Racial Inequality Was Tearing the U.S. Apart, a 1968 Report Warned. It Was Ignored.

Anger over policing and inequality boiled over in 1967 in protests and violence across the United States. A landmark report warned that without major changes, it would happen again.

The 1968 Kerner Commission on racial unrest warned: ‘Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal.’ The report cited a number of issues. A shortage of jobs. Inadequate education. Discrimination. Harsh police tactics. The Commission found troubles disproportionately harming African Americans that are just as relevant today.

Related: The 1968 Kerner Commission Report Still Echoes Across America by Clyde Haberman

For teachers
  • Read transcript
  • Producer: Scott Michels
  • Editor: Heru Muharrar

For Educators


In 1967, riots triggered by episodes of police brutality and harassment of African Americans erupted in over 150 U.S. cities. President Johnson asked Congress to investigate, and the result was the Kerner Commission report, which stated: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal.” The report highlighted shortages of jobs, inadequate education, discrimination and harsh police tactics. In this lesson students will look at the report’s findings, and how ignoring them had an impact that continues today.

Background reading

In the summer of 1967, Black neighborhoods in 150 cities including Newark and Detroit erupted in violence. Images of police battling protesters and buildings in flames appeared regularly on the evening news.

The wide-ranging violence stunned the nation, and President Lyndon B. Johnson quickly assembled a commission headed by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner to study the causes and propose solutions.

That summer, many Americans blamed the violent outbreaks on young Black men and “outside agitators.” But eight months later Gov. Kerner delivered his report and turned those assumptions upside down.

The commission’s report placed the blame on white racism and political inaction for the “explosive mixture” that had been building up for decades over police brutality, inadequate housing, high unemployment and inequality caused by endemic discrimination.

“Our nation is moving toward two societies – one Black, one white,” the 400-page report warned. “Separate and unequal.”

The report detailed sweeping changes needed in Black communities to prevent future trouble, and urged some $30 billion in new spending.

It became a paperback best-seller, but President Johnson turned his back on it, while the Republicans quickly capitalized on the need for “law and order,” and helped Richard M. Nixon win the presidency later that year.

But the words of the Kerner report continue to haunt American history as the road not taken: “Race prejudice has shaped our history decisively; it now threatens to affect our future.”

Lesson Plan 1: Protests for Racial Justice – A Long History

Students will learn how current protests against police violence and racial inequality are connected to the past, and about the White House commission that released a report in the aftermath of the major urban disorders of 1967.


Students will:

  • Explain why President Johnson created the Kerner Commission.
  • Compare the 1967 protests with more recent protests.
  • Create policy suggestions for the president to enact to address racial inequalities.
Essential questions
  • What were the findings of the Kerner Commission in the 1960s? How are those findings relevant today?
  • How have the political, social and economic conditions related to race changed or remain similar over time?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.1:Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.2:Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.4:Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary describing political, social, or economic aspects of history/social science.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.9:Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.Civ.13.9-12.Evaluate public policies in terms of intended and unintended outcomes, and related consequences.
    • D2.Civ.5.9-12.Evaluate citizens’ and institutions’ effectiveness in addressing social and political problems at the local, state, tribal, national, and/or international level.
    • D2.His.1.9-12.Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.
    • D2.His.2.9-12.Analyze change and continuity in historical eras.
    • D2.His.8.9-12.Analyze how current interpretations of the past are limited by the extent to which available historical sources represent perspec-tives of people at the time.
    • D2.His.14.9-12.Analyze multiple and complex causes and effect of events in the past.
  • AP U.S. History
    • Topic 8.10: The African American Civil Rights Movement

      Skill 5.B: Explain how a historical process relates to another historical process.

      Theme 8: Social Structures (SOC).