The Kerner Commission: A Study of Detroit Civil Disorder and Civil Rights

This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Detroit Rebellion, and National Public Radio recently interviewed former Oklahoma Democratic Senator Fred Harris, the last living member of what became known as the Kerner commission.

Two months after the 1967 uprising, Ebony Magazine contextualized the events by saying, “With 42 persons dead and an estimated $1 billion damage done, the Detroit riot must go down in history as one of the most damaging and expensive warnings any country has ever seen given that there is something seriously wrong with the very fabric of its culture.”

On July 28, 1967, in the immediate aftermath, President Lyndon Johnson appointed a commission to study three basic questions:

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

The commission was tasked with letting their "search be free. Let it be untrammeled by what has been called the 'conventional wisdom.' As best you can, find the truth, the whole truth, and express it in your report."

The result in 1968 was titled the "National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders Report," or the "Kerner Report" (named for the commission chairman, Otto Kerner, the governor of Illinois).

The basic conclusion of the commission? "Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white - separate and unequal." In 291 readable pages, the report provides a historical sketch of salient aspects like discrimination as doctrine in the Colonial Period, the formation of racial ghettos in urban areas, a comparison of the immigrant and Negro experience, community responses in the wake of violence, the future of cities, and recommendations for national action.

Because Denver Public Library is a Federal Depository Library, we maintain a copy of this historical document. And it can be borrowed by customers who want to contextualize what they learn from the media and by researchers who want to dive deep into the primary documents of our nation. Perhaps your next read from the library comes from our government documents collection.

Written by Robin on July 26, 2017


WRT on July 26, 2017


Another part of Otto Kerner's life is that he was convicted in a race track scandal. As a former Chicagoan, I believe the Il. motto should be " Il.-Home of Honest Abe and corrupt Governors. I heard on NPR that 7 former Il. Governors had criminal convictions as or after being Governor.

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