We still have to talk about racism: NPR

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MICHEL MARTIN, ANIMATOR:

The recognition and fight against racism in America did not begin in 2020 with the nationwide protests against police brutality and the glaring inequalities highlighted by the COVID pandemic. But the extraordinary events of the past few months have pushed many locals into broader, perhaps more open discussions. It might surprise some people, but there was a similar moment over 50 years ago when a US government commission released a report that addressed racism in the United States in a way that sent waves. shock across the country.

The 11-member Kerner Commission were appointed by President Johnson to investigate the root causes of the unrest that swept across much of the country in the summer of 1967. It was then that dozens of American cities were rocked by demonstrations against racial discrimination. At the time, many white Americans quickly blamed the unrest on black activists or other agitators, anything but racism. That was until the commission released its report in March 1968.

We’ll now hear from one of the authors of this report, Fred Harris. At the time, he was a United States Senator from Oklahoma. Today, at age 90, he is the only surviving member of the Kerner Commission. Her memories come back to us in a story produced by Radio Diaries as part of their series, Last Witness.

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST # 1: Eleven hundred National Guardsmen have been dispatched to protect the police. Looters carry goods for thousands of dollars with a sort of gay hobby.

FRED HARRIS: The summer of 1967 all the news was just fires and reports of firefighters shooting (ph) and so on – every night, every day, all summer, everywhere, seemed- he.

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST # 2: This is one of dozens of fires that raged through the night in Detroit. These firefighters have been there for half an hour, and the flames are still heading (ph) towards this gas station.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON # 1: It’s going to happen all over America. It’s gonna be a hot world, not a hot summer. It’s a hot world.

HARRIS: People were scared, puzzled, scared and mad and looking for some kind of explanation.

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HARRIS: Shortly after, we were in our living room, and my youngest daughter, who was then, I think, about a second or third year, Laura, ran out of the kitchen. And she said, daddy, President Johnson is on the phone for you. I said, well, is it the president, or is it his secretary? She said, no, he said, it’s President Johnson. Let me talk to your daddy (laughs). So I went into the kitchen and picked up the wall phone, to attention – yes, Sir, Mr. President. And he said, Fred, I hope you’re gonna watch TV. I will name this commission that you mentioned. He said, and something else, Fred. I want you to remember that you are a Johnson man. I said, yes sir, I’m a Johnson man. He said, if you forget it, I’ll take my pocket knife and cut your white. He didn’t say white (laughs).

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LYNDON B JOHNSON: My fellow Americans, we have endured a week such that no nation should live, a time of violence and tragedy. Tonight I am appointing a special advisory commission on civil unrest.

HARRIS: Well, he said it that way. Answer three questions. What happened? Why did this happen? And what to do …

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JOHNSON: … To prevent this from happening again and again? Sometimes various administrations set up commissions that were supposed to mark their approval of what the administration believed. It is not such a commission.

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HARRIS: This is how the Kerner Commission got started. We had sent teams to each of these riot cities – like Detroit or Newark and Cincinnati – to actually talk to the people themselves.

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HARRIS: We were in suits and ties, white guys in suits walking in and out (laughs) and just talking to regular people.

I spent a morning at a black hair salon in Milwaukee. The young people who entered were young people, people who themselves came from the South. In a way, to break the ice, the first question I asked to begin with was: do you see more discrimination here in Milwaukee or less than you see at home in Jackson? And that intrigued these young men. And I finally understood why in Milwaukee they didn’t see any white people. There was a more rigid segregation in Milwaukee than in the southern cities where they were from.

Families lived in truly terrible conditions – horrible housing, no jobs and almost criminally inferior schools. I think for all of us, all of the Commissioners, traveling across the country like that, talking to real people in the right cities, it turned out to be a really searing experience.

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HARRY REASONER: Good evening. It’s Harry Reasoner.

HARRIS: On March 1, 1968, the Kerner Report was officially released. The president told us to tell the truth, and we did.

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REASON: The President’s Special Commission on Civil Unrest has confronted the American people with yet another shock to our national sense of well-being – an accusation of white racism, nationwide, terrible in its effects.

HARRIS: No one has ever used the word – certainly no one in government has ever used the word racism before. We thought it was important.

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REASON: Over 1,400 pages of testimony, conclusions. Our nation, the report says, is moving towards two separate societies – black and white, separate but unequal.

HARRIS: Especially for black youth, we wanted to tell them, you’re not crazy. There is systemic racism in this country.

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST # 3: The President is well aware of what’s in the report, but we haven’t heard from the White House yet.

HARRIS: We set up a meeting with President Johnson, but then we were informed that Johnson had canceled the meeting. He was shocked and appalled by our report.

(EXTRACT FROM THE ARCHIVED RECORD)

JOHNSON: The Kerner commission did a very comprehensive study and spent a few million dollars.

HARRIS: Johnson recorded his phone conversation.

(EXTRACT FROM THE ARCHIVED RECORD)

JOHNSON: But they recommended that I spend $ 80 million, and I don’t have room to get the 80. I can’t borrow it. I can’t tax him. I cannot get a tax bill of any kind.

HARRIS: It really hurt him. Here he had done more against poverty and against racism than any president in history before or since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of ’65. And people like him, I think, thought, well, my God, I thought we – I thought we had it all figured out.

(EXTRACT FROM THE ARCHIVED RECORD)

JOHNSON: Every time you appoint one of these committees, you get more than you can do anything.

HARRIS: We didn’t think we had to limit what we said about what was practical. Who the hell knows what’s practical?

(MUSIC EXTRACT)

HARRIS: I felt so comfortable with what needed to be done and what massive change was needed. But we were never able to understand what the conditions were that people lived in much of the country, we did not feel it in their stomachs like we did. People like my father – my father, for example, he loved me, of course. But the way my father heard the commission report was this. Mr. Harris, out of the goodness of your heart you should pay more taxes to help the poor black people revolting in Detroit. And my dad’s reaction was, to hell with that. People don’t want to be called racists, but racism permeates everything in America. And we can’t really understand the way our legal system works and so on unless we’re talking about race.

(MUSIC EXTRACT)

HARRIS: All these years later, 53 years later, if we did now what the Kerner Commission recommended, we could make a difference.

MARTIN: Fred Harris served in the United States Senate until 1973. Today, he is the last surviving member of the Kerner Commission.

Our Story was produced by Mycah Hazel of Radio Diaries and edited by Joe Richman, Ben Shapiro and Deborah George. You can find more of their stories on the Radio Diaries podcast.

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