Despite the winter storm that passed through Friday, we march forth toward spring — a time for reflection as much as for renewal. And there will be a lot of that this year, the 50th anniversary of a transformative time in our nation: 1968.
Since January, when we marked the 89th birthday of the martyred Martin Luther King Jr., I have been re-reading his words and those written about him in anticipation of an avalanche of activity that next month will mark the 50th anniversary of his assassination.
With each passing year, I realize that for most people he is a street name, an image, a speech, a few paragraphs in a history textbook — not a human being who lived in their lifetime. Unlike me, they didn’t feel the shock and alarm that ricocheted through black America when that news bulletin came on the Thursday evening of Apr. 4, 1968.
His death occurred a month after the release of a bold and scathing assessment of racism in America called the Kerner Commission Report. Here’s a sample: “Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” And another, evoking an era when blacks were Negroes and our urban neighborhoods were casually referred to as ghettos: “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.”
This 500-page report was not crafted by the NAACP or the Black Panther Party. No, it was the work of the 11-member National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders that had been assembled by President Lyndon Johnson. While “civil disorders” had erupted in cities fairly regularly since the 1940s, they had become particularly disruptive in the 1960s. The tyrannical J. Edgar Hoover, who from his perch as director of the FBI reigned terror on those he deemed dangerous, insisted that a few radical rabble-rousers were stirring up the Negros across the land and, he figured, they were operating under the direction of the Soviet Union.
Johnson wanted to get at the bottom of this — but he didn’t exactly appreciate what his commission told him and the world. Nor did a lot of white Americans, who could not fathom whites being blamed for the riotous behavior of black folks. But understanding the Kerner findings requires checking your ego and examining history.
The Kerner report, written in plain English, is available in book form in libraries and wherever books are sold, as they say. I recommend it as well as more recent material like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 essay, “The Case for Reparations,” and Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, The New Jim Crow. A two-day conference by Johns Hopkins University, the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society and the Economic Policy Institute held last week at both the Reginald Lewis Museum and the University of California-Berkeley was just one of many opportunities to engage in study and discussion. I recommend taking the plunge.
Implementing most of the Kerner Commission’s recommendations would have taken billions of dollars — something Johnson and other leaders had neither the will nor the capital to invest. For one thing, the war in Southeast Asia sucked money from the nation’s coffers — something about which King was increasingly sounding the alarm in his final year.
Where the Kerner Commission had lasting impact was in the sector that brings my words to you now: media. “The journalistic profession has been shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring, training and promoting Negroes,” it said before urging newspapers to “integrate Negroes and Negro activities into all parts of the paper, from the news, society and club pages to the comic strips” and advising television to “develop programming which integrates Negroes into all aspects of televised presentations.” Today’s millennials (ages 18-34) might find it hard to believe that there was a time when blacks were not as ubiquitous in media as they are now. But, according to a new survey, they and other age groups, including people of all races, agree that the portrayal of blacks in media is more negative than reality warrants.
Progress since Kerner has not come without demand, and it remains susceptible to threats in the form of political retrenchment, the digital revolution and the rise of white nationalism. Despite some obvious gains, we are still pecking away at systemic issues and deep-seated beliefs that have been bequeathed to present day legatees.
E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.