A Struggle Unfinished: Riots, Race in America, and the Failures of the 1968 Kerner Commission
Abramson, Samuel Morris
Doctor of Philosophy
This dissertation explores the life of the Kerner Commission—a task force founded by President Lyndon Johnson on the heels of riots across America—from its inception in the summer of 1967 to its aftermath in the spring of 1968. The dissertation examines the primary actors involved with the commission and seeks to explain why they arrived at the conclusions they did, how those who resisted along the way did so, why such conclusions fell on deaf ears, and how the report ultimately failed to accomplish its stated objectives. It argues that the Kerner Commission’s report—a comprehensive study on race in America and the causes of rioting that was unprecedented in its scale and particularly poignant in the afterglow of landmark civil rights legislation—was an inspired, unsparing document that failed for a number of reasons beyond its control, including a cold reception from the Johnson White House, a conservative Congress unwilling to spend due to partisan politics and the Vietnam War, a majority of white Americans believing that the report—in its twin calls for increased domestic spending and focused dialogue to amend white racial attitudes—was misguided, Johnson’s televised announcement that he would not seek reelection, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, among other reasons. This dissertation traces the trajectory of a lost opportunity to confront questions on race, rioting, and unfinished civil rights work in America that remain unanswered to this day.