Brian Balogh speaks with former Senator Fred Harris about the commission convened by President Lyndon Johnson in the dark days of the 1967 Detroit riots, and their surprising conclusions about police and protesters
BRIAN: In five days in Detroit, 43 people were killed, most of them African American civilians. Fred Harris, a young US senator from Oklahoma, pushed for a congressional commission to investigate the causes of the riots and suggest possible solutions.
FRANK HARRIS: And then it occurred to me that the president, President Johnson, could without waiting for legislation appoint such a commission. And that’s what he did.
PRESIDENT JOHNSON: My fellow Americans, I am tonight appointing a special advisory commission on civil disorders.
FRANK HARRIS: And just before he was to go on the air, I was watching it with some friends, watching television, he called me. And he said, Fred, I’m going to appoint that commission you’ve been talking about. And I said, well, I think that’s a good thing to do. He said, I’m going to put you on it.
PRESIDENT JOHNSON: Its other members will include Fred R. Harris, the senator from Oklahoma.
FRANK HARRIS: And I said, well, I hadn’t expected that. But I’ll do the best I can. And he said, another thing, Fred. I said, yes, sir, Mr. President. He said, I want you to remember you’re a Johnson man. He said, if you forget it, I’ll take my pocket knife and cut your blank off. He didn’t say “blank.”
BRIAN: Johnson was warning Harris. The president had a reputation as a civil rights advocate and poverty fighter. And the final report had better reflect that. The commission became known as the Kerner Commission, after the chair, Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois. But it had a more official title.
FRANK HARRIS: The name it was The President’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. And he gave us a charge that involved three questions he wanted us to answer. One was, what happened? Why did it happen? And lastly, what can we do to keep it from happening again and again?
We divided up into teams. I was a team with Mayor John Lindsay of New York. John and I went around the country and visited particular cities where riots had occurred, walked the streets, talked with people. And that gave real substance and put faces on the kinds of things that we heard from the experts.
BRIAN: Harris talked with lots of people, including militants and unemployed 20-somethings. He spent a whole day in a Milwaukee barbershop asking customers about the recent unrest. And for those who had grown up someplace in the deep south, he asked whether they experienced less discrimination up north.
FRANK HARRIS: And people were puzzled. They didn’t know how to respond. It turned out things were so segregated in these cities that living there in Milwaukee in the black section, they didn’t see any white people at all, except the police.
ED: And that gets at one of the Kerner Commission’s key findings, that despite civil rights progress in the early 1960s, America was still deeply segregated. The most famous line of report reads–
FRANK HARRIS: “America’s moving towards two countries, one black, one white, separate and unequal.”
ED: The report pointed to mass unemployment, dismal schools, and substandard housing in African American neighborhoods as longstanding causes of anger and resentment.
FRANK HARRIS: People had a lot of really serious grievances and hostility. And we found that the first level of intensity of grievance was, number one, police practices.
ED: Many people told Harris about being harassed on an almost daily basis by white police officers who lived in other neighborhoods. And residents explained that there was no system for complaining about unfair police practices. And if complaints were made, little or no official action was taken.
FRANK HARRIS: Hostility was so high in all of these black sections of the cities of the country where the riots had occurred that almost any random spark would set them off.
BRIAN: When the riots did flare up, says Harris, the police went overboard in their response. Law enforcement officials justify their use of live ammunition on the grounds that they were under siege by sniper fire.
FRANK HARRIS: And before long, you had the National Guard spraying an apartment building, just spraying it with machine gun fire, because somebody said that’s where the fire was coming from.
BRIAN: The rumors of snipers and outside agitators were fanned by the FBI and related to the President in official reports. They portrayed the riots as part of a huge conspiracy orchestrated by leaders of the Black Panther movement. But the Kerner Commission found no evidence of snipers or of conspiracy. It concluded that segregation, lack of economic opportunity, and hostile police were plenty cause enough.
ED: Identifying the problem as institutional racism was the easy part. But the Kerner Commission also had to make recommendations. And so it called for job creation and integrated housing to break up segregated urban ghettos. As for the police, the commission recommended new hiring practices that would create a more diverse police force accountable to citizen oversight.
FRANK HARRIS: We said that police in a neighborhood ought to look a lot like the people in the neighborhood. They ought to be a part of the neighborhood. And we recommended what can be called community policing, that the police and other services of government ought to be out there in the community, available to people, and be a part of the community. And there ought to be grievance mechanisms before things get bad. There ought to be a way by which people could feel that if they made some complaint about the police or whatever, it would be taken seriously and acted upon.
BRIAN: In its final report, the Kerner Commission did not mince words. Quote, “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.” End quote. Johnson, the President responsible for the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Economic Opportunity Act just a few years before, didn’t take the report’s accusations well. So I had to ask Harris, did you forget you were a Johnson man?
FRANK HARRIS: Ha! No. You know, a terrible thing happened. We think that one member of the commission leaked the report early. And we know from staff and others that Johnson hadn’t read the report. But he was told that this report’s going to ruin you because it encourages and condones riots. And it doesn’t have a good thing to say about you, about anything you’ve done in regard to civil rights.
All of that was false. We put a fellow to work on the commission staff putting together a citation in the report to every place where we had said something complimentary of President Johnson. And that mess came to seven pages, single spaced. But Johnson never saw that.
BRIAN: Johnson refused to meet with the commissioners, and he denied their request for continued investigations. But the National Association of Chiefs of Police were supportive of the commission’s work. And in the 1970s, community policing programs began to show up in a lot of American cities.
ED: In 1998, 30 years after the report was issued, Harris, now as a professor of political science, co-authored another study. It found that segregation in housing had intensified, and African American unemployment was at crisis levels. The problems haven’t changed since then, says Harris. And so the Kerner Commission’s recommendations are as relevant as ever.
FRANK HARRIS: I think a lot of people thought Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act and the Poverty Program and all that, well, we solved all that. But it is true that poverty is worse now in America than it was, and we are re-segregating. And these grievances are growing up again against the police, and we’re going to see more of this kind of trouble and more of these kinds of terrible tragedies as in Ferguson unless we take interest again. Thomas Jefferson said, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. And it’s also the price of a practicing democracy.
BRIAN: Fred Harris represented Oklahoma in the US Senate from 1964 to 1973. Today, he’s a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico.
PETER: That’s going to do it for us today. But we’ll be waiting for you online. What are the stories about police that have been passed down in your family? Are you a police officer? And if so, have community relations changed over the course of your career? Let us know at backstoryradio.org. We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter at backstoryradio. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.
ED: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Tony Field, Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, Kelly Jones, Emily Charnok, and Robert [? Armengol. ?] Our digital producer is Emily Gattick, and Jamal Millner is our engineer. We had help from Coly Elhai. Special thanks this week to [? Galphon Raul ?], Ed Davis, Michael Holland, Steve Kurtzman, Arnold Sagolyn, and listener Tammy Lee. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.
BRIAN: Major support for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Weinstein Properties, by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in arts, the humanities, and the environment, and by History Channel, history made every day.
NINA EARNEST: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is professor of history emeritus at UVA and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.