50 years after landmark report on riots, Kerner Commission’s last survivor still worries about racism

1968 Photo of Dr. Harris (right) discussing the Kerner Report with Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner (left) and NAACP Director Roy Wilkins (center). (Source: Associated Press.)

Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich interviewed Fred Harris, a former U.S. Senator from Oklahoma and the last living member of the Kerner Commission, during his recent visit to UIC where he delivered the keynote address for the Great Cities Institute’s “The Kerner Report: 50 Years Later.”

Jobs would become a central theme in what became known as the Kerner Report, which from the moment of its release stirred trouble. It starkly laid out what Harris calls “the wretched poverty and harsh racism and the terrible hostility toward the police, with justification.” It proposed jobs, affordable housing, better schools, an end to racial segregation, and better media coverage of black communities, all of it expensive.

Did the report change anything?

“I think so,” Dr. Harris said. “Using the word racism was important. That was the first time it had ever been in any government document. Black kids internalize this discrimination they’re feeling: ‘Maybe there’s something wrong with me.’ It was really essential to say you’re not crazy.”

Read the full interview here.