Chapter 46- redefining racial equality

The Kerner Commission Report: Moving Toward Two Societies

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The Kerner Commission Report: Moving Toward Two Societies

It was not until 1967, in response to the rioting that summer, that President Lyndon Johnson, also known as LBJ, established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to examine what had caused the riots. The commission came to be known as the Kerner Commission [Kerner Commission: the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders that concluded that white racism was the fundamental cause of the Watts riot] after its leader, Illinois governor Otto Kerner. Its final report, issued in 1968, concluded that “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”

Looking deeper, the report found that riots were usually triggered by a specific event that touched off a “reservoir of underlying grievances”: Social and economic conditions in the riot cities constituted a clear pattern of severe disadvantage for Negroes compared with whites . . . Negroes had completed fewer years of education and fewer had attended high school. Negroes were twice as likely to be unemployed . . . and were more than twice as likely to be living in poverty. Although housing cost Negroes relatively more, they had worse housing—three times as likely to be overcrowded and substandard.

—National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, 1968

The report pointed to “unfulfilled expectations” raised by the civil rights movement. When these expectations were not met, some African Americans had concluded that violence was the only way to “move the system.” The commission called on the country to address the inequalities that the riots had laid bare. “It is time now to turn with all the purpose at our command to the major unfinished business of this nation,” it urged. “It is time to make good the promises of American democracy to all citizens—urban and rural, white and black, Spanish-surname, American Indian, and every minority group.”


After the Watts riot, Martin Luther King Jr. visited Los Angeles to find out what had happened and why. While touring Watts, King was booed by residents who had lost faith in his strategy and goals. Nonviolent resistance had eroded barriers to integration in the South. But these victories had taken 10 years, and many urban blacks were impatient for change. They were also not sure they wanted to be integrated into a white society that they viewed as racist and corrupt. As activism spread beyond the South, the civil rights movement was changing.

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