10/10/2017 1:54:00 PM Last Kerner Commission member speaks
CORRALES, N.M. (AP) — Nearly 50 years after the Kerner Commission studied the causes of deadly riots in America’s cities, its last surviving member says he remains haunted that its recommendations on U.S. race relations and poverty were never adopted.
But former U.S. Sen. Fred Harris of Oklahoma also said he’s hopeful those ideas will be embraced one day, and he’s encouraged by Black Lives Matter and other social movements.
In an interview with The Associated Press, the 86-year-old Harris said he still feels strongly that poverty and structural racism enflame racial tensions, even as the United States becomes more diverse.
“Today, there are more people in America who are poor — both in numbers and greater percentage,” Harris told the AP from his home in Corrales, New Mexico. “And poor people today are poorer than they were then. It’s harder to get out of poverty.”
The nation’s poverty rate was 14.2 percent in 1967 compared to 14 percent last year, according to the U.S. Census.
And despite five decades of civil rights and voting rights advancements, cities and schools “have re-segregated,” Harris said. He cited recent federal data that showed the number of poor schools with mainly Latino and black students more than doubled from 2001 to 2014.
The resulting tensions sometimes play out in clashes with police, as seen recently in St. Louis, Baltimore and Charlotte, North Carolina.
Only by getting the general population concerned about racial disparity, poor housing and proper job training will the United States finally tackle the underlying causes of the urban riots of the 1960s and the police-minority tensions of today, Harris said.
“We can help people to see that we didn’t solve these problems,” Harris said. “No, they are still with us, and in some ways, poverty is worse.”
Of the Kerner Commission’s members, who included former Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner, New York Mayor John Lindsay and U.S. Sen. Edward W. Brooke of Massachusetts, only Harris remains.
The late President Lyndon Johnson created the 11-member commission in 1967 as Detroit was engulfed in a raging riot. Five days of violence would leave 33 blacks and 10 whites dead, and more than 1,400 buildings burned. More than 7,000 people were arrested.
The panel concluded that the nation should spend billions revitalizing struggling cities, improving police relations and ending housing and job discrimination.
“I think if we can get people to see that these problems are still with us,” Harris said, “that it’s in the interests of all of us, to do something about it.”