Roy Wilkins and Otto Kerner, Jr. Photo: Wikimedia
“In 1968, the Kerner Commission concluded that America was heading toward ‘two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.’ Today, America’s communities are experiencing increasing racial tensions and inequality, working-class resentment over the unfulfilled American Dream, white supremacy violence, toxic inaction in Washington, and the decline of the nation’s example around the world.”
This quote is an introduction to Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years After the Kerner Report, a newly released update on just how far our nation still has to go to fulfill the Kerner Report’s goals. The original report was released February 29, 1968 by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders created by President Lyndon B. Johnson to study the causes of the “racial disorders” that had erupted across the country during the summer of 1967, resulting in weeks of devastating rioting, violence, and deaths. The “long, hot summer” of 1967 followed earlier riots during the summers of 1964, 1965, and 1966 and left many Americans terrified that violence would continue to escalate with no end and no solutions. But the Kerner Commission, as the National Advisory Commission came to be called after its Chair Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, Jr., did not believe our country was doomed to a permanent cycle of rioting and racial division. Its report determined that ending the violence needed to start by acknowledging the persistent American truth at its root: we were a divided society, still separate, still unequal.
The 1968 report offered specific recommendations, many focused on creating economic opportunity for Black citizens imprisoned in concentrated segregated poverty. Others addressed the need to hire and train more diverse police forces. An entire section was devoted to education with special concern about the poor reading and math skills and low graduation and employment rates of millions of Black students stuck in predominantly Black, poor, and unequal schools. The 1968 Kerner Report concluded that all of its proposed solutions were not just doable, but essential: “It is time now to turn with all the purpose at our command to the major unfinished business of this nation. It is time to adopt strategies for action that will produce quick and visible progress. It is time to make good the promises of American democracy to all citizens—urban and rural, white and black, Spanish-surname, American Indian, and every minority group . . . These programs will require unprecedented levels of funding and performance, but they neither probe deeper nor demand more than the problems which called them forth. There can be no higher priority for national action and no higher claim on the nation’s conscience.”
But Healing Our Divided Society shows that despite progress in many areas over the last fifty years, we still have not completed the urgent business of making the promises of American democracy good for all and the call for sustained national action must continue. The new report, co-edited by former Oklahoma Senator Fred Harris, the only surviving member of the original Kerner Commission, and Alan Curtis, CEO of the Milton Eisenhower Foundation, includes chapters by scholars and policy experts seeking to chart our nation’s course forward.
In a chapter on America’s ongoing struggles to change the odds for all children, I shared my deep disappointment that even as our nation becomes much more racially and ethnically diverse, children of color, especially Black children, remain so far behind their White peers. Growing inequality exacerbates the racial divide as very large disparities in family median income, wages and family wealth stunt opportunity for children. Nearly one in five children is poor and nearly 70 percent of the almost 13.2 million poor children are children of color. The younger children are, the poorer they are, and Black children remain the poorest—most likely to be trapped in what the Kerner Report called the “prison of poverty” in our wealthy nation. Closing this indefensible and curable inequality gap and racial divide remains the major unfinished business of our nation and, I believe, the greatest threat to our national security and economic future.
On March 31, 1968, just a few weeks after the Kerner Commission released its Report and recommendations, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his last Sunday sermon before he was assassinated: “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.” Fifty years later the answer to that question is clear. We have never found the will to fully respond to the Kerner Commission’s urgent call, certainly heard again in the new report Healing Our Divided Society, for “massive and sustained” action.
Children have only one childhood, and it is right now for today’s children. We know much more today about what works, making it deeply shameful that we continue to tolerate political leaders in any party who choose not to invest adequately in critical services and just policies for all children and who refuse to end child poverty in order to give massive tax breaks to millionaires, billionaires and powerful corporations. Healing Our Divided Society is both a warning and a guide. We must finally find the will to ease the indefensible burdens of poverty and racism and fling open the doors of opportunity and hope to assure every child an equal chance to reach his or her God-given potential.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org