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50 Years On, Sen. Fred Harris Remembers Great Hostility During 1967 Race Riots


Fifty years ago during the long, hot summer of 1967, black frustrations boiled over and erupted into violence in one American city after another - Newark, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Tampa, Detroit.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Well, that block of buildings is gone, and next to it a gas station, and behind it homes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Burn, baby, burn.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Do you blame anybody for all this?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Really, I don't know who to blame.

SIEGEL: In Detroit it went on for five days. That tape was courtesy of the archives at Michigan. Governor George Romney sent in the National Guard. President Lyndon Johnson sent in units of both the 82nd and the 101st airborne divisions of the U.S. Army. And Johnson did something else. He appointed a commission.


LYNDON B JOHNSON: 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.

SIEGEL: Officially it was the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. It became known as the Kerner Commission after its chairman, the Democratic governor of Illinois, Otto Kerner. The vice chair was John Lindsay, the liberal Republican mayor of New York. The lone surviving member of that commission is former Oklahoma Senator Fred Harris, who joins us from Albuquerque. Welcome to the program.

FRED HARRIS: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: I've read that you actually suggested the idea of a commission. Is that true?

HARRIS: That's true. During the terrible riots in Detroit I went to the Senate floor and introduced a joint resolution to set up a citizen's commission to look into the cause and prevention of these riots from a law and order standpoint. But more than that, to, as we said, recommend making real the promise of America for all Americans. And then the very next day it occurred to me that we didn't have to wait until Congress acted, that the president could do that, President Johnson. And so I got in touch with him. And then he did appoint eventually the commission two days later.

SIEGEL: This was a - it was a bipartisan commission. All kinds of different people were on it. You were one of the Democrats who was on it. What was President Johnson expecting to hear from the 11 of you?

HARRIS: He said, let your search be free and tell the truth on three questions he wanted answered. One was, what happened? Secondly, why did it happen? And thirdly, what can we do to keep it from happening again and again? And he recognized that it wasn't just a matter of law and order, but also to get at the deeper causes, the terrible racism and the wretched poverty which existed in most of these places where the riots had occurred.

SIEGEL: When the Kerner Commission issued its report in 1968, it famously said that we were moving toward two societies - one black, one white, separate and unequal. And it was a very scathing view of American race relations saying that also whites were implicated in the conditions that American blacks experienced in urban ghettos.

HARRIS: Well, that was true. We held about 20 days of hearings, and then we divided up into teams and visited the cities where riots had occurred. And what we found was that there'd been a huge influx since World War II of African-Americans from Southern states coming from criminally inferior schools, looking for jobs about the time that jobs were disappearing. They didn't have any transportation. Housing was awful. The schools were inferior. And there'd been all sorts of conflicts with the police so that there was enormous hostility between the people and the police in those cities.

SIEGEL: Yes. When the commission listed grievances that were generally common to these disturbances from city to city, number one at the first level of intensity was police practices that would ignite things in those days.

HARRIS: That's right. The hostilities we found in all of these places where the riots had occurred were so great that almost any random spark could set them off. And that's really what had happened.

SIEGEL: President Johnson, a Southerner, had pushed through the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. His civil rights record was as good as I guess any 20th century American president. What was his reaction to the commission's findings about the conditions of black neighborhoods in American cities in 1967 and '68?

HARRIS: Well, the president got bad information. Somebody from inside the commission leaked a copy of the report in advance. And a member of the Congress who was his real close friend read it, called the president and said to him, this report is just going to ruin you. It encourages and condones riots, and it doesn't have a good word to say about anything you've done on civil rights and against poverty. That was all wrong, but the president believed it. And so he canceled the formal meeting we'd set up to deliver the report and he rejected it.

SIEGEL: He disowned the report of the very commission that he had established is what you're saying.

HARRIS: Yes. And that's really sad because here was a man, President Johnson, who had done more in the field of civil rights and against poverty than any president before or since.

SIEGEL: I wonder if the line that had disturbed him or disturbed his source who got it wrong so much was when the commission wrote, 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, and white society condones it. It's a very scathing remark about racism in America.

HARRIS: Well, basically he just thought we went too far. But also, President Johnson believed that there was planning and organization, some kind of conspiracy behind these riots. And that was absolutely not true. They were random. And I think that worried him, that we just said straight out that they were not planned.

SIEGEL: The commission recommended that there be real federal programs to address the problems that you had found and investigated. How far have we gone in implementing the changes that you and your fellow commissioners proposed nearly 50 years ago?

HARRIS: Well, we've made progress on virtually every aspect of race and poverty for about 10 years, not quite 10 years. But after that, particularly with the globalization, jobs moving away and automation jobs disappearing altogether, and the advent of the Reagan-Bush administrations, the progress we made first slowed and then eventually reversed.

And today, for example, we find that we have a great deal more poverty than we had then, much worsened income inequality. And the cities have pretty much resegregated, and that means their schools have resegregated as well. So it's a disappointment to see where we are now compared to what we might have been. But it also should be an inspiration for us to try to do something about that.

SIEGEL: Senator Harris, it's great to talk with you again. Thanks so much.

HARRIS: You bet.

SIEGEL: Former Oklahoma Democratic Senator Fred Harris is the lone surviving member of the Kerner Commission, the commission that investigated the riots of the summer of 1967. He spoke to us from Albuquerque, N.M.

(SOUNDBITE OF MODERN POP HEROES' "POWER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.