Constructing the Past

Publication Date

Spring 2008


The relentless heat seemed to breed violence during the summer of 1967, as the simmering resentment in the overcrowded ghettos of American cities finally boiled over into the sun-baked streets. Disputes between local residents and police erupted into scenes of looting and vandalism in Newark and Detroit and conjured up disquieting memories of the 1965 Watts riots. Rioting had also taken place in Tampa, Cincinnati, and Atlanta earlier that summer. In July, troubled by a growing sense of urban lawlessness, President Lyndon Johnston established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, more commonly called the Kerner Commission after its chairman, Illinois Governor Otto Kerner. Johnson instructed the commission to provide a fair assessment of the tide of racially-motivated violence that was sweeping American cities. Their findings, published a year later, were prefaced with a sobering warning: “Our Nation is moving toward two societies,” they wrote, “one black, one white—separate and unequal.” This assessment came at a time when white Americans were becoming increasingly concerned by the call for “Black Power,” a slogan often associated with militant groups such as the Black Panthers. The Kerner Commission’s findings reflect their misgivings about Black Power and their concern that the doctrine would lead to increased racial tensions in American cities and make the goal of integration impossible.