Summer 1965:
Urban Riots and the Kerner Commission

Below are images of the Watts neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles in August; six days of rioting claimed the lives of 34 people, injured 1,100 and caused an estimated $100 million dollars damage. An estimated 35,000 African Americans took part in the riot, which required 16,000 National Guardsmen, county deputies, and city police to put down. These scenes foreshadowed the riots to come in other urban centers: Newark, New Jersey; New York City; Cleveland, Ohio; Washington, D.C.; Chicago, Illinois; and Atlanta, Georgia; and Detroit, Michigan


President Johnson's Response to the Riots:
"
If there is one thing I think we have learned from the civil rights struggle, it is that the problem of bringing the Negro American into an equal role in our society is more complex, and is more urgent, and is much more critical than any of us have ever known. Who of you could have predicted 10 years ago, that in this last, sweltering, August week thousands upon thousands of disenfranchised Negro men and women would suddenly take part in self government, and that thousands more in that same week would strike out in an unparalleled act of violence in this Nations....

It is our duty - and it is our desire - to open our hearts to humanity's cry for help. It is our obligation to seek to understand what could lie beneath the flames b that scarred that great city. So let us equip the poor and the oppressed - let us equip them for the long march to dignity and to wellbeing. But let us never confuse the need for decent work and fair treatment with an excuse to destroy and to uproot.

Yet beneath the discord we hear another theme. That theme speaks of a day when Americans of every color, and every creed, and every religion, and every region, and every sex can be trained for decent employment, can find it, can secure it, can have it preserved, and can support their families in an enriching and a rewarding environment....


Kerner Commission, 1968:
Authorized by Johnson in the wake of the urban violence that swept the nation from 1965-1967, the commission studied the issue, looking for its causes and remedies, for seven months before issuing the Kerner Report. The commission presented its findings in 1968, concluding that urban violence reflected the profound frustration of inner-city blacks and that racism was deeply embedded in American society. The report's most famous passage warned that the United States was "moving toward two societies, one black, one white - separate and unequal." The commission presented evidence of an array of problems plaguing the African American community with particular severity. These crippling conditions included not only overt discrimination but also chronic poverty, high unemployment, poor schools, inadequate housing, lack of access to health care, and systematic police bias and brutality.

The report recommended sweeping federal initiatives directed at improving educational and employment opportunities, public services, and housing in black urban neighborhoods and called for a "national system of income supplementation." The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., pronounced the report a "physician's warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life." By 1968, however, Richard M. Nixon had gained the presidency, and a conservative white backlash insured that the Kerner Report's recommendations would be largely ignored.