By Ellen McGirt
July 12, 2017

While we’re waiting for Christopher Wray, President Trump’s nominee for FBI chief, to share his diversity plan with the Senate Judiciary Committee and the wider world, it’s worth reflecting on an important law enforcement-related anniversary happening today.

On July 12, 1967, an unfounded report began to circulate that Newark, N.J. police officers had beaten a black taxi driver to death. (In reality he’d survived the beating, which he received for “tailgating” the officers’ cruiser.) The city’s black population, exhausted by police abuse, inadequate city services, and long-standing economic oppression, exploded. Errin Haines Whack, a member of The Associated Press’ race and ethnicity team, begins her story on the anniversary by framing the event as an early awakening for northern white society:

For four days in July, Newark was the epicenter of black rage. The rioting left 26 dead, more than 700 injured and nearly 1,500 arrested, mostly black. In addition to the $10 million in property damage, the riots left economic and emotional scars on Brick City that, in many ways, have not yet healed.

Newark was a deadly entry in the long list of major urban areas that exploded over a five-year period, among them Watts in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston and New York’s Harlem. Days after Newark burned, Detroit followed. The disorders exposed — for the first time to much of white America — racial and economic disparities that went far beyond the familiar scenes of segregation in the South.

In the aftermath of the Newark and Detroit riots, President Lyndon B. Johnson commissioned an 11-member National Advisory Committee on Civil Disorders to help explain why these cities were rising up. The committee’s 1968 findings, known informally as the Kerner Report, were astonishing in their candor. “The abrasive relationship between the police and the minority communities has been a major — and explosive — source of grievance, tension and disorder,” the report read. “The blame must be shared by the total society.”

Below is an excerpt from the report’s introduction. Reading it, I’m having a hard time imagining the current administration producing such an eloquent and courageous call to action. Fifty years later, the promise of justice lies elsewhere.

This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.

Reaction to last summer’s disorders has quickened the movement and deepened the division. Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American.

This deepening racial division is not inevitable. The movement apart can be reversed. Choice is still possible. Our principal task is to define that choice and to press for a national resolution.

To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values.

The alternative is not blind repression or capitulation to lawlessness. It is the realization of common opportunities for all within a single society.

This alternative will require a commitment to national action—compassionate, massive and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and the richest nation on this earth. From every American it will require new attitudes, new understanding, and, above all, new will.

The vital needs of the nation must be met; hard choices must be made, and, if necessary, new taxes enacted.

Violence cannot build a better society. Disruption and disorder nourish repression, not justice. They strike at the freedom of every citizen. The community cannot—it will not—tolerate coercion and mob rule.

Violence and destruction must be ended—in the streets of the ghetto and in the lives of people.

Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans.

What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain, and white society condones it.

It is time now to turn with all the purpose at our command to the major unfinished business of this nation. It is time to adopt strategies for action that will produce quick and visible progress. It is time to make good the promises of American democracy to all citizens—urban and rural, white and black, Spanish-surname, American Indian, and every minority group.


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