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Kerner Report 50 Years Later: America Is Even More ‘Separate & Unequal’

By May 16, 2018 No Comments

LISTEN TO THE EPISODE “KERNER REPORT 50 YEARS LATER: AMERICA IS EVEN MORE ‘SEPARATE & UNEQUAL'” HERE

Kerner Report 50 Years Later

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Hundreds of rebellions erupted within African American communities across the United States in the summer of 1967. After sending in the U.S. Army to quash these uprisings by force, President Lyndon B. Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to identify the causes. He wasn’t exactly thrilled with their conclusions. Dubbed the “Kerner Report,” the findings blamed pervasive white racism, warning that unless drastic reforms were implemented expeditiously, America would be torn into two societies: one white, one black, “separate and unequal.” Fast-forward 50 years, and an update to that ominous analysis states things have gotten much, much worse. Yet several leading civil rights activists and scholars hold out hope.

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Voices in this episode

Silent Knight

Silent Knight

A prolific recording and performing artist, Silent Knight has a reputation for being one of the hardest-working artists in independent hip-hop. It’s easy to see why: He’s the frontman of The Band Called FUSE, the host and curator of their Line Up showcase in NYC, and has released nearly a dozen albums independently in less than 10 years. Charismatic yet humble, SK’s genuineness comes across in his music and in his energetic and engaging stage show.

A seasoned performer, SK has captivated crowds on many world-renowned stages and opened for, or collaborated with, a wide array of acts. Some of these artists include: Inspectah Deck of the Wu-Tang Clan, Nneka, Talib Kweli, 112, and members of The Roots. He has also worked with many notable producers, including !llmind (Drake, J,Cole), Jake One (JAY Z), & M-Phazes (Eminem).

Fred Harris

Fred Harris

Fred Harris is a former U.S. Senator from Oklahoma, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of New Mexico, the last surviving member of the 1968 Kerner Commission, and co-editor of its latest update “Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years After the Kerner Report.” He coined the political term “New Populism” in the ’70s to describe his platform, and authored two books on the subject, Now Is The Time (1971) and The New Populism (1973). He also served as Chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 1969 to 1970.

Dorothy Stoneman

Dorothy Stoneman

Dorothy Stoneman is the founder and former CEO of nonprofit YouthBuild—a worldwide movement and network of more than 260 locally controlled programs in the United States and more than 80 programs in 21 countries—and an author of a chapter within the 2018 report “Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years After the Kerner Report.” Stoneman has a long and storied legacy within the civil rights movement and been involved with developing, expanding, analyzing and evaluating programs for low-income young people for about 50 years. Among other initiatives she’s either led or been a part of: Harlem Action Group, Head Start, and East Harlem Block Schools. She holds a bachelor’s degree in history and science from Harvard University, a master’s degree in early childhood education and a doctorate of humane letters from Bank Street College of Education, and has been recognized with many awards for her lifetime of work on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised.

Rev. Michael McBride

Michael McBride

Rev. Michael McBride is Director of Urban Strategies and the Live Free Campaign to end gun violence and mass incarceration with nonprofit PICO National Network. He is a graduate of Duke University’s Divinity School, holding a Master of Divinity with an emphasis in Ethics and Public Policy, and the founder and lead pastor of The Way Christian Center in West Berkeley, California. McBride was honored as the #9 ‘Top Clergy Leader to Watch in the U.S.’ by the Center for American Progress in 2013, and has served on a variety of local and national task forces with the White House and Department of Justice regarding gun violence prevention, boys and men of color, and police-community relationships. He is also a regular guest on MSNBC, CNN and Al-Jazeera programs, providing commentary for issues related to faith and racial justice.

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Kerner Report 50 Years Later: America Is Even More ‘Separate & Unequal’

When Fred Harris, then a U.S. Senator from Oklahoma, asked the patrons of a black barber shop in Milwaukee whether they found more or less segregation in the northern city than where they’d fled in the South, he was always met with the same universal sense of bewilderment.

It was 1968, and Harris, along with 10 other members of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, were on a fact-finding mission to get to the bottom of the devastating race riots that’d ravaged the country the summer before.

Chaired by Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner, Jr., the team had already held nearly three weeks of hearings back in Washington, with testimony from more than 130 witnesses ranging from civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Now, its members had fanned out across the nation in pairs, conducting site visits to many of the still-smoldering cities wherein African American communities had risen up in rebellion, to answer three basic questions:

What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again?

Harris, accompanied on his quest by then-Mayor of New York John Lindsay, soon learned why these young black men awaiting haircuts—who’d come to the Midwest metropolis from the South in search of jobs—were so damn perplexed.

“The question I asked was: ‘Do you find more or less segregation here in Milwaukee than you found in Birmingham, or wherever you came from?’” Harris, the last surviving member of that original so-called “Kerner Commission,” tells News Beat podcast. “And the reason they were puzzled was—I finally found out—was, in Milwaukee, they didn’t even see any white people.

“There was more segregation in that northern city than where they come from in the South,” he recalls.

The disturbing revelation was but one of countless made by Harris and his team that would ultimately inform the end-product of their research and consequentially shock the conscience of the nation with its grim and brutally honest assessment of American society and race relations up to and in the wake of the 1967 riots.

Aptly dubbed the “Kerner Report” and published on February 29, 1968, it was a blistering, pull-no-punches appraisal as sobering and scathing as gruesomely appalling, which immediately reverberated throughout the halls of power, the civil rights movement, and general public, with lingering resonance to this very day.

The commission found the mass unrest that left thousands of buildings destroyed, dozens dead and thousands upon thousands wounded—with even more arrested—resulted from frustration within the African American community about the lack of economic opportunities, with its chief proponent, white racism, fueling a societal death-spiral of institutionalized discrimination, segregation and poverty, among other contributing factors and self-fulfilling ramifications.

While outlining a comprehensive regimen of urgent and necessary remedies to be expeditiously enacted, it ominously concluded: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”

MLK, who was murdered nearly a month after the report’s release, called it a “physician’s warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life.”

Should the slain civil rights icon’s description be taken literally, it’s horribly evident Uncle Sam hasn’t followed the doctor’s advice—blatantly ignoring it, altogether.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Kerner Report’s dire warning, as well as its potential solutions, and in anticipation, new research has been conducted and an update published, as a book. Titled “Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years After the Kerner Report,” it finds that although limited progress had been achieved in the decade immediately following the initial study, civil rights gains since that time have either stalled or even reversed. Among other evidence, it highlights America’s sky-high child poverty rate, re-segregation of schools, emboldened white supremacists, exploding mass incarceration, widening income and achievement gaps, rampant voter suppression, and other disturbing truths.

“The racial and ethnic discrimination is worsening again, our cities and schools are re-segregating, inequality of income is worse than it was 50 years ago and is worsening still, and there are millions more poor people today than there were in those days,” says Harris, who co-edited the latest incarnation.

Yet, he adds, there’s still hope.

“What we’re trying to do with this book and the promotion of it is to get race and poverty back on the national agenda,” continues Harris. “To let people understand, if they don’t already, that racism and poverty are still with us, they’re getting worse and acting to do something about it is good for all of us.”

‘WHY WE RIOT’

The so-called “Long, Hot Summer” of 1967 was characterized by more than 150 instances of massive, collective upheaval throughout the United States.

Atlanta, Cincinnati, New York, Chicago. Birmingham, Alabama and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Newark, New Jersey and Detroit, Michigan.

Cities aflame. Neighborhoods incinerated. Thousands injured. Dozens killed.

The government and media dubbed these mass protests “riots,” but for those who were there, and who witnessed their visceral rage and anguish firsthand, these were not mere demonstrations. These were rebellions, where the institutionally oppressed, discriminated, and economically decimated had simply had enough—the physical manifestation of decades of simmering agony, grief and misery.

As renowned intellectual Dr. Cornel West told News Beat in our season one finale “Why We Riot,” such emotional despair, dread, and societal turmoil has a breaking point: “The killing of Martin, it was just too much. You couldn’t take it anymore. Something snapped inside of all of us.”

In 1967, after summoning the U.S. Army and various other wings of the greatest military power on Earth to quash and quell these emotional and deeply rooted socioeconomic outbursts throughout the restless African American communities of America, President Johnson demanded answers.

“My fellow Americans, we have endured a week such as no nation should live through, a time of violence, and tragedy,” he said on a televised national address on July 27, 1967. “For a few minutes tonight, I want to talk about that tragedy. And I want to talk about the deeper questions that it raises for us all.”

“I am tonight appointing a special advisory commission on civil disorders. Gov. Otto Kerner of Illinois has agreed to serve as chairman,” he continued. “The commission will investigate the origins of the recent disorders in our cities. It will make recommendations to me, to the Congress, to the state governors, and to the mayors, for measures to prevent or contain such disasters in the future.”

Johnson added that the FBI would also “investigate these riots” and “search for evidence of conspiracy.”

Yet what Harris and the other Kerner Commission members discovered on their site visits across the country—and what they ultimately declared in their now-infamous 1968 report—was far beyond conspiratorial. It was the direct ramifications of a highly efficient, highly mobilized, near-omnipresent culture of bigotry, prejudice and racial discrimination against those of color ingrained into the very architecture and systematic mechanics of American society.

These observations are reflected in another of the report’s perhaps most searing passages: “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.”

Now at that time, Harris explains, it’d take a lot to surprise him. Visiting those communities, however, and staring into the eyes of the inhabitants—that’s what really touched and moved he and his fellow members.

“We were already looking into urban problems,” he says. “We weren’t shocked to find the wretched poverty and harsh racism which existed, the hostility to the police, which was justified, in these black ghettos as they were called in those days in the cities. ,But going there and seeing the people in person and the conditions and so forth even shocked us.”

“A lot of the other commissioners hadn’t had the experience that John and I had, and they were terribly moved and also changed by these side visits,” he recalls.

Following their return to Washington, Harris says, deliberations included recitations of these observations, revisions, amendments, and approval of, what eventually was published as a 600-page bestseller book.

“As we went along, by the end, people had pretty much came to the same conclusion about the conditions out of which these riots grew, and that they required massive and sustained federal action,” he explains. “And so, our report was adopted unanimously.”

The 1968 Kerner Report set forth a litany of recommended reforms, and in acute detail chronicled some of the most significant and most egregious contributing factors of the unrest—with hundreds more rebellions erupting again just about a month after its publication, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tenn. on April 4, 1968.

Twelve “deeply held grievances” listed and ranked into three levels of intensity, included, from highest to lowest: police practices, unemployment and underemployment, and inadequate housing; inadequate education, poor recreation facilities and programs, ineffectiveness of the political structure and grievance mechanisms; disrespectful white attitudes, discriminatory administration of justice, inadequacy of federal programs, inadequacy of municipal services, discriminatory consumer and credit practices, and inadequate welfare programs.

Among its proposals were mandates to the federal government for dramatic improvements in employment, education, the welfare system, and housing, including: two million new jobs within the public and private sectors within three years; on-the-job training; tax and other investment incentives for rural and urban poverty areas; federally subsidized school desegregation; stricter application and adherence to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; extension of quality early childhood education to every disadvantaged child in the country; establishment of uniform national standards of assistance at least as high as the annual “poverty level” of income, at the time $3,335 per year for an urban family of four; require that all states receiving federal welfare contributions participate in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children Unemployed Parents program (AFDC-UP) that permits assistance to families with both father and mother in the home; and to bring within the reach of low and moderate income families within five years six million new and existing units of decent housing.

“We have provided an honest beginning,” declared the commission. “We have learned much. But we have uncovered no startling truths, no unique insights, no simple solutions. The destruction and the bitterness of racial disorder, the harsh polemics of black revolt and white repression have been seen and heard before in this country.

“It is time now to end the destruction and the violence, not only in the streets of the ghetto but in the lives of people.”

A half-century later, and not only do many—if not all—of the very same issues that led to those hundreds of rebellions in the summer of 1967 and April 1968 still exist, but according to the Kerner Report’s 2018 redux, things have gotten precipitously worse.

‘HEALING OUR DIVIDED SOCIETY’

In many ways, Harris, now 87 and Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of New Mexico, is the perfect person to have edited the half-century update of the famous report, a task he shared with Alan Curtis, president of the nonprofit Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation, the private sector continuation of the original National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.

As the last remaining member of that team, there’s quite literally no one else left possessing the innate knowledge and experience of working so intimately, and intensely, on the historic analysis, as Harris. Its findings and purpose are also close to his heart. A champion of the poor, disenfranchised and working class throughout his political career, Harris coined the term “New Populism” in the ’70s to describe his platform—anti-government largess and excess, anti-mega-corporations, pro-redistribution of power—and authored two books on the subject, Now Is The Time (1971) and The New Populism (1973). He even twice ran for president to try and implement such principles.

There are, thankfully however, plenty who share his passion for filling in the blanks of what happened along the way since the initial Kerner Report, and working to rectify America’s current reality. The latest incarnation, the aforementioned “Healing Our Divided Society” analysis, published by Temple University Press, draws on research and insights from some of the most prominent minds and bodies involved in academia and civil rights. It includes contributions from a 23-member National Advisory Council of distinguished Americans, including, among others: Nobel Prize winner in Economics Joseph Stiglitz; Children’s Defense Fund President Marian Wright Edelman; Stanford University Professor Emeritus and Learning Policy Institute President Linda Darling-Hammond; and Dorothy Stoneman, the founder and former CEO of nonprofit YouthBuild–a worldwide movement and network of more than 260 locally controlled programs in the United States and more than 80 programs in 21 countries.

Their contributions comprise a past and present-day future, re-imagined, with the semicentennial edition painting a detailed portrait of a dream deferred due to political, socioeconomic, racial and institutionalized obstacles. It chronicles the minimal progress forward and gargantuan steps backward, as well as naming those individuals and institutions largely to blame.

“Over the 50 years since the Kerner Commission, we have elected an African-American president,” reads its executive summary. “There has been an increase in the number of other African-American and
Hispanic/Latino elected officials and an expansion of the African-American and Hispanic/Latino middle class.

”Yet there has not been nearly enough progress, and, in some ways, things have gotten no better or have gotten worse over the last 50 years,” it laments, listing: “still far too much discrimination on the basis of color”—such as “Zero Tolerance” policing against people of color; “too much excessive use of force by police, too often deadly force, especially against African Americans;” more emboldened and more violent white supremacists; and the re-segregation of housing and schools.

“We have not made progress on poverty, and much has gotten worse,” it continues, stating a drastic rise in the percentage of American children living in poverty—from 15.6 percent in 1968 to 21.0 percent in 2017.

“Our child poverty rate is the highest among industrialized democracies,” the report declares, adding that the percentage of Americans living in “deep or extreme poverty” has increased since 1975. And as the nation has grown, it continues, its overall poverty rate has remained virtually unchanged: 12.8 percent in 1968 and 12.7 percent in 2016—“while the total number of the poor has increased from 25.4 million to 40.6 million.”

The 2018 report’s authors also highlight the sharp and steady rise of America’s inequality gaps, bluntly stating that “the rich have profited at the expense of the families of salaried and working people in America.”

“The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans today own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent” and “As of 2013, median white wealth was 12 times that of median African-American wealth” are but two sickening factoids among many contained.

Other lightning rods of criticism include the re-segregation of public schools, America’s program of “’massive and sustained’ incarceration framed as ‘law and order’ and a “failed” war on drugs. The media’s inadequate reporting on the underlying causes of inequality, poverty, and racial injustice—among the many problematic issues targeted in the original Kerner Report—continues through today, charges the 50-year update.

Harris says the reign of President Ronald Reagan, from 1981 to 1989, was particularly responsible for quashing any significant improvements underway.

“We made really substantial progress on virtually every aspect of race and poverty for about a decade after the Kerner Report, but then, particularly with the advent of the Reagan administration, that progress stopped,” he tells News Beat. “We began to cut taxes for the rich and for big corporations and cut programs for the benefit of middle-class people and poor people, and also jobs began to disappear.

“They either moved away because of globalization, or they disappeared altogether because of automation, and consequently we wound up, for example, now, as we say, ‘Healing Our Divided Society,’ this new book,” he continues.

Rev. Michael McBride, the founder and lead pastor of The Way Christian Center in West Berkeley, California, concurs. The Director of Urban Strategies and the Live Free Campaign to end gun violence and mass incarceration with nonprofit PICO National Network, he also takes aim at President Richard Nixon.

“One can make a totally uninterrupted connection between the riots and the unrest of the ‘60s and ‘70s and the opposite response that the government largely did as it relates to the Kerner Commission to our communities that were largely the source and center of these recommendations,” he tells News Beat podcast. “We have to continue to appreciate that the ‘70s saw the rise of the Black Panthers and many other expressions of self-determination and the response was not massive investment, but the response was massive repression, criminalization.

“Nixon, rather than using the opportunity to scale up what was commonly at that time a guaranteed basic income strategy, Nixon instead declared a war on drugs that was largely a war on black and brown and poor people,” continues McBride. “Reagan, rather than using the early years of the ‘80s as an opportunity to try and heal and bring the country back together, Reagan invested much of his political capital on a tax cut that literally drained the public sector of all of the resources necessary to uphold our communities.

“And simultaneously,” he adds, “if we believe with Congresswoman Maxine Waters and others believe, simultaneously, our neighborhoods were flooded with drugs and crack-cocaine and other forms of harmful drug addiction realities that decimated our communities, and then right on the heels of that the response of the federal government was not to bring large numbers of public health nurses and a public health response to drug addiction, but it was to higher large numbers of police officers and double and triple the policing budgets in many of our communities.”

That era was equally as disastrous on de-segregation initiatives, says Harris.

“With the recommendations of the Kerner Commission and vigorous efforts toward desegregation of housing and schools, we really made progress, and the high point was in the 1980s, but then the government policy changed and we quit trying to enforce the law in regard to desegregation, and so now we are re-segregating again,” he explains. “Re-segregated schools, too. And we got millions of black and Latino kids now really almost permanently confined to the slum conditions in inferior schools, from which, it’s going to be really difficult to escape.”

Part of that escape plan, part of that solution, says Dorothy Stoneman, the founder and former CEO of nonprofit YouthBuild and author of a chapter within “Healing Our Divided Society,” is not only a resurrection of many of the very same remedies prescribed by the original Kerner Report—such as the aforementioned creation of two million public and private jobs, for example—but a fundamental shift in how those caught in poverty’s grip are viewed and treated.

THE AUDACITY OF HOPE

Stoneman, renowned for her work with YouthBuild—as aforementioned, a worldwide movement and network of more than 260 locally controlled programs in the United States and more than 80 programs in 21 countries—has a long and storied legacy of combatting firsthand many of the issues outlined in the Kerner Commission Report. In fact, she’s been involved with developing, expanding, analyzing and evaluating programs for low-income young people for about 50 years.

In 1968, when the Kerner Commission Report came out, she was in East Harlem at the East Harlem Block Schools, first as the director of the Head Start Program and then as the executive director of its independent public school—a “parent-controlled school rooted in the idea that the parents cared deeply about the education of their children and that the best kind of school would be one which built community among parents and teachers and students,” she explains.

Stoneman had such an impact on those children’s lives that now, well into their 50s, they still call her to share just how much she and that school changed their lives.

The Kerner Report “seemed exactly on target to all of us who were rooted in the Civil Rights movement and who are still working to build community-based solutions to the isolation and the hopelessness that had been imposed on low-income communities,” she recalls.

Its findings were also echoed by the local youth of Harlem at the time, adds Stoneman, who in 1978 started the Youth Action Program.

“I asked them what would you change in your community if you could get adult support and if you could get the funds,” she says. “They said we would rebuild the abandoned housing and create homes for the homeless because we see homeless people living on the streets, we see teenagers selling drugs on the streets, we see abandoned buildings that could be rebuilt, we could hire those teenagers to rebuild those buildings and create housing for the homeless, and you get the money for us to do that.

“So that’s what I set out to do,” she continues.

Stoneman went on to help create homes away from home for young mothers and their children who didn’t have places to live, leadership schools, and youth patrols within the housing projects to prevent crime. She and her initiatives rebuilt elevators in the projects to aid elderly residents from having to use the stairs, created parks and community gardens, and paint murals.

A Youth Congress was formed as a result, she says, which wrote a Youth Agenda for the ’80s, which also echoed the Kerner Report.

“Again, the message here is that the ideas and the energy for positive change in community exists within all low-income communities, urban and rural across the country,” she tells News Beat. “But typically, society doesn’t ask them what they think and doesn’t pride them the resources to produce their vision.”

Citing more than 4.9 million 16- to 24-year-olds across the country who are currently out of school and out of work—41 percent of whom were raised in poverty and live in low-income households—she says part of the solution is to change the ideological narrative, with one crucial ingredient being hope.

“They really are the young people who will birth and raise the next generation in poverty if our nation doesn’t invest in opportunities for them,” explains Stoneman. “There’s a widespread narrative, which is false, that it’s too late to do anything for young people at that age, that you have to catch them in pre-school or else they’re doomed.

“What I have learned through the 40 years of work in YouthBuild is the opposite is true,” she continues. “That when young people reach the age where they become young adults and they have the agency of making decisions about who they’re going to be and what life they’re going to live, they are more than ready to seize an opportunity to go back to school or to get job training or to serve their communities, because by that time, they have figured out that the path that they’re on is going to lead them nowhere.”

Crediting research YouthBuild conducted with Brandeis University, she says many of these young men and women “expect to be dead or in jail by the time they’re 25, because they don’t see any options in front of them in their neighborhoods.”

“There’s a large unemployment rate,” adds Stoneman. “There’s a large drop-out rate. Young people have seen no options for making a living except to join gangs or to sell drugs, so they feel completely lost and disconnected from society. When somebody says to them, there’s hope for you. You can join this program and we respect your value, we respect your intelligence and we know that you have a different dream for the future and we’re here to help you create it and build it, they will leap into that new context and put their best selves forward.”

McBride, the pastor, believes it’s the rectification of these and other false narratives, along with addressing white racism and a strategic reinvestment by the federal government into these decimated communities—akin to how the United States and its Allies instituted the Marshall Plan to rebuild those cities and nations destroyed in the fury of World War II—that are critical pieces in the path forward.

“A historical reading of history and of the current events that we are facing would make us believe that the reasons we have these problems in poor urban communities is because people living in poor and urban communities are just lazy or just have no desire to learn to improve their conditions,” he says. “That they’re just inherently violent or inherently morally deficient. We reject those assumptions. And those assumptions persist. The role of government, of social society, of systems and structures is to overcompensate for these erroneously claims made upon poor black and brown and white folks that allow our conditions to be caught in this kind of cycle of poverty, of disinvestment and degradation.

“Our recommendations very much wanted to mirror the similar investments that were done by the United States in a massive rebuilding of Western Europe after World War II,” explains McBride. “Now it’s worthy to note that the kind of carnage and the kind of destruction that the world wars caused in parts of Europe required an international responsibility, particularly by those who were considered allies in the fight together against the spread of Hitler and many of the other, say, triplets of evil, if you will, or the Axis of Evil.

“And so many of us believe that that same kind of massive partnering and investment needed to be similarly done to large segments of the South, large segments of the Midwest, large segments of Northern California, where we saw large numbers of black folks and others fleeing because of the racialized terror that was the result of policing, Ku Klux Klan, racial vigilantes,” he adds, noting, however, the United States’ historical record of “disinvestment” in communities of color.

Despite all these odds, and the litany of issues laid bare by the original Kerner Commission Report—and its recent update—Rev. Michael McBride, Dorothy Stoneman and Fred Harris remain hopeful for the future. It’s a hope that’s inextricably interwoven between the syllables of “Healing Our Divided Society.” It’s the hope for a collective “new will” to push forth and implement these reports’ solutions.

A “NEW WILL” FORWARD

To achieve even a fraction of the meaningful reforms proposed within the voluminous pages of the 1968 or 2018 reports demand what the latter’s authors call a “’new will’ among a broad-based collation of Americans to legislate a better life for the poor, working class and middle class of all races in the nation.”

This includes the poor and working class, people of color as well as white. It will demand strong leaders and independent thinkers. It will demand average citizens who recognize the injustices plaguing American society, and those willing to change our collective trajectory.

Facilitating this new hope, this new drive, this “new will” forward, states “Healing Our Divided Society,” is a call for voting rights reform, campaign finance reform, abolition of the Electoral College and an end to gerrymandering, among many other transformative improvements.

It’s a concept familiar to the drafters and readers of the original Kerner Commission Report—in fact, introduced on its very first page:

This deepening racial division is not inevitable. 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.

To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values.

The alternative is not blind repression or capitulation to lawlessness. It is the realization of common opportunities for all within a single society.

This alternative will require a commitment to national action–compassionate, massive and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and the richest nation on this earth. From every American it will require new attitudes, new understanding, and, above all, new will.

President Johnson, by all accounts, ignored the Kerner Report’s “two societies” warning, and was reportedly aggravated at its blunt findings.

Perhaps this time around, more both in and out of the corridors of power will heed its lingering call—for the sake of all Americans. McBride, Stoneman and Harris still hold out hope.

They hear it, alive and well and bursting through the silent din of forced acceptance from the throats of all those taking to the streets to voice their communal rage and create change—whether at the Women’s March, Black Lives Matter rallies, anti-gun protests, or any one of the countless mass demonstrations taking place across the country.

“What makes me most optimistic about the present and the future is that we have the largest scale of engagement that we’ve seen, at least in a generation,” says Rev. McBride. “People who are very much leaning into activism and advocacy, people who are cultivating an imagination beyond economic exploitation. People who are organizing themselves around peace-making and not the war economy. People that are actually struggling to wrestle with racism and patriarchy and human hierarchy, sexism, misogyny in all of its forms.”

Stoneman—whose many programs throughout the past half-century have touched and rippled, and changed the lives of countless, who then change the lives of even more—witnesses the power of mobilized hope in action each time a former student reaches out to thank her (which happens quite often). It’s a touching experience, made possible through the moral investments she made in them—and testament to the healing effects all those who are better off are capable of contributing, she says.

“If we in the category of people who are not worried were willing to tax ourselves enough to invest in the education, the job training, the community improvement projects that would be designed in low-income communities, we could create such a healthy and wonderful society,” she explains. “When you do that the love that is released in the community, the eagerness to give back, and what I can only call gratitude for the next chance, is enormous, and would benefit our society at every level.”

Harris, the last surviving member of the original Kerner Commission, sees and feels it, too.

“It is terribly disappointing I’m back talking about these things 50 years later again, but I really am optimistic, for a number of reasons,” he tells News Beat. “One, is if you look back at the beginning of black civil rights movement with Dr. King and the people like John Lewis and others, those are really worse times. There were Jim Crow laws—not just practice, but laws—harsher racism and deeper poverty and the odds were against the people in that movement, but they resisted and persisted and ultimately prevailed.

“I think we can take heart from that and also take heart from the fact that all the polls show that the kinds of things we’re recommending now, for example—a living wage, affordable healthcare for everybody, improved and free public education from early childhood through college, those kinds of things—are all supported by a majority of Americans,” he continues. “The other thing that is really heartening to me is that there’s more activism right now in this country than I’ve seen in my lifetime, with new organizations like the Women’s March, and one organization called Indivisible, Black Lives Matter, and there’s really a great American right now, I think one of the greatest, Rev. William Barber of North Carolina, the founder of Moral Mondays that’s spreading that movement, and also the new People’s March, he says we gotta get together.

“He says we can’t keep fighting in our separate silos—labor over here and civil rights activists over here,” adds the former U.S. Senator from Oklahoma. “We got to make our enemies fight all of us at once, not one at a time, and I think that’s absolutely the way we’ve gotta go.

“If we get ourselves together across race lines and gender lines and other lines—we don’t have to love each other; I wish we would—but all we have to do is recognize we have common interest, and if we work together, we can take this government back and right these present terrible conditions. I think that’s good for all of us, cause as I like to repeat: Everybody does better when everybody does better.”

DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT: Read the SUMMARY OF THE 1968 KERNER COMMISSION REPORT HERE; Read the EXECUTIVE SUMMARY OF THE 50-YEAR UPDATE “HEALING OUR DIVIDED SOCIETY” HERE; and ORDER IT HERE. Contact the various groups mentioned in our podcast episode and cover story via links provided within the “Voices” section above.

Credits

PRODUCTION CREDITS

The News Beat Podcast copyright is owned by News Beat, Inc.
2018. All rights reserved.

Design and production support for the News Beat Podcast is provided by Morey Creative Studios. www.MoreyCreative.com

Producer and Host: Michael “Manny Faces” Conforti

Editor in Chief: Christopher Twarowski

Managing Editor: Rashed Mian

Cover Art Design: Jeff Main

Executive Producer: Jed Morey

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