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NABJ Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of the Kerner Report



NABJ Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of the Kerner Report


Les Payne

NABJ Founder


The street action of the July riots in Newark, in 1967, followed by Detroit two weeks later highlighted African-Americans’ long-standing racial intolerance with the precipitating brutality of the uniformed, police/national guard. Typically, these armed agents of the state were not held accountable for reckless and deadly terror against black citizenry. (Sounds current?)

In wake of such civil disorders in some 159 cities, President Lyndon B. Johnson fielded a commission to investigate causes and to make recommendations for change.

Thus it was the action of blacks affirming their discontent in the streets that triggered the LBJ Administration hurriedly to concoct an affirmative reaction. This pattern is not unlike the ominous slave revolts that ultimately drove Lincoln and the nation to react affirmatively to this dastardly crime against humanity by offering up self-serving pronouncements.

President Johnson started by seating the “National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.” And among its 426-page report, this Kerner Commission indeed noted critically that, in 1968, "the press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men's eyes and white perspective."

The “journalistic profession,” the report noted, was “shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring, training, and promoting Negroes. Fewer than 5 percent of the people employed by the news business in editorial jobs in the United States today are Negroes. Fewer than 1 percent of editors and supervisors are Negroes, and most of them work for Negro-owned organizations.” This sharp rebuke of the racial misbehavior of those in power was as surprising to white Americans—including President Johnson—as it was encouraging to African-Americans long under the jackboot.

Almost immediately, the urgency of Kerner recommendations, released on Feb. 29, 1968, was heightened critically by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King--whose white killer escaped Memphis and roamed the world free for some 66 days. This gross lack of accountability for terror against African-Americans triggered another round of revolt in cities across the nation. Still, with the election of President Richard “Law ‘n Order” Nixon, instead of “deliberate speed” enactment of Kerner recommendations, they were doomed by the White House and subject never to be realized.

One of the few exceptions in media was Newsday that hired six blacks, in 1969, including me, under a policy directed by publisher Bill Moyers. Perhaps not coincidentally, Moyers, while serving as President Johnson’s Press Secretary had monitored the '65 Watts riots, and the ’67 revolt in Detroit and elsewhere, and was privy to the planning stages of the LBJ Commission, including the selection of Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner.

However, as with the few other fair-minded newspaper managers, Moyers’ hiring policy for blacks met enormous resistance from top Newsday editors and subsequently he, himself was let go reportedly with bitter agreement by both Newsday owners and the acquiring Los Angeles Times that Moyers, who had been LBJ’s liberal brain on White House policy, was a “pinko, radical” misfit for white, Long Island suburbanites favoring Nixon and the Vietnam War.   

Just as President Johnson largely ignored the Kerner Commission’s conclusion that white racism was driving the nation “toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal”; most newspapers in the republic discounted its media recommendations that they must recruit, hire and fairly promote more blacks in order to better cover the news.

Well into the 1970’s, the media industry had blatantly failed to heed the Kerner Commission--to say nothing of the pronouncements of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Instead, they promulgated a plethora of affirmative reaction programs they had no intentions of enforcing.          

Thus a gathering of the few black journalists that had found their way into the craft organized among themselves. Straightaway, the charter members of the National Association of Black Journalists set out to increase their numbers dramatically within the industry, to improve the treatment, recognition and compensation of the few already in place, all toward the end of improving the horrible media coverage of the domestic, black communities and those of the so-called Third World populations abroad.

As the 1954 Brown Decision would have remained just empty words had black students, and later adults, not taken to the streets and the lunch counters, the Kerner Report would have landed in the wastebasket of LBJ--were it not for the early campaigning of black pioneer journalists who founded NABJ; so much for white, altruism.

None of this is to say that the modicum of success that NABJ has achieved over the years, and for which it should be proud, has transformed mainstream media into a paradigm of racial fairness. Indeed, the current, tumultuous period of transition, especially for newspapers, has created a greater need for vigorous and ever more creative enterprise by dedicated members of NABJ and its supporters.

Currently, a half century after the Kerner Commission’s sharp and earnest critique of racism in America, its findings remain a beacon trained on the racial misbehavior of those in power and a study lamp—as well as a GPS system--for those struggling to make the republic and the world a better place for all its citizens and inhabitants.  

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