Perspectives on 20th Century America: Readings and Commentary

By Otis L. Graham Jr. | Go to book overview

sion ( 1954); and Congress in 1957, 1960, 1964, and 1965 passed civil rights legislation dealing with voting and public accommodations. These developments may fairly be described as a legal revolution, eliminating in one decade a structure of Jim Crow laws going back at least three-quarters of a century. To make these legal changes required great effort and patience; and when they were reasonably complete, in the early 1960s, one could detect among liberal whites a strong feeling of self-satisfaction. This had been reform in the best manner, brought about not merely by the pressure of the NAACP lawyers and Martin Luther King's nonviolent movement, but also by the conscience of many white citizens. Now that the laws of the nation required equal treatment of all regardless of color, blacks could presumably begin to vote and go to school and eat and get haircuts along with everyone else, and live happily ever after.

Beginning in 1964, however, there occurred riots in the black ghettos of major American cities, culminating in the turbulent summer of 1967 with its 41 major riots in 39 cities. President Lyndon Johnson appointed an investigatory commission under Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois. Such an action has historically been one way to control social unrest while giving the appearance of remedy. Presidents usually hope that a commission will tell the country something comforting; for example, that the problem it was assembled to investigate was temporary, or was caused by "outside agitators" and may be controlled by rounding them up. But the Kerner Commission (officially, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders), despite a very moderate membership, was to disappoint those who held such hopes. The commission report was not only not comforting, it was a searing indictment aimed squarely at middle America.

It must certainly have astonished most Americans to learn that a 581-page report by a respectable presidential commission on urban riots found no fault with the rioters (although it did not specifically exonerate them), but directed its indignation and criticism toward peaceful, law-abiding citizens who thought they had nothing to do with the violence. The report has the appearance and style of a government document, but behind this official facade lies a wide-ranging and gripping account of American racism that deserves to be read by everyone. The commission found the roots of the urban violence of the 1960s in the racial prejudice of the white majority, which throughout history had created and maintained an inferior position for the black. All the familiar disparities between white and nonwhite -- in earning power, education, health, and housing -- were rooted not in the failures of the blacks but in the systematic racial discriminations of the whites. Many white citizens believed that the economic road to advancement was open to blacks, and pointed to the success of immigrant groups -- Irish, Jews, Italians -- at lifting themselves out of poverty. The commission addressed itself directly to this analogy, and found it inapplicable; because of racism, the black was more securely fixed in his inferior status than any white immigrant group had ever been. Economically exploited and locked into poverty, politically powerless despite the Fifteenth Amendment and the voting laws of 1957, 1960, and 1965, the blacks in major American cities turned to violence in the hot summers of the mid-1960s. The commission interpreted that violence as a protest against intolerable conditions, and spent more of its time considering how the causes of violence might be eliminated than on how riots might be controlled when they broke out.

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