Alan Curtis interviewed by Ray Suarez. National Public Radio. March 1, 2018

National Public Radio

On Point

The Kerner Commission Fifty Years Later

Ray Suarez Interview with Alan Curtis and Traci Blackmon

March 1, 2018


Ray Suarez: From WBUR Boston and NPR, I'm Ray Suarez. This is On Point. Fifty years ago, American school children may have put their hands to their hearts and pledged allegiance to the idea of one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. But the country's cities were exploding in anger, protest, civil unrest. A presidential Commission came out with the so-called Kerner Report. It concluded poverty and racism were largely the cause. And, memorably, it charged white institutions with the creation and maintenance of America's ghettos and called for big changes. Fifty years later, there's a new report. This hour On Point, the Kerner Report then and America now.

You can join us on air or online. Whoever is old enough to remember the summer of 1967, raise your hand and tell us what was it like then. Are we a better, fairer, more equal country today? Join us anytime at or on Twitter and Facebook at On Point Radio.

Joining first from Washington is Alan Curtis, President and CEO of the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation. He has worked for five decades on the challenges of racism and poverty. Back then, he was a task force co-director on another presidential Commission that looked into the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. Now, he has co-edited the new report, a new Kerner Report you might say. It's just out. It's called, Healing Our Divided Society. Alan Curtis, welcome to On Point.

Alan Curtis: Ray, good to talk with you again.

Ray Suarez: Looking back to what the Kerner Commission reported and looking at the assessment that Healing Our Divided Society gives us now on the 50th Anniversary of the Kerner Commission Report, how are we doing?

Alan Curtis: Well, the Kerner Commission said America was heading towards two societies, black and white, separate and unequal. It focused on inequality, on poverty, on racial injustice. Today, 50 years later, it's fair to say we've made some progress. We had our first African-American president elected two terms. The Latino and African-American middle class has expanded. The number of Latino and African-American legislators has greatly expanded. Most of your audience probably has been to see the movie Black Panther. So you can identify progress.

Yet, since the Kerner Commission, overall child poverty has increased. Since the Kerner Commission, deep poverty, the poorest of the poor, has increased. Wealth inequality has increased. Income inequality has increased. Zero tolerance policing, which is racially biased, has failed. The prison system had 200,000 people in 1968 at the time of the Kerner Commission. We now have 1.4 million people in prison and they are disproportionately minorities. In some ways, prison building has become our national housing policy for the poor.

Ray Suarez: Do we have a tendency to look at the successes that are overt and obvious like the election of a black president and let that distract us from what some of the numbers tell us that you've just been citing?

Alan Curtis: The world is full of contradictions, and that's what we're dealing with in America today. We say look at the trends that have been going in the wrong direction, but at least take heart in the fact that, since the Kerner Commission, we've learned a great deal about what works and what doesn't work. What Healing Our Divided Society is saying is that we should identify what works and scale it up. We should finance the scaling up by scaling down what doesn't work.

Ray Suarez: Again and again, in the latest report, there are echoes of what the original 1968 report had to say about the shape of the society in the United States. And I'm struck by the findings from March 1st, 1968 that bemoaned the fact that black Americans were not graduating from high school at a high enough rate. The gap was yawning and enormous between black high school graduation and white high school graduation in 1968. It was recommended that more people finish high school, that more people head to college. One of the great successes in the last 50 years is that, yes, black kids in America finish high school at a tremendous rate now - and go on in unprecedented numbers to college. Yet for all that, the gaps in income and wealth have hardly narrowed, in some cases, widened.

Alan Curtis: So again, we should celebrate successes, but differences continue. In addition to what you just pointed out, the rate of African-American unemployment has been twice as high as the rate of white unemployment for the past 50 years. We've had different business cycles and different eras of growth. But the two-to-one ratio has continued. That's not right and that's not just.

Ray Suarez: It's almost like the two lines move in tandem, somehow tied to each other. Black unemployment doesn't go down unless white employment is going down as well. There's no closing of the gap because it starts to go up again when overall unemployment, including that of the white majority, goes up. You don't improve your relative position, I guess, is what I'm trying to say.

Alan Curtis: That’s why we need demand side job creation linked to job training and job placement. We need to eliminate the two-to-one gap. All Americans should be given the opportunity of a job, with upward mobility. That's the case in some other countries. Why can't it be the case in America?

Ray Suarez: One of the quotes from the original Commission report that landed with an explosion on America's doorsteps was this, "Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans. 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 maintained it, and white society condones it." That was strong, bracing stuff for 1968 wasn't it?

Alan Curtis: It was. And it continues to be strong, bracing stuff today. So let’s recognize that reality. What we need to do is scale up what works. To do that, we need new political will. We didn't have new will in 1968. And we don't have new will today.

Before we can really make progress, we need to communicate to America that it is in the interest of many constituencies to embrace Kerner priorities in terms of reducing poverty, inequality, and racial injustice. That’s why much our Kerner fiftieth is about new will.

Ray Suarez: It's interesting that you say that we didn't have will then. At the time, we were in the midst of a tremendous increase in social spending. We were in the midst of the Great Society. In fact, Lyndon Johnson felt he didn't get enough credit for doing what he had done in the Kerner Commission Report.

Alan Curtis: I agree. And there was, in fact, progress in the late sixties and early seventies towards reducing some poverty and inequality. But later in the seventies and especially in the eighties that progress was reversed. Today, compared to 1968, we see increases in overall child poverty and deep poverty. In the richest country in the world, that's not acceptable.

Ray Suarez: The Kerner Commission Report became a bestseller and went through more than 20 printings, but it's policy recommendations are often described as having been shelved or forgotten. Was it the pace of events? The assassinations? The Tet Offensive? Was America just juggling too much stuff to take on the very ambitious goals laid out by the Kerner Commission Report?

Alan Curtis: I think there was progress. But the Vietnam War complicated the political agenda and didn't allow President Johnson to concentrate on domestic reform. In the seventies Watergate created a further sense that the federal government was not to be trusted. Yet if we are going to address the American Dilemma - if we are going to focus on poverty and inequality - the public sector needs to finance what works. Much of the actual day-to-day implementation can be carried out by nonprofit organizations in truly disadvantaged communities.

Ray Suarez: Is there a lasting impact that the original Kerner report leaves us with today?

Alan Curtis: We can't be complacent. The Kerner Report is a baseline that reminds us that we have a long way to go. Someone has to take a step back and say, well, how has the nation been doing over the long run? And what, therefore, should we be doing in the future?

Ray Suarez: This On Point. I'm Ray Suarez. Today marks the 50th Anniversary of the Kerner Commission Report. And we're taking stock of how far we've come in fixing the poverty, the racism, the injustices that led to riots and protests in our cities in that long hot summer of 1967. Join the conversation. Where are we today on racial equality, on income equality, on things getting better? Are we building to a new boiling point? Follow us on Twitter and find us on Facebook at On Point Radio.

My guest is Alan Curtis, President and CEO of the Milton Eisenhower Foundation and co-editor of a new report called Healing Our Divided Society. While Alan Curtis has been offering the bird's eye view, I'd like to bring in The Reverend Traci Blackmon who perhaps brings ground truth. Executive Minister of Justice and Local Church Ministries for the United Church of Christ and Senior Pastor of Christ the King Church in Florissant, Missouri. And she joins us from St Louis. Reverend Blackmon, welcome to On Point.
Traci Blackmon: Hi, Ray. Thank you for having me.

Ray Suarez: Well, when you look at the pages of Healing Our Divided Society, when you hear some of the overview conclusions about how we're doing, does it ring true in a community that's been riven by racial conflict in and around St Louis?

Traci Blackmon: It does, Ray. And it is shockingly similar that the conditions we face today are very much like those that we faced 50 years ago. I was listening to the segment before me, and certainly it is true that we have made progress in some areas. But for the vast majority of people who live at the intersection of race and poverty, the landscape remains the same. And so it saddens me that we haven't come further along than we have.

Ray Suarez: If you look at the reports from various social science researchers, opinion researchers, Gallup, Pew and others, they ask white people every year whether things are getting better. And the divergence between their answers and the answers of African-Americans about the state of the country, about the racial climate in the country, about whether or not being black is a handicap, there's always been a split. In recent years, the divergence has been getting wider and wider. Why that split view, that almost mutually contradictory understanding of the state of play in America?

Traci Blackmon: In my opinion, Ray, there are multiple factors. As was reported in the original Kerner's Report, there's no one reason why we're in the condition that we're in. But I would list a couple of factors. First and foremost is the invisibility of the poor. We are a nation that has begun to criminalize poverty. We do that whether you are black or white. Clearly, poverty is not exclusive to the black community. This is also the 50th Anniversary year of the assassination of Dr. King. And the next phase of his movement was to address this least common denominator - that of economic oppression.

There are so many white people who can live their entire lives and not really have to directly encounter the poverty that is at the intersection of race and economics. That's one reason why the Kerner Report is so different.

In this invisibility of the poor, a strange phenomenon has happened. We have elevated the exceptions as examples. So yes, we had had a black President. That is indeed monumental. He was a black president who was educated in the Ivy League and who lived at least a middle class life, if not an upper middle class life. He is an exception in that regard. But we've made him the example.

And so when poverty in invisible, when you don't have relationships with those who live at the margin and what you see are examples like President Barrack Obama and others who have been successful in political office, academia or the capitalistic world, you begin to wonder why can't that be the reality for everyone. It must be their own fault. And you begin to make villains or demonize those who are living in abject poverty - a condition that didn't start with this generation. It started a long time ago. As we can see 50 years ago in the Kerner Report, poverty was already in place. We have made progress, significant progress. But our response to the racialized and economic oppression of this nation has not equaled the depth of the depravity that we have entered into. And until the response equals the depth of despair, we will not come out of this.

Ray Suarez: The Reverend Traci Blackmon is Executive Minister of Justice and Local Church Ministries for the United Church of Christ. She joins me along with Alan Curtis, President and CEO of the Milton Eisenhower Foundation.

Last July, CBS Correspondent Michelle Miller looked back 50 years to the riots that erupted in Detroit in the summer of 1967.

(Recording) Michelle Miller: It began early one Sunday morning in late July. Police raided an unlicensed bar in a black neighborhood in Detroit. A crowd gathered. Tempers flared.

(Recording) Male Voice: This is going to happen all over America. It's going to be hot world, not a hot summer.

(Recording) Michelle Miller: A rock was thrown and the city became a war zone.

Ray Suarez: Joining us now from Detroit Michigan, Aaron, welcome to On Point.

Aaron: Hi, Ray. Thanks for taking my call. Yes, I was here in Detroit. I was a young teenager, 13 years old. I remember distinctly what was going on before, during and after. And it's very similar to what's going on now. The communication industry was advancing things. People were finding out more and being able to communicate more - like it is now. It was harder to hide what was going on. It's hard to miss something when you don't know about it. But blacks were beginning to find out what they had been missing. And they started to get angry. The economic gaps that were becoming obvious to blacks.

Then, as now, the abuses of the police were becoming more clear to people all over the country. People had started getting real tired of it. Even very liberal whites were getting very tired of it. And so it was a powder keg waiting to happen, and things happened that set if off.

I was personally and directly affected. My oldest brother, who was the hope of my family, was slaughtered by the Detroit police in front of his kids in his house. That altered my life permanently.

We talk now about the progress that has been made. But it's an illusion. We now have blacks who are making more money and who are able to live in different places. But the economic gaps have remained between blacks and whites.

The same things are going on now and people are starting to get tired of it again - because advancements in communications mean we can no longer hide behind ignorance. The internet is a major part of that. So I don’t think we’re doing very well at all. I think we’re getting worse actually.

Ray Suarez: Aaron, thanks a lot for your call from Detroit. It’s important to remember the large number of people who died in those urban riots. Shot by police, shot by a national guardsman, also dying in accidents, dying in fires. A lot of lives were lost during the summer of 1967 and our caller reminds us of the damage.

When you tour the neighborhoods that were most heavily affected in Detroit, in Newark, in Cleveland, in Chicago, it took decades for those neighborhoods to come back. The chronic disinvestment that already was plaguing some of these parts of American cities became really manifest when they were damaged. We needed an infusion of capital to come back, and we just didn’t get it. In a book I wrote in the late 1990s, I noted that some of the places that had held buildings and homes in the part of Cleveland just east of downtown that burned in the riots had mature trees. The tree trunks were so large that you couldn’t get your arms around them. They were growing in the empty lots that had been created by the riots.

Roxbury, Massachusetts is next. James, welcome to the program.

James: Thank you, Ray. Welcome.

Ray Suarez: Nice to have you on James.

James: Yeah. I want to mention something that’s never brought up, and that’s the excessive number of young, black men who died or were maimed in Vietnam.
Ray Suarez: You know, James, Vietnam was really cranking by 1967. The American commitment was rising and certainly black and brown men weren’t able to take advantage of college deferments in quite the same way as a lot of white, young fellows were. But was the reaction politicized in a place like Roxbury where people were saying, hey, we are the ones who are heading off to Southeast Asia?

James: Yeah. All types of people were being picked up off the streets. There weren’t any people hanging around because they were drafted. They were in the service.
Ray Suarez: And there was a sense that the men of the neighborhood were heading off to war.

James: Oh yeah. That happened, and I was part of that caste system because I could go to college and a lot of my friends couldn’t - or they didn’t know how to because the schools weren’t really giving them guidance.

Ray Suarez: James, thanks a lot for your call from Roxbury, Massachusetts. Alan Curtis, it is important to remember just what the country was like, and not everybody has a copy of the Kerner Commission Report close to hand as we do during today’s program on its 50th anniversary. But a lot of things were intersecting right at that moment, both the Great Society and the rise in American commitment in the Vietnam War – as well as deindustrialization of the heart of a lot of American cities. There were a lot of young men who were unemployed and underemployed. A powder keg really.

Alan Curtis: It was a powder keg, and the problems your listeners have discussed are real. But today, there is at least some reason to hope.

So, for example, there was much police abuse in Detroit in 1967 and there is police abuse today, as in Ferguson. But today we do have examples of community-based policing in which officers, especially officers of color, cooperate and partner with community-based organizations at the grassroots. Those partnerships can create a sense of security that can encourage community-based banking, which can encourage community development corporations to build low income housing, which can employ young people of color if they have adequate job training. So, when you look at what works based on the last 50 years, you see that there can be place-based multiple solutions, comprehensive and interdependent.

Again, the problem is not lack of knowledge. The problem is lack of political will.

Ray Suarez: Reverend Blackmon, during the same years, the walls of the ghetto were reducing in height let’s say. People with mobility, people with educations, people with a union job in an industrial factory who were able to buy houses outside the traditional area that earlier had been set aside for black residents. The most mobile people, the most aspirational people left - and in an almost ironic, almost paradoxical way, they created an even deeper and more concentrated poverty in the neighborhoods they left behind. How does that look in 2018?

Traci Blackmon: We certainly see the negative impact of that upward mobilization based on class. I want to say that this is not an issue that is not solvable. I agree that there is hope, and I agree with the statement that what we lack is will. A colleague of mine reminded me just earlier today that, 20 years prior to the Kerner report, the United States invested a large sum of Marshall Plan money in European countries after World War II to bring them back, to restore. I want to say again that we cannot solve this problem without an investment that matches the depth of despair. Generations of racism, of racist policy, of oppression based on color of skin, of economic deprivation, cannot be given just a little token and expect people to survive. There are some who will make it out and those are the people that we make examples of - when they are really exceptions to what is happening in our society.

Ray Suarez: Very quickly, given the tenor of the times, is that kind of commitment likely today given the attitudes people have right now?

Traci Blackmon: That kind of commitment is not likely. That is why people like myself and other activists have to continue to sound the clarion call – because, unless we do that, we will continue to experience these wide gaps that are getting wider.

Another glimmer of hope I have is that we are beginning to see the convergence of people who are economically oppressed. When a majority, black and white and brown, begin to feel the full impact of economic oppression, then I believe there will be a rising up of the people that will change the narrative of this country.

Ray Suarez: Reverend Blackmon. Stay with us. We’re talking about how far we’ve come and not come in making this country less separate, less unequal. Alan Curtis, I’ll say goodbye to you now. We spent the day together on the 30th anniversary of Kerner Report. I think on the 50th I had hopes that things would be better. But thanks for joining us.
Alan Curtis: Thank you. I am looking forward to the 75th.

Ray Suarez: I hope we’re both here for it. Alan Curtis is President and CEO of the Milton Eisenhower Foundation. I’m Ray Suarez. It’s On Point.


Note: This is an abbreviated edit of the interview by Ray Suarez. For Healing Our Divided Society, the Fifty Year Update of the Kerner Commission, see:
For a New York Times op ed on Healing, see: