The Atlantic

The Report on Race That Shook America

It came out in 1968—yet little has changed since the Kerner Commission denounced “white racism.”
Source: Joan Wong

In July 1967, when President Lyndon B. Johnson formed a commission to analyze the riots then engulfing several major American cities, the radical wing of the civil-rights movement eyed his appointees with grave skepticism. Not only did the 11-person commission abound with the most conventional of politicians—including its chairman, Illinois Governor Otto Kerner—but a mere two of them were black. Racial militants might have tolerated that paltry number of seats had they been occupied by firebrands such as Stokely Carmichael, who popularized the term black power, or H. Rap Brown, who routinely railed against “the honkies.” These brazen embodiments of the new generation of civil-rights activism would have reliably conveyed the concerns and frustrations of black youth—a presumably vital task for the commission, given that most rioters ranged from 15 to 24 years old.

Instead of black insurgents, however, Johnson tapped the longtime NAACP doyen Roy Wilkins and Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, two men broadly regarded as more acquainted with executive suites than with edgy streets. Detractors viewed Wilkins as so fearful of bucking the Johnson administration that they branded him “Roy Weak-knees.” Although Brooke had recently become the first black person popularly elected to the Senate, national magazine , Brooke “is looked upon as what might be described as a ‘NASP’—the Negro equivalent of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.” Both Wilkins and Brooke, moreover, had sharply repudiated the nascent black-power movement, going so far as to equate it with white supremacy. Whereas Brooke called Carmichael and the arch-segregationist Lester Maddox “extremists of black power and white power,” Wilkins termed Carmichael’s ethos “a reverse Mississippi, a reverse Hitler, a reverse Ku Klux Klan.”

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Atlantic

The Atlantic3 min readScience
A Joy of Summer Is Vanishing Fast
Every summer until fifth grade, my family took the same vacation to the same town on the Jersey Shore. The days were about as idyllic as possible: lots of sunshine, elaborate sandcastles, afternoon pizza from a few blocks away. At bedtime, when the b
The Atlantic4 min readPolitics
Republicans Changed Their Mind About Higher Education Really Quickly
A majority of them no longer think campuses are setting the country on the right course. What happened?
The Atlantic6 min readPolitics
The Most Powerful Member of the Ruling Class
Using “the ruling class” and “overlords” as shorthand for Trump’s critics is Orwellian nonsense.