The Kerner Report at 50: Riots, Policing, and Liberalism in Crisis

AHA Session 190
Saturday, January 6, 2018: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Thurgood Marshall North (Marriott Wardman Park, Mezzanine Level)
Patricia A. Sullivan, University of South Carolina
Daniel Geary, Trinity College, Dublin
Elizabeth Hinton, Harvard University
Robert Shellow, Bethesda, Maryland
Julian Zelizer, Princeton University and CNN

Session Abstract

This roundtable marks the fiftieth anniversary of the “Kerner Report,” released in 1968. In response to a wave of urban riots by African Americans during the “long, hot summer” of 1967, President Lyndon Johnson established the National Advisor Commission on Civil Disorders (headed by Otto Kerner.) The widely-read report pinpointed “white racism” as the root cause of the riots and criticized the violent overreactions by police forces.

The Kerner Report is a vital part of the histories of American liberalism, African American oppression, rioting, and policing. It is especially relevant today as police wrongdoing, racial inequality, and black rebellion—the topics addressed by the Kerner Report—are once again on the national agenda following widely-publicized police murders and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

This panel adopts a roundtable format consisting of short (10-15) minute prepared remarks from each speaker, followed by ample time for discussion amongst the panellists and questions and comments from the audience. It has four speakers: three historians who have written about the Kerner Report and one participant who worked for the Kerner Commission.

Each panellist will address a different component of the Kerner Report and its legacy. Daniel Geary will explore how the Kerner Report reveals deep divisions among American liberals over how to address racial inequality that surfaced during the late 1960s. Elizabeth Hinton will examine the report’s treatment of policing in the context of the emergence of aggressive federal crime policy. Julian Zelizer will show how the report responded to a conservative backlash on issues of race and “law and order.” Finally, Robert Shellow will offer a participant’s perspective, reflecting on his role as head of the Kerner Commission’s Social Science Division who was fired for producing a draft report seen as too radical a critique of American institutions.

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