The movie Detroit will be released on August 4. Directed by Academy Award winner Kathryn Bigelow, it is about the Detroit riots in the American summer of 1967.
Fifty years ago, the summer of 1967—known as “the long hot summer”—was an unforgettable moment in American race relations. The Detroit riots were just part of it. That summer, 163 riots took place in American cities and towns, including in Atlanta, Boston, Cincinnati, Tampa, Birmingham, Chicago, New York, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New Britain, Rochester, Plainfield, and Newark.
And in Detroit. During five days there, 43 people died, 1,189 people were injured, 7,231 people were arrested, 2,509 stores were looted or burned, 388 families were displaced, and 412 buildings burned or damaged enough to be demolished.
As a result, President Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission to investigate and report. Months later the government published The Kerner Report: The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.
From the Introduction to the 2016 reprint edition of The Kerner Report by Julian E. Zelizer of Princeton University:
The report remains one of the most insightful government examinations of the state of race relations in twentieth-century America, with lessons that reverberate today and others that were ignored….
The Kerner Commission’s findings would be unlike almost any other report that the federal government had produced about race relations in America. Although the report stuck to conventional liberal ideas about how to improve racial equality, its analysis of the problems in the cities pointed to some radical critiques about the problem of institutional racism in America. The widely discussed report offered hard-hitting arguments about the ways in which white racism was built into the institutions and organization of urban America, so much that racial inequality was constantly reproduced over generations. The report tackled controversial issues like police violence against African Americans that had often been kept on the sidelines of mainstream political discourse….
In July, two major riots devastated the cities of Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit, Michigan. These were the worst of 163 riots that broke out that summer, in places large and small, ranging from Plainfield, New Jersey, to Wadesboro, North Carolina. On July 12, rioting started in Newark after rumors that the police had mistreated an African American cab driver whom they were arresting. To the eyes of some close to the Johnson administration, Newark’s unrest was the culmination of many years of frustration with excessive police violence. In fact, President Johnson refrained from sending in any troops to achieve calm, fearing that doing so would only stoke the racial flames engulfing the city. After five days of devastating violence, the riots ended with twenty-six people dead, hundreds injured, and massive property damage to the community.
The violence in Detroit started on July 23, not long after the smoke from the Newark riots had cleared….
The rioters, they found, were usually educated and had been employed in previous years. Most of them were angry about the kind of racial discrimination they faced when seeking employment and places to live. They were frustrated with the state of their neighborhoods and wanted access to the political system from which they had been disenfranchised. They also were described as wanting to participate in the consumer culture that American leaders had boasted about. The rioters were not driven by radical agitators, nor were they recent transplants to the city. The report depicted them instead as ordinary, longtime residents of neighborhoods who could no longer withstand the deplorable conditions under which they and their families lived….
No institution received more scrutiny than the police. The rioting had shown without any doubt that law enforcement had become a problem in race relations. Rather than constructive domestic policies, more aggressive policing had become the de facto response from city officials. “In several cities,” the report stated, “the principal official response has been to train and equip the police with more sophisticated weapons.” The police played a big role in almost all of the riots, according to the commissioners. Indeed, in contrast to the findings of the McCone Commission, the Kerner report noted that systematic police violence against African Americans was at the heart of the riots of this period, more so than almost any other issue….
In provocative fashion, the report blamed “white racism” for producing the conditions that were at the heart of the riots. With a powerful account of the history of race relations, the commission had traced the problems in the cities all the way back to slavery. The point was not that white Americans were intentionally committing racial injustice against African Americans, but that racism was imbedded in institutions….
There have been some notable improvements since the time the report was published, however. The civil rights legislation of the 1960s did legitimate racial integration, while social programs from that period—such as Medicaid and food stamps—created an important base of support to alleviate the conditions that the poor faced. A growing African American middle class has also been one of the most important positive developments in race relations.
Yet the problems highlighted in the Kerner Commission’s report remain hauntingly relevant today. Many parts of inner-city America remain as unstable, if not more so, than when Kerner looked into the conditions that existed in the late 1960s. Lack of jobs, inadequate education, racial discrimination, and police brutality all remain prevalent in modern times. Poverty has also been spreading to the suburbs, bringing these issues into new areas, while economic inequality has generally become more severe and hardened. The war on crime and the war on drugs have replaced urban policy. For those who didn’t make it out, hope for change has only diminished….
The Kerner report still stands as a powerful statement about the struggles that African Americans face in a country where racism shapes many of our key institutions. The Kerner report, a shining argument that government can indeed respond to national problems, still has a great deal to offer policymakers and citizens as they wrestle with racial tension in the aftermath of the racial unrest in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cincinnati, and Baltimore in 2014 and 2015. In all of these cases police violence against urban residents again brought attention to the racial disparities that afflict many parts of the nation.