The Kerner Commission Is Appointed
The Kerner Commission was established one week after the start of the Detroit riot, in which forty-three persons were killed, more than seventy-two hundred arrests were made, and approximately $40 million worth of damage was done to property. Eleven commissioners were personally named by President Johnson. As a body, the commission was weighted sharply toward the ranks of elected national officials and exuded an aura of moderation. Liberals of both parties predominated; neither southern Democrats nor black nationalists were represented; organized labor, big business, established civil rights organizations, and police departments each had some voice, and the commission included one female and two black Americans. The commission's executive director, also designated by Johnson himself, was David Ginsburg, a Washington attorney. Not a single one of the commissioners was a social or behavioral scientist (although Fred Harris could certainly claim to be an advocate), and Ginsburg's credentials were obviously political rather than scientific, leading one blunt critic to dismiss him as Johnson's "chief political cadre." This insensitive oversight elicited pointed criticism from the intellectual community and resulted, in the short run, in the appointment of psychiatrist W. Walter Menninger (one of William Menninger's sons) to a subsequent presidential commission.
The seven months between 27 July 1967 and 1 March 1968, when
the commission's final report was released, were crammed with work for commissioners, their staff, and outside consultants. The deadline for a final report, which was unrealistic in the first place, was pushed up by six months, making the already hectic pace of work almost unbearable, and even calling its quality into question. Almost no one involved believed that seven months was adequate time to methodically review all the facts about urban rioting, let alone produce a scientific explanation of its causes. But they were animated by a shared sense of terrible crisis and by the tremendous power and responsibility of telling the federal government how to cope.
In spite of the mad rush, the final report became an instant bestseller, with the result that its famous conclusion—"Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal"—was widely discussed even if the Johnson administration was too far gone to do anything about it. The Bantam paperback press run of thirty thousand sold out in three days and another 1.6 million copies were sold between March and June 1968. Marlon Brando, in a personal effort to raise the racial consciousness of his fellow citizens, even did a dramatic reading from the report on a late-night television talk show.