by Kevin Henning, KCDP Chair
for the KCDP weekly newsletter, August 2, 2020
Last week an NPR segment mentioned the Kerner Commission and I was curious to learn more. Near the end of LBJ’s Presidency he commissioned two studies in the aftermath of a period of civil unrest in Black and Latino neighborhoods, and the murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Both commissions were bi-partisan and provided conclusions and recommendations that were prophetic. Needless to say, they never were implemented to any significant degree.
In March 1968, the Kerner Commission or the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders condemned state and federal government for failed housing, education and social services policies. It also berated the press for its white perspective. The report declared that “white racism—not black anger—turned the key that unlocked urban American turmoil”. It called for massive programs to create jobs, new housing and to end de-facto segregation by investing billions in housing programs aimed at eliminating residential segregation. It also called for hiring more diverse and sensitive police.
The Violence Prevention Commission report was issued in December of 1969. It concluded that the most important policy issue was lack of employment and educational opportunity in inner city neighborhoods. It recommended massive expenditures in jobs, training and education. It recommended highly restrictive new gun laws.
Unfortunately, Lyndon Johnson did not have the political capital to expand his Great Society program and fund the tens of billions of dollars proposed by these two commissions. Also, as a backlash to the Vietnam war and expanding social programs, conservatives began their rise to power and Richard Nixon became the next President.
LBJ’s legacy of civil rights, poverty, education and health initiatives is remarkable. The core of the Great Society were programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, federal aid to education, environmental and safety legislation, new provisions for mental health facilities, manpower training, Head Start, aid to urban mass transit, a housing act, and an act for higher education. The four civil rights bills of his administration were the capstone of this marvelous legislative achievement. The Johnson Administration submitted 87 bills to Congress, and Johnson signed 96%, by far the most successful legislative agenda in US congressional history.
So, what has happened? The recommendations of the Kerner Commission and the Violence Prevention Commission were not implemented. The Reagan presidency set about to gut the Great Society programs. Also, Reagan was no champion of civil rights. The Supreme Court’s conservative justices gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Republican Paul Ryan, former Speaker of the House and VP Candidate tried to gut Medicare and Medicaid. Texas Republicans refused Medicaid expansion leaving hundreds of thousands of Texans out in the cold, particularly hurtful now during the pandemic. The Republicans led by Trump have done all they can to destroy the Affordable Care Act while giving huge tax breaks to the rich.
Rather than implementing social programs that would advance race relations and help those less fortunate, our leaders chose to militarize the police and ignore the warning and advice from 50 years ago. We now find ourselves in almost the same place. It is disheartening to see how little progress has been made. This must change. We must elect Democrats who will enact policy reforms to get us heading in the right direction. We must enact the John Lewis Voting Rights Act . We must all step up and make a difference.
Be sure to “Vote Blue” and remember don’t stop at the top, vote for every Democrat.
Thank you for your support of the KCDP.
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