William Jelani Cobb (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Kerner Commission Revisited in Book Talk

Shepherd University’s Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education hosted a book talk with Dr. Jelani Cobb last week, along with Shepherdstown’s Four Seasons Books. Around 105 participants tuned in over Zoom to witness his lecture about why his book had an impact on civilization and the history behind it all. The book he edited with Matthew Guariglia is called “The Essential Kerner Commission Report.”

Dr. Cobb is a staff writer for the New Yorker and, since 2012, he’s been a professor of journalism at the Columbia School of Journalism. He is currently a director of the Institute for African American Studies at the University of Connecticut, along with his roles as a distinguished professor, historian, and author.

Jody Brumage, director of Education and Outreach at the Bryd Center, and Dr. Ray Smock, former historian of the House of Representatives and currently interim director of the Byrd Center, formally introduced Dr. Cobb. Dr. Smock, before finishing his introduction, said  Dr.Cobb edited the Kerner Report for a new generation, so the new generation can have a sense of the length of historic events and how they pertain to what is happening today.

Dr. Cobb was born in Queens, New York. He started off with two questions he always gets before he goes fully into his seminars.

“Why do we put this book out? What makes it important now?”

He explained that he put it out because of the events taking place today. He called it a “conflation effect,” which means everything blends together. The example he used was the death of George Floyd. The police brutality many people witnessed through social media sparked a recognition of what happens in the world.

“A large population of the country was unaware.”

This tragic death had wakened people’s emotions that many thought never existed until the footage had been shared with them. Other questions had risen along with these people watching the footage:

“How did we get here? How could something like this happen?”

In the next portion of the talk, Dr. Cobb answered those questions with pieces of history within the Kerner Report. The report stated that there was an increase in Black communities within cities when many of these people migrated north from the South; this occurred within urban environments. Police were deployed to prevent Black people from spending much time outside their own  presences in other cities.

“It was an allergic reaction to white Northerners.”

However, an incident had begun to change people’s views on what the police were doing.

 “1935, in Harlem, there was an incident in which a young Puerto Rican man is arrested…and beaten before the other shoppers and onlookers.”

Seeing police officer using physical force caused many people to riot across Harlem. There was a decision for a study to take place in order to understand what happened and why it happened. These studies included: hearings, testimonies in front of Congress, visitations to cities, et cetera.

The Kerner Commission Report, published in March 1968, was the most widely read government study in history at that time. However, after Martin Luther King’s death a month later, more than 100 cities experienced violence. This violence caused reaction from the report to go downhill from there.

In this portion of the seminar, Dr. Cobb took questions from the audience.

  1. Q. What were some of the actual findings that they made? How did they arrive at those findings through their visits or the testimony? What were some of the high points of that process? A. “There needed to be 2 million jobs created immediately. There needed to be 6 million new housing units created in the country. There needed to be a revision of the welfare system, that actually allowed people to live above the poverty level. The media needed to be revamped, to be diversified…Reporting on these incidents tended to inflame tensions even more.”
  2. Q. Did the Kerner Commission address that [funding of education] as a part of its review of education? What recommendations did they make? How does that legacy continue to play it out in inequality in education? A.“I don’t recall the commission addressing the property tax issues specifically, but they do address the disparity in educational funding. They look institutionally, but each kind of front of racial discrimination and in the disparity is that are implicit within it. One of the things they call for is an overhaul of urban education and saying that education needs to be funded in a massively higher level than it currently is, but it’s possible that in the original text they talk about the property tax issue but not anything that comes up in my recollection.”
  3. Q. Has the press come anywhere close to achieving the integration that they called for in the Kerner Commission report? A. “No. The press will kind of revisit these questions. They’re have been two cycles of this in recent years, somewhat recent years. The first was after Barack Obama was elected; you started to see more black people show up in media roles, as reporters, as commentators, as various participants. I kind of jokingly said that one day I turned on CNN and thought I was watching BET. Quite frankly, I think media was shamed into being aggressively interested in diversity. The second was after George Floyd; where people, again, kind of revisited that question. We still kind of have largely underrepresented groups for African Americans, for Latinos, for Asian Americans, certainly for Native Americans.”

Dr. Cobb then closed with reading sections of his book. In summary of his readings, the book said that with the type of government reports, there were some that were a one-time scenario, while others were repeating. Yet, they all exist alongside each other.

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