The report found that racism was the main cause of Negro riots.The commissioners named dismal housing conditions, continued segregation in education, police brutality, and discrimination in hiring as the primary factors. Their eyes had been opened. They hoped that naming things so plainly and so boldly would move the public to understand.
Kerner: Reaction to last summer’s disorders has quickened the movement and deepened the division. Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life. They now threaten the future of every American.
Newkirk: For much of America, this was a surprising conclusion. But for the leaders of the civil-rights movement, it was old news. They had been working for years to find solutions to the problem of the ghetto. In 1966, Martin Luther King joined an effort by his colleague Bayard Rustin and labor leader A. Philip Randolph to create a policy platform for the movement. Their “Freedom Budget” called for the federal government to end all poverty, Black or white, by spending billions on housing, a jobs guarantee, universal health care, and a federal minimum wage. Their demands were radical, but not unique. Whitney Young of the National Urban League wanted the government to commit to a domestic Marshall Plan to rebuild Black America the way it had been rebuilding Germany after World War II. Some reporters called his proposal the Negro Marshall Plan.
Whitney Young: But if we can say to the community, This is going to take 10 years, but next year this is what you can look for, everybody will have a job. Everybody. And remember, I’m asking you not just to hire the Phi Beta Kappas and the Lena Hornes; I’m asking you also to let apply and to hire dumb Negroes like you do dumb white people [Laughter], and mediocre Negroes like you do mediocre white people.
Newkirk: Now, in March 1968, the Kerner Commission joined the calls of King and Young: The Federal government needed to back Black America. Their recommendations were no more moderate or incremental. They echoed the “Freedom Budget” and the Negro Marshall Plan. The commissioners wanted 6 million new homes built for Black folks, and 2 million new jobs created.
Reasoner: … a guarantee of minimum income; far greater aid to schools than proposed thus far; a national commitment backed by the president, the Congress, the people with money.
Reporter: The commission itself did not say how much all of this would cost. The estimated cost is $8–10 billion a year more than the administration has asked for housing, education, welfare, and job programs. Dr. Martin Luther King, who is planning a new march on Washington, has been urging that kind of spending for a long time.
Newkirk: The commissioners tried to convince Americans—white Americans—that this was their problem to help fix, but they were fighting an uphill battle. Support of liberal urban and suburban white folks from the North had been vital in the civil-rights movement. In the years of the riots though, that support began to wane.
Reporter: [Gunshot] A grandmother fearful she’s part of what the president’s report calls the polarization of the American community. Talk in the suburbs of tanks and troops and terror [Gunshot] in the streets has led her to the pistol range.
Grandmother: Well, if there’s going to be another riot, I want to be prepared. And let me tell you one thing: He better not show his face in front of my house, because if it means my own life, I’d shoot him. Fear is fear, and when you get fear into you, you’ll do anything.
Man: Everyone’s afraid of the colored race lately. Everyone seems to be scared to make them obey the laws, which is something that doesn't happen to Joe Blow, like me or the guy next door. We’ll get thrown in jail for some of these actions.
Newkirk: In the days after the Kerner Report was released, news stations ran special reports about it. Newspapers put it on their covers. Everyone seemed to have something to say about the report. But Lyndon B. Johnson, the man who had called for the report seven months ago, hadn’t said a word.
Nimetz: It was an embarrassment. I think the president’s view, as I remember it, filtered through Joe Califano and others, was that it would be a ringing endorsement of his vision. That is a vision of a country with more and more Great Society social programs and more and more civil-rights acts.
Newkirk: Matthew Nimetz was a staff assistant to the president at the time. He says that Johnson didn’t like the report at all. The idea that there were two societies that were moving apart challenged his legacy as the builder of the Great Society.
Nimetz: I didn’t see him react. But, you know, the word around the place was, I’m not going to meet with these people. Get them out of town as soon as possible, and let’s bury this report.
Newkirk: Matthew was one of the young guys, just 29 when he came to work for the White House. But he had big responsibilities, including being one of the liaisons between Johnson and this new commission. It wasn’t the first time he’d been asked to bury a report.
Nimetz: We would often bury our reports. I mean, we set up task forces. And if they were going down a path that was not sympathetic to where we wanted to go, we would cut off their money and not help them out and sort of bury the report.
Newkirk: But the Kerner Report was too big to bury. A national debate swirled for weeks and weeks. Conservatives called the commissioners soft, and complained that their recommendations amounted to essentially rewarding lawbreakers. Some Black leaders embraced the report. Some said that it was simply stating the obvious. Johnson continued to slow-walk it, ignoring the recommendations. Mostly, each side waited until unrest came again, to vindicate their position. And then came the assassination.
Reporter: At least 4000 National Guard and federal troops are in this uneasy town tonight and more stand ready.
Reporter: The entire Metropolitan Park and Capitol Police forces are on alert.
Newkirk: It was Johnson’s nightmare, brought to his front steps. His staff watched as Black D.C. burned. They brought in machine guns and troops to protect the White House, to keep the rage contained in the ghettos.
The rebellion spread though, between neighborhoods and between cities. Even in cities that didn’t go up on the first night, uprisings were becoming common, even accelerating.
The SCLC and other Black leaders were pressing the White House to finally embrace the Kerner Commission’s report, and to champion a bill bigger and more expensive than anything they’d ever put on the table.
In white America, calls for law and order were growing, and becoming harder to ignore politically.The pressure was building. Johnson and his staff had to do something. But what was to be done? Which story, which diagnosis, which cure, would the White House listen to?
John Chambers (journalist): I’m standing here in front of a broken store window two blocks from the White House. The looters are still scuffling through the broken glass. The police are coming across the street. Here comes a teenager.
Teenager: It’s a shame. It’s a shame. It’s a shame. But I’m gonna get my shit.
Chambers: At the end of the block, an onlooker.
Onlooker: Oh God.
Chambers: What do you think it’s all coming to?
Onlooker: Well, you’ve got a man like Wallace in here and they’ll have police on every corner with orders to shoot to kill. That’s the only thing that’ll stop them.
Newkirk: Part 5: “Prophecy.”
Nimetz: So when King died, the first thing is, how major do you want to make this?
Newkirk: The night of the assassination, the White House scrambled to figure out how to respond. The riots demanded urgency, but there still wasn’t much consensus among staff. Some of them still resented King for opposing the Vietnam War. They argued about how they could properly honor a man devoted to peace. The first step they settled on was to declare a national day of mourning and to order states to lower their flags to half-mast. Then they decided on a second step: bringing civil-rights leaders to the White House, first thing in the morning. But even then, White House staff argued about how to do it.
Nimetz: You invite everyone. What do you do with the meeting? I mean, is it a ceremonial meeting? You know, you run the risk of all of them saying now’s the time to do the Marshall Plan and all the other things. We worried about that a little bit, that the meeting with the Black leaders would get out of hand, like the Kerner Commission, in a way.
Newkirk: As the sun rose the next morning, the Kerner Commission’s warnings had been made real. In D.C., Stokely Carmichael had reemerged and prepared to give his press conference predicting the beginning of a race war. Journalists and politicians were already blaming him and H. Rap Brown for the riots. At the same time, a group of Black leaders were also in the nation’s capital, on their way to the White House.
Reporter: President Johnson, with his Honolulu high-level conference held in abeyance by the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King, will meet with unspecified civil-rights leaders today at the White House.
Newkirk: The White House planned to meet and greet, and do some photo-op stuff. The idea was to show people, especially Black people, that Johnson was taking things seriously, and that he had a plan. The people who showed up were a who’s who of Black activism and politics in the ’60s. Martin Luther King Sr. was too ill to make it, but he sent a message. Some others stayed back to deal with riots in their communities. But lots of big names made it: Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court justice; Dorothy Height, of the National Council of Negro Women; Bayard Rustin, who had been one of King’s close associates.
Nimetz: The president says if Wilkins, Whitney Young, and a couple of others can make it, to go ahead.
Newkirk: Whitney Young, of the National Urban League, and Roy Wilkins, of the NAACP, were both invited. But, there weren’t a whole lot of younger leaders on the list. Radical SNCC folks like Stokely Carmichael, they were out. Anybody affiliated with the Black Panthers or the Nation of Islam was also out.
The exclusion of more radical leaders meant that Johnson wouldn’t hear from some of the people who had the most connection to young people engaged in uprisings. But for the White House, that really didn’t matter.
Nimetz: You have a lot of meetings when you’re in government that are totally nonsubstantive. They’re ceremonial, and you know nothing’s going to come out of it. It’s sort of scripted, but it’s important to demonstrate to the world that it was a meeting, you know. It’s a sign of respect to the Black community, a sign of concern, and also hopefully to calm things down.
Newkirk: For the leaders who were present, it wasn’t just ceremonial. They came in with real policy demands. Whitney Young brought back his idea for the domestic Marshall Plan, a commitment, in billions of dollars, for jobs and housing for Black America. Other leaders agreed with him, even some of the more conservative ones. Johnson seemed to agree too, at least while he was in the room. He promised funds and said that he had already set the wheels in motion with Congress. In a press conference after the meeting, Whitney Young said again that it was time for a domestic Marshall Plan.
Whitney Young: We deliberately use that name. We want people to remember that if we could spend billions of dollars to rebuild West Germany—a country whose people set out not to destroy a few city blocks, but to destroy all of America—then we ought to be able to spend billions in our own cities. They don’t have any slums in West Germany. And what’s at stake here is far more than the plight of Negroes. What’s at stake here is this country becoming morally credible to young people, white and Black, and to the rest of the world.
Newkirk: Johnson seemed intent on getting something big done. Immediately after the meeting on Friday, he promised to convey the demands to Congress. He’d keep legislators home from Easter recess if he needed. He was forceful, the old LBJ who bulldozed congressmen and got stuff done. He was going to address Congress on the planned night of King’s funeral, Monday.
Johnson: I have asked the speaker of the House of Representatives and the Congress to receive me at the earliest possible moment, no later than Monday evening, in the area of 9 o’clock.
Newkirk: But behind the scenes, Matthew Nimetz and other staff knew that the chances of doing something big were slim. The president still just didn’t believe that the Negro Marshall Plan or the Kerner Commission recommendations were workable suggestions. And they only had three days to figure something out.
Nimetz: For us, the big question was, What are we going to put in that speech? You know he is going to give a speech, but is he going to call for all of these things? But if he doesn’t call for all for all these things like the Kerner Commission or implement these things, what’s the point of the speech?
Newkirk: The big problem was the same as it always is: money. The Vietnam war was costing as much as half of the American budget. Johnson didn’t think he could force through any bills, let alone demand billions for this one.
Nimetz: If you ruled out more money, there weren’t too many things that you could do.
Newkirk: As important as they were, the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act were cheap.
Nimetz: Civil-rights bills, they don’t cost a lot. I mean, you know, they’re profoundly important, but they’re not bills that you have to spend a lot of money on.
Newkirk: Even those bills had faced extreme opposition in Congress, when protesters were peaceful, nonviolent. Now there were riots going on.
Nimetz: Congress is a pretty good test of how people are feeling generally, right? And certainly you asked people to spend money on social programs for jobs and housing, and then they see everything being burned down, out. So there was anger and resentment and certainly not an atmosphere for pouring more money in.
Newkirk: Johnson backed himself into something of a corner by announcing the speech, and by making promises to the civil-rights leaders. He’d hoped that the meeting would calm the riots down. Going back on his promises might make the situation worse. But then the King family announced that the funeral would be Tuesday instead of Monday.
Reporter: In view of the Tuesday funeral for Dr. King, the president’s appearance before Congress would be postponed. The president has urged Speaker John McCormack to work for quick passage of a civil-rights bill. That plea still stands.
Newkirk: In his diary from that day, Matthew Nimetz wrote that the president had caught a break.
Nimetz: Anyway, the speech was postponed. I was glad as I couldn’t see this as being anything but another exhortation to an unsympathetic Congress and a troubled nation without many solutions.
Newkirk: After two days in the pressure cooker, President Johnson could relax. He didn’t immediately have to follow through on the promises he made to the civil-rights leaders. He didn’t have to go out and try to force Congress to pass a law he didn’t even really want.
If he waited it out, and the streets calmed down, maybe they wouldn’t even need to get a big bill done. Matthew Nimetz and his colleagues watched the news reports in D.C., Chicago, Newark, hoping that the riots would fizzle out. But then, another city went up.
Documentary Narrator: From a distance, Baltimore, like most cities, seems to be divided most visibly and dramatically into works of nature and works of man.
Yet this division between man and nature is not the most dramatic distinction that exists in the metropolitan area. The sharpest cleavage is at ground level, on man-made streets and in his buildings, where artificial but rock-solid boundaries separate blocks and homes into white, Negro, and transitional neighborhoods. On the bottom rung of this economic and social ladder is the Negro ghetto, which President Johnson called an indictment to our cities, North and South.
Newkirk: So, Dr. Birt, can you just first introduce yourself? What’s your name and where are you from?
Robert Birt: Okay. My name is Robert Birt. I’m from Baltimore, Maryland, the son of immigrants from North Carolina. You know, they came for the great Black migrations, as it was called in the 1940s.
Newkirk: I’m a Carolinian, so I’m always interested in this.
Birt: Ah, yeah.
Newkirk: Yeah. Where are they from?
Birt: Mother’s from Washington, North Carolina.
Newkirk: Little Washington, yes.
Newkirk: Robert Birt is a philosophy professor at Bowie State University. He grew up in East Baltimore. When he was born, Robert’s family lived in the slums. He still remembers how bad the conditions were.
Birt: There were splinters, and there were vermin floating around. One of my earliest memories is seeing my mother with a broom, chasing a rat away from my baby sister’s crib.
Newkirk: His family had its ups and downs. There weren’t a whole lot of ways to get ahead in Black Baltimore back then. So Robert’s dad liked to play the numbers.
Birt: There was a brief period in which we were actually experiencing a kind of upward mobility. I think he hit the number, or something like that, for $1,000, which in ’59 or ’60 was a substantial amount of money though it wouldn’t make you rich. And he opened up a store. And when he did, we actually bought a house. If I remember correctly, it was at 1209 Darley Avenue. Somehow I remember that as a child. And we had a backyard. We had a dog named Sandy.
Newkirk: They stayed there for two years. Robert’s dad ran the store, and they lived okay.
Birt: But that didn't last. There was a problem with the police. Police would come by the store, demanding their cut.
Newkirk: Baltimore police were known by Black citizens and local media to be corrupt. They were inept too, except when it came to brutality and cheating people out of their money. It was exactly the kind of thing the Kerner Commission had been warning about. And Robert Birt saw it up close.
Birt: I was in the store once and heard this big, fat, white policeman come in there. He went around boasting about how many Black people he killed. And in those days, they were pretty up front and in your face with their racism, and just outright calling my father, “[N-word], you better give me my money.” And I mean, you know, it was just unbelievable.
I don't know if my sister remembers, but I definitely do. We were there. They threatened to kill my father.
Newkirk: Soon after that, his father’s business folded. Robert doesn’t know exactly how, but he does know that they bounced back to the slums and then over to the Latrobe public-housing projects in East Baltimore. Back when Baltimore was segregated by law, Latrobe had been an all-white project, but by the time Robert got there, all the white folks had fled for the suburbs. Baltimore went from being 19 percent Black in 1940 to almost half Black in 1968. Robert recalls that white people who were left in the city guarded their neighborhoods, their property, from Black “intruders” like their lives depended on it.
Birt: I was out with a group of people—I guess it must have been ’66, ’67, the year Martin Luther King had visited Baltimore. We had gone out skating, and we had girls with us; we were teenage boys.
We were just wandering around and acting the way kids act, you know, silly and all that. And we wandered somehow or another into some part of a white area. We started noticing, You know, I think we took a wrong turn somewhere. [Laughs.]
Newkirk: Now, Robert has seen a lot. He tells every story so casually and low-key that sometimes these terrifying details just kinda walk right past you. But sometimes he laughs, and then you know it’s about to get real.
Birt: [Laughs.] And before we knew it, there was a crowd of white youths who were shouting and screaming racial slurs, name-calling us, you know, the N-word, you know.
They were acting like monkeys, actually. [Laughs.]
Some of them threw some things at us. But fortunately, we were at such a distance that nothing could connect. We did know we weren’t far away from home, so we just headed on out of there.
Newkirk: The group had to decide what to do to protect themselves.
Birt: One person said, well, look, if it gets too heavy, we were going to ask the girls to run and we were going to see if we couldn’t delay the crowd by throwing a couple of bricks or something to slow them down, but we probably couldn’t have succeeded at that. There were too many of them. [Laughs.]
We wisely decided to keep on walking and, fortunately, we weren’t far from a Black area. Somebody said, “If they cross over this territory, we own them.”
Newkirk: Robert Birt never needed the Kerner Commission report. Every single day, he lived all of the conclusions that had so shocked the commissioners. He saw a Black Baltimore that felt like it was primed to explode. But two days after King’s assassination, with uprisings happening all over the country, things were still quiet.
Maryland’s governor, Spiro Agnew, praised his citizens for not rioting. He even used some of the Kerner Commission’s rhetoric. He talked of charting a new course for Black Baltimore.
Spiro Agnew: I consider it especially important, in view of Maryland’s peaceful reaction to the current national crisis, to move quickly to consolidate gains that already have been made in the civil-rights field, and to chart a positive course for the future. Accordingly, I am asking prominent leaders of the Negro community in Baltimore and elsewhere in the state to meet with me next Thursday at 1:30 p.m. for a frank and far-reaching discussion of the problems that have faced the state and this nation.
Newkirk: Robert says that the calmness on the first few days was a mirage.
Birt: There was like two days of sorrow and suppressed anger and mourning. And then on Saturday, I guess you could say the grieving began to give way to anger.
Newkirk: That afternoon, there were a few memorial services in the city for King. Crowds of people started gathering, right by the projects where Robert lived. Robert was there.
Birt: They were cursing. They were saying, “These white so-and-sos, they murdered King. We’re going to kill them; we’re going to burn them out,” and so forth and so on. And some people in the crowd even clapped and cheered them.
Newkirk: First the crowd started smashing windows around the block. Then they moved to local businesses, throwing rocks and setting fires at dry cleaners and furniture stores. It was just like what happened in D.C. two days earlier.
Birt: Black Baltimore exploded.
Newkirk: Tell me what it looked like.
Birt: It was a crowd of people. They were angry, as I was. And some of them did the deeds. I mean, they destroyed things. They tore up white property.
Person on the street: We don’t burn down soul people. But some dummy, some dummy, some dummy started a fire right by our soul brother’s barbershop, and we didn’t mean to do that. But this is just the beginning; this is going to go on all summer.
Newkirk: The situation escalated quickly from there. Baltimore mobilized most of its police force as multiple buildings were firebombed, the first of over a thousand buildings where fires were reported. Spiro Agnew declared an 11 p.m. curfew, but in just a matter of hours, fires were burning all throughout Black neighborhoods in East Baltimore. They continued through the next day.
Agnew: We have taken the following steps to restore law and order in our state. You may be sure that the situation is under control and under constant vigilance of state and local authority.
Newkirk: He declared a state of emergency, called in the Maryland National Guard, and sent a telegram to the White House asking for federal troops.
Agnew: Attorney General Ramsey Clark agreed to immediately dispatch the troops. They should now be taking positions in the critical areas.
Newkirk: Thousands of soldiers marched through the streets to arrest hundreds of people for breaking curfew. By the next morning, at least three people were dead, either from the fires or the confrontations.
Robert Birt stayed out there and watched. But he says he didn’t participate.
Birt: Some people started a rumor that Robert Birt was throwing Molotov cocktails. I did not throw any cocktails. [Laughs.] But I had no negative attitude about those who did.
Newkirk: Ok, so, neutrality regarding the Molotov cocktails?
Birt: Um … well, I did clap a little. [Laughs.]
Newkirk: The Baltimore uprising began a new phase in the national reckoning, one where white fears about the riots really came into play. Agnew wanted his troops to be efficient and none too gentle in cracking down. He wasn’t the only white leader who used this playbook. In Chicago, Mayor Richard J. Daley came down hard and complained about not being able to order his police to shoot to kill.
Richard Daley: In my opinion, he should have had instructions to shoot arsonists and to shoot looters—shoot arsonists to kill and shoot looters in order that they would be detained—when this was being conducted.
Newkirk: In D.C., the riots had been contained and suppressed by the presence of federal troops and lots of tear gas. The White House had decided to send in mostly integrated units like the 82nd Airborne in order to try and build trust with Black communities, and Mayor Walter Washington helped coordinate a police response that he hoped would result in minimal loss of life. But when the disturbances threatened to move into D.C.’s mostly white suburbs, the response changed.
Bill Greenwood (journalist): A strong show of force by police and military units is credited for a significant decrease in violence in Washington and suburban areas. Authorities set up checkpoints along strategic highways. The visible presence of the heavily armed police and soldiers is believed to have caused the sharp drop in trouble.
Newkirk: In at least one case, Black people on the street were told in clear terms that they would be shot if they crossed over the border to Maryland. In other cities, they cordoned off white neighborhoods and downtown areas. Matthew Nimetz kept tabs on it all from the White House. He felt like he saw the window for change closing.
Matthew Nimetz: Those were pretty profound events in those cities, but also profound politically because it changed the mood in the Congress and I think in the country. When you have riots, even though it’s understandable, people react negatively. The combination of the assassination and the riots sort of put an end to a lot of new thinking.
Newkirk: By the morning of April 7, Palm Sunday, it was clear that the Kerner Commission’s report was not going to be endorsed and implemented. Lots of white people didn’t agree with the report before the riots. The dream of spending billions to transform Black life in America probably died in the fires. But the White House reached for one more option to try to get something done.
Harry Reasoner (journalist): Is this another stalemate? Or will they get something?
Roger Mudd (journalist): The reliability and viability of the Congress is at stake. Can the Congress respond to this report? The response, I would judge, would be open housing, which costs no money.
Reasoner: But very little in the nature of the kind of drastic, immediate action the report talks about.
Mudd: Very little.
Newkirk: There was a fair-housing bill that had been stuck in Congress for a while. It wasn’t exactly the Negro Marshall Plan. It wasn’t even close. But housing had been envisioned as the third part of a trifecta with the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. The fair-housing bill would outlaw discrimination in many home sales to Black residents. The bill had been stalled by opposition from segregationists and white suburbanites, but the White House thought that now there might be the perfect storm in which to get it passed.
Nimetz: The thing is, it was there. We’re not talking about subsidies here. We’re not talking about a lot of handouts. That’s talking about Welfare mothers, all that type of stuff that arouses, you know, the conservatives. And I think because of the assassination, enough members of Congress were ready to do something, and this thing was languishing up there [Chuckles.] and it just needed a little push to get it out.
Newkirk: But, with backlash to the riots growing, even that bill, with no money attached, could face new opposition.
In the first moments and days after King’s assassination, the messages had been overwhelmingly in support of getting something major done. White politicians were taking the Kerner Commission report seriously. They were promising ambitious programs to support Black people and keep King’s dream alive. Now uprisings were triggering an uglier, more visceral response among white America.
Kener: To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and ultimately the destruction of basic democratic values. The alternative will require a commitment to national action—compassionate, massive, and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and richest nation on the Earth. From every American, it will require new attitudes, new understanding, and, above all, new will.
Newkirk: The struggle between Black rage and white backlash that unfolded in the days ahead would define the next era in the history of the country. The Kerner Commission had hoped that the White House could use the moment to finally bring the two Americas together. But maybe the most likely path was the one they feared: Perhaps Black America would be abandoned forever.