From 1965 to 1967, more than a hundred US cities were convulsed with riots, another chapter in a long history of violence in America related to race. The promise of the recently passed Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act stood starkly against the poverty endemic to the segregated ghettos across the land.
President Lyndon Johnson set up the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders in 1967, asking three questions. What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?
This commission released a report in February 1968. It noted that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” It faulted failed policies relating to housing, education, and social services, and noted that society’s institutions created the ghettos, which society condoned. It talked about racism as a factor in the violence.
The report recommended the hiring of more diverse and sensitive police forces, housing programs designed to break up racial segregation, and programs to bring needed social services. Americans purchased two million copies of the report; Martin Luther King said it was “a physician’s warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life.”
One month later, King lay dead, assassinated by a white supremacist. Rioting broke out again in a hundred cities. The recommendations in the report were forgotten.
The American miracle has produced so much for so many even as its blessings have been, and are, unevenly distributed. I’m convinced its foundation is the degree to which each of us is free to unlock the highest fraction of our own potential. We would be richer as a people if that freedom were more true for more people, if it extended more fully to each of us, and to our children, regardless of the zip code in which they grow up or the color of their skin or any of the other factors which so needlessly divide us.
Fifty years after the Kerner Report, we face the same old, same old. Our institutions are made of people; they reflect us; their failings are our failings. Fifty years from now, our progress will be measured by how much potential might be unlocked instead of untapped for how many people. Our actions in business and in life can make a difference, can have an impact – as people dealing with people, united in our humanity.
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