How sad that the contents and conclusions of this report are still relevant, and still ignored, today, 50 years after it was released in response to the riots in Newark and Detroit of the “long hot” summer of 1967. I found this book after seeing Dr. King’s response to the question, during the Memphis garbage workers’ strike, of what it would take to prevent or call off his Poor People’s March on Washington: the answer was to implement the recommendations in this report.
The report was commissioned to find out what caused the rioting, not how to prevent further riots. The clearest distinctions between those who actively participated in the rioting and their neighbors who did not, at least at the start of each riot, was the trigger of having witnessed or experienced police brutality. But what primed that trigger for action was the underlying anger, poverty, constant discrimination, and despair to which the Black community in particular was subjected over a very long period of time.
The report called for various measures to be taken which would have improved the lives not only of members of the Black community, but also everyone else in the nation. Measures like the elimination of sub-standard housing in inner-cities, building new schools, health centers, and community facilities, and introducing a guaranteed minimum income would help all citizens, not only those bereft of resources and hope when they were freed with only the clothing on their backs, unable to melt into White American society. From the disrespect by police, to the lack of garbage collection in inner-city neighborhoods, Black Americans were fed up with White America’s deliberate disregard for “the realities of life for many poor blacks” in the United States. This anger, combined with the criminalization of poverty (which was just beginning to kick off the era of Mass Incarceration), the lack of Black faces in [the media, police, highly paid professions and other areas of potential] power, led to a sense of hopelessness and fear that non-violent resistance would never break down a system which was inherently designed to break down the Black community. Ideas like the War on Drugs, brought back by Reagan after the Carter years, and Law and Order, parroted by both right and left, muddied the discourse around solving the problems that led to the riots, instead creating a cloud of convenient reasons to blame inner-city Black communities for their problems while ignoring the structural issues that had created and perpetuated the problems since the slavery era.
The conclusion drawn by the report, above all, was that the entire nation needed education and “a richer portrait of life in urban areas” and to hire many many more Black police officers.
I think that many of the issues of perspective mentioned in the book by the author in his analysis of the report and its time are now beginning to be looked at again, as the discussion around White Privilege becomes louder and more mainstream. That discussion is a necessary but insufficient part of the solution to our current problems, which go back to pre-existing problems pointed out by the report. Please read this book on the Commission report (and also see Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin), and then, write your reps!
Pages I found especially relevant included:
P. 6: 1966 result of creation of ghettos by the 1930s-50s urban renewal aka Negro Removal all across the USA
** P. 12: What a contrast: only 1/100 white people thought that blacks were poorly treated in the USA…
***Ribicoff P. 37: recos…
P. 100: “in the ghetto” last garbage collection (if at all), police disrespectful, school & housing dilapidated
P. 228 (and the answer to that boot-straps baloney:) discrimination and segregation prevented many blacks from following the same patterns which had been followed by immigrant groups, and limited blacks to all but the lowest … jobs
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