It was 50 years ago that a presidential commission reached this searing conclusion in a report that sparked controversy: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”
This week, that report will be the topic of discussion at the University of Minnesota when scholars, politicians and the public gather to reflect on the document produced by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s commission on civil disorder, better known as the Kerner Commission. Its findings in 1968 came at a time when unrest and riots roiled American cities, including Minneapolis.
The 50th Anniversary of the Kerner Commission Report National Conference at the U’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, held in partnership with Virginia Commonwealth University, is expected to draw hundreds of attendees Thursday and Friday. It is free and open to members of the public who register in advance.
“The symposium is really guided by three questions,” said Susan Gooden, interim dean of Virginia Commonwealth’s Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. “How far have we come? What has worked and what did not work? What are the implications for the 21st century?”
Former U.S. Sen. Fred Harris of Oklahoma, the only surviving member of the Kerner Commission, will deliver one of the keynote speeches. Other speakers include L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, the first African-American to be elected governor in the United States, and Sharon Sayles Belton, the first black mayor of Minneapolis.
Johnson appointed the commission in July 1967 amid riots, violence and racial strife across the country. NAACP Executive Director and University of Minnesota alum Roy Wilkins was one of two African-Americans named to the 11-member commission.
Its report, released in the spring of 1968, noted that “white racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II.” It pointed to discrimination in housing, education, employment and policing and called for immediate action.
“This deepening racial division is not inevitable,” the report said. “The movement apart can be reversed. Choice is still possible. Our principal task is to define that choice and to press for a national resolution.”
Johnson rejected the Kerner Commission’s recommendations.
“It was controversial,” Gooden said. “You have a document commissioned by a sitting U.S. president that identified white racism as a major contributor to the inequities that persist in minority communities.”
Like much of the nation, Minnesotans were divided on the report, according to media reports at the time. An April 1968 poll conducted by the Minneapolis Star found 44 percent of Minnesotans “agreed white prejudice is responsible for rioting conditions” while 51 percent disagreed.
The symposium will include discussion of the economic and housing inequities and police-community relations issues identified in the report — and race relations today.
The two-day conference is sponsored by the Roy Wilkins Center for Human Relations and Social Justice at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, the National League of Cities, the Russell Sage Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
Staff researcher John Wareham contributed to this report.