During the mid-1960’s, racial riots rocked many large cities throughout the United States. These riots caused millions of dollars in property damages, and resulted in many deaths and arrests. In 1966, President Johnson appointed an advisory commission to study the causes of these riots, and to suggest preventative measures against future riots. This commission issued a report detailing what had happened, why it happened, and how to make sure it did not happen again. The following paper will detail the Kerner Commission appointments and findings. Also, the commission’s recommendations will be discussed. The commission’s effects on local planning will be discussed, as well as the similarities of the Kerner report with the theory of urban decay. Lastly, the government’s role in planning and personal rights will be summarized.

Kerner Commission Report:

On July 28, 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson established an eleven-member commission to investigate the causes of race riots in the United States (Kerner report, 2012). Riots in major cities had taken place in the previous three years as well, most notably in Los Angeles, Chicago, Newark, and Detroit. Officially called the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, the commission was chaired by Governor Otto Kerner, Jr., Governor of Illinois (Kerner report, 2012). The commission also included John Lindsay, Mayor of New York City; Edward Brooke, Senator, Massachusetts; Fred Harris, Senator, Oklahoma; James Corman, Congressman, California; William McCulloch, Congressman, Ohio; Charles Thornton, defense contractor; Roy Wilkins, Executive Director of the NAACP; I.W. Abel, President of the US Steelworkers of America; Herbert Jenkins, Police Chief of Atlanta; and Katherine Peden, Commissioner of Commerce, Kentucky (Kerner report, 2012). 

President Johnson asked for answers to three questions concerning the riots. 

What happened? 

Why did it happen? 

What can be done to prevent it from happening again? 

The riots in the summer of 1967 alone had caused between $75 million and $100 million in damages, and resulted in at least eighty-four deaths (Flanagan, 2003). Federal troops had been used to put down the riots in Detroit. In Detroit, there were forty-three deaths, over 7,000 arrests, and nearly 1,400 burned buildings (Flanagan, 2003). The commission’s final report was issued on March 1, 1968.

Report Findings:

When President Johnson created the Advisory Commission in 1967, he suspected that the commission would find evidence of a political conspiracy among urban black militants (Flanagan, 2003). The commission, however, found no evidence of a political conspiracy. More specifically, “ the Commission found no evidence that all or any of the disorders or the incidents that led to them were planned or directed by any organization or group, international, national, or local” (Report of the national advisory commission on civil disorders, 1968, p. 8). 

The commission concluded that a pattern of economic deprivation and racial discrimination caused great anger in ghetto areas and created conditions conducive to rioting (Flanagan, 2003). The commission also identified twelve specific and consistent grievances that rioters shared. Ranked in level of intensity, these are: Police practices; Unemployment and underemployment; Inadequate housing; Inadequate education; Poor recreation facilities and programs; Ineffectiveness of the political structure and grievance mechanisms; Disrespectful white attitudes; Discriminatory administration of justice; Inadequacy of federal programs; Inadequacy of municipal services; Discriminatory consumer and credit practices; and Inadequate welfare programs (Report of the national advisory commission on civil disorders, 1968). In support of these grievances, the commission found that the basic cause of the explosive nature of these riots were white racism. The report listed the key ingredients leading to the riots as: 

“*Pervasive discrimination and segregation in employment, education and housing, which have resulted in the continuing exclusion of great numbers of Negroes from the benefits of economic progress.

* Black in-migration and white exodus, which have produced the massive and growing concentrations of impoverished Negroes in our major cities, creating a growing crisis of deteriorating facilities and services and unmet human needs.

* The black ghettos where segregation and poverty converge on the young to destroy opportunity and enforce failure. Crime, drug addiction, dependency on welfare, and bitterness and resentment against society in general and white society in particular are the result.” (Report of the national advisory commission on civil disorders, 1968, p. 9).

A key to the riots, as reported by the commission, was the presence of ghettos. Ghettos are defined by the commission as “an area within a city characterized by poverty and acute social disorganization, and inhabited by members of a racial or ethnic group under conditions of involuntary segregation” (Report of the national advisory commission on civil disorders, 1968, p. 25). The commission reported that black population has grown significantly in major metropolitan areas, while the white population had decreased in those areas, while growing in the suburban areas. This black in-migration and white out-migration has created areas of concentrations of blacks in major cities. Combined with deteriorating facilities and services, ghettos are the result.

Report Recommendations:

The commission’s investigations of the 1967 riots concluded that each episode of violence in major cities was preceded by an accumulation of unresolved grievances, and the local government’s lack of willingness or lack of ability to respond (Report of the national advisory commission on civil disorders, 1968). At the local level, the commission had the following specific recommendations:

“* Develop Neighborhood Action Task Forces as joint community government efforts through which more effective communication can be achieved, and the delivery of city services to ghetto residents improved.

* Establish comprehensive grievance-response mechanisms in order to bring all public agencies under public scrutiny.

* Bring the institutions of local government closer to the people they serve by establishing neighborhood outlets for local, state and federal administrative and public service agencies.

* Expand opportunities for ghetto residents to participate in the formulation of public policy and the implementation of programs affecting them through improved political representation, creation of institutional channels for community action, expansion of legal services, and legislative hearings on ghetto problems.

* Review police operations in the ghetto to ensure proper conduct by police officers, and eliminate abrasive practices.

* Provide more adequate police protection to ghetto residents to eliminate their high sense of insecurity, and the belief of many Negro citizens in the existence of a dual standard of law enforcement.’

* Establish fair and effective mechanisms for the redress of grievances against the police, and other municipal employees.

* Develop and adopt policy guidelines to assist officers in making critical decisions in areas where police conduct can create tension.

* Develop and use innovative programs to ensure widespread community support for law enforcement.

* Recruit more Negroes into the regular police force, and review promotion policies to ensure fair promotion for Negro officers.

* Establish a “Community Service Officer” program to attract ghetto youths between the ages of 17 and 21 to police work. These junior officers would perform duties in ghetto neighborhoods, but would not have full police authority. The federal government should provide support equal to 90 percent of the costs of employing CSOs on the basis of one for every ten regular officers.” (Report of the national advisory commission on civil disorders, 1968, p. 15).

The commission recognized that the federal government had to take actions to reduce the economic disparity between black and white populations. To accomplish this, the commission recommended that the federal government take the following actions:

“* Undertake joint efforts with cities and states to consolidate existing manpower programs to avoid fragmentation and duplication.

* Take immediate action to create 2,000,000 new jobs over the next three years—one million in the public sector and one million in the private sector-to absorb the hard-core unemployed and materially reduce the level of underemployment for all workers, black and white. We propose 250,000 public sector and 300,000 private sector jobs in the first year.

* Provide on-the-job training by both public and private employers with reimbursement to private employers for the extra costs of training the hard-core unemployed, by contract or by tax credits.

* Provide tax and other incentives to investment in rural as well as urban poverty areas in order to offer to the rural poor an alternative to migration to urban centers.

* Take new and vigorous action to remove artificial barriers to employment and promotion, including not only racial discrimination but, in certain cases, arrest records or lack of a high school diploma. Strengthen those agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charged with eliminating discriminatory practices, and provide full support for Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act allowing federal grant-in-aid funds to be withheld from activities which discriminate on grounds of color or race.

* Sharply increased efforts to eliminate de facto segregation in our schools through substantial federal aid to school systems seeking to desegregate either within the system or in cooperation with neighboring school systems.

* Elimination of racial discrimination in Northern as well as Southern schools by vigorous application of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

* Extension of quality early childhood education to every disadvantaged child in the country.

* Efforts to improve dramatically schools serving disadvantaged children through substantial federal funding of year-round compensatory education programs, improved teaching, and expanded experimentation and research.

* Elimination of illiteracy through greater federal support for adult basic education.

* Enlarged opportunities for parent and community participation in the public schools.

* Reoriented vocational education emphasizing work-experience training and the involvement of business and industry.

* Expanded opportunities for higher education through increased federal assistance to disadvantaged students.

* Revision of state aid formulas to assure more per student aid to districts having a high proportion of disadvantaged school-age children.

* Establish uniform national standards of assistance at least as high as the annual “poverty level” of income, now set by the Social Security Administration at $3,335 per year for an urban family of four.

* Require that all states receiving federal welfare contributions participate in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children Unemployed Parents program (AFDC-UP) that permits assistance to families with both father and mother in the home, thus aiding the family while it is still intact.

* Bear a substantially greater portion of all welfare costs-at least 90 percent of total payments.

* Increase incentives for seeking employment and job training, but remove restrictions recently enacted by the Congress that would compel mothers of young children to work.

* Provide more adequate social services through neighborhood centers and family-planning programs.

* Remove the freeze placed by the 1967 welfare amendments on the percentage of children in a state that can be covered by federal assistance.

*Eliminate residence requirements.

* Expansion and modification of the rent supplement program to permit use of supplements for existing housing, thus greatly increasing the reach of the program.

* Expansion and modification of the below-market interest rate program to enlarge the interest subsidy to all sponsors and provide interest-free loans to nonprofit sponsors to cover pre-construction costs, and permit sale of projects to nonprofit corporations, cooperatives, or condominiums.

* Creation of an ownership supplement program similar to present rent supplements, to make home ownership possible for low-income families.

* Federal write down of interest rates on loans to private builders constructing moderate rent housing.

* Expansion of the public housing program, with emphasis on small units on scattered sites, and leasing and “turnkey” programs.

* Expansion of the Model Cities program.

* Expansion and reorientation of the urban renewal program to give priority to projects directly assisting low-income households to obtain adequate housing.” (Report of the national advisory commission on civil disorders, 1968, p. 21, 23, 25).

Kerner Impact on Regional Planning:

The Kerner Commission, even though rejected by President Johnson, has influenced the way that local planners organize the growth of cities, and the priorities of the federal government in regards to lending and housing. For example, in order to control the load on local infrastructure, housing and business codes are put into place to control the population growth and the business usage of roads, sewers, etc. 

Many cities that have expanded have done so in such a way as to provide a housing level mixture. Lower priced homes and rental housing are often in close proximity to higher-end developments. This decreases the likelihood that similar economic groups will concentrate in localized areas. Also, if the Kerner Commission report is accurate, it increases the likelihood that different ethnic and racial groups will live in close proximity to one another, thereby decreasing the sense of segregation by minority groups. Local planners have also increased their reliance on neighborhood groups as part of the planning process, especially in the area of parks and recreation amenities. 

On the federal level, housing opportunities have been expanded for racial minorities and lower economic level persons by lowering interest rates and increasing incentives for living in certain urban areas. Education and enforcement of the Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 have increased the diversity in schools. The same Title VI has increased employment and grant opportunities for minorities and minority groups.  

Counter to the Kerner Commission findings, Garnett (2007) discusses the flight of certain predominately white groups from the urban core stemming from several other reasons other than race. The first reason was workers in the 1920’s through the 1950’s wanting to escape from the city and their daily jobs by going home to a more rural setting, thus creating suburbs. The second reason was religious in nature, and involved Protestants desire to separate themselves as a group from Catholic and Jewish immigrants. 

Urban Decay and Lack of Planning:

Urban decay is a term used for the physical and social degeneration of major cities, and is characterized by depopulation, property abandonment, social problems, crime, and declining infrastructure (Weis & Arneson, 2011). Often, poor planning, or lack of planning, for the structured growth of a city causes urban decay. There is no single cause of urban decay, but many of the issues cited in the Kerner Commission report relate directly to the cause. The Kerner Commission cited the creation of ghettos through population growth of a single ethnic group as instrumental in the cause of rioting. One of the characteristics of urban decay is declining infrastructure, often caused by a population exceeding the capabilities of the supporting infrastructure. Ghettos are often characterized by declining infrastructure and property abandonment. So, the Kerner Commission’s findings on ghettos are related to a city’s urban decay. Ghetto areas are certainly not planned by local planning agencies, so there creation must be a result of a social issue rather than a planned action. 

The lack of planning for high concentrations of lower economic classes often results in these stresses on infrastructure, as well as a high turnover rate in properties. Other issues that define urban decay are higher rates of graffiti and lower rates of reconstruction. The major issue with graffiti is that in impoverished areas, businesses are less likely to remove that graffiti in a timely manner, creating blight and increasing the rate of urban decay. Buildings that are abandoned or damaged that sit vacant for long periods of time eventually decay and lead to increased urban blight. These issues tend to build upon themselves over time.

Government’s Role:

The government walks a complicated line when considering their role in public projects and issues involving personal rights. The most common conflict is in zoning laws. Local governments create zoning laws for one of two reasons; either to restrict mixed land uses, or to encourage mixed land use. Either way, property owners often find themselves in conflict with zoning laws and what they prefer to do with their property. For example, if a property owner wishes to build a business on their land, but their land is zoned as residential, they have to either petition to re-zone the land, or sell to a developer that wishes to build housing. Housing zones are complicated, as well. Cities that create zoning laws to encourage mixed housing blocks may conflict with an owner that wishes to build a certain type of housing on their property.


In conclusion, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, led by Governor Kerner, issued a very comprehensive report on what happened in the riots of 1967. The report also offered its findings on the causes of those riots, and made specific recommendations at the local and federal level on how to prevent future racial disorders. President Johnson rejected the findings and recommendations of the Commission, but many of the recommendations were put into practice at the federal level, specifically the recommendations on education and housing. 

At the local level, changes in the way cities are planned out for future growth and redevelopment were made, based at least in part on the Kerner Commissions findings and recommendations. These changes in the way local and regional plans are made and carried out are designed to prevent urban decay. In many major cities, there are large areas of urban decay, and it will take many years for the declining areas to be redeveloped in a manner that curbs blight and encourages repopulation and economic growth.


Flanagan, R. (2003). Kerner commission. Dictionary of American History. Retrieved October 4, 2012 from http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3401802242.html.

Garnett, N. (2007). Suburbs as exit, suburbs as entrance. Michigan Law Review, 106(2), 277-304.

Kerner Report. (2012). History Matters. Retrieved October 5, 2012 from http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6545/.

Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. (1968). United States. National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. Retrieved October 5, 2012 from http://www.eisenhowerfoundation.org/docs/kerner.pdf.

Weis, W., & Arnesen, D. (2011). Thriving as a city in year 2020: a model for urban vitality. International Journal of Business and Social Science, 2(21), 8-16.