It was hardly what President Johnson had hoped to hear. He wanted praise for a stewardship of racial matters that included two towering pieces of legislation: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Instead, his own panel painted a bleak picture of race in America. He essentially chose to stash the Kerner report away and ignore it. But many Americans did not. A paperback edition hit the bestseller list.
Today, the United States is more complex in its demography than it was in the ’60s, and is now a rich multicultural and multiethnic mosaic in ways few would have foreseen a half-century ago. Even so, the Kerner panel’s list of troubles endured disproportionately by African-Americans could just as readily be compiled today — a shortage of jobs and adequate education, a persistence of discrimination and harsh police tactics. Police violence against people of color, the commission said, incited the riots more than any other factor. That, too, sounds familiar.
In short, the conclusion then, as now, was that black lives matter.
CLYDE HABERMAN, a regular contributor to Retro Report, has been a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for The New York Times, where he spent nearly 13 years based in Tokyo, Rome and Jerusalem. This article first appeared in Retro Report’s newsletter. Subscribe here and follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.