How Far Has Civil Rights Come?

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[April 9, 2008]  This year is the 40th anniversary of the release of the Kerner Commission report. The Kerner Commission was officially the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, chaired by the governor of Illinois, Otto Kerner.  Nonprofits ought to think about the importance of this occasion for the sector, how far our society has come, how far it really has to go, and what the nonprofit sector’s role might be.  

The Commission’s final report imparted to our national consciousness the famous line, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” How often since the report’s release (followed by the death of Dr. King) have we had to think about the implications of that line for the nonprofit sector? As some foundations think about potential government requirements to report on the equitability of their grantmaking (and their own internal staffing and board governance) regarding racial and ethnic composition, it might be appropriate to put the discussion into a Kerner Commission context.

Maybe foundation people, many of whom seem to treat “diversity” as a recently discovered concept, might be well advised to look at the nonprofit provenance of some of the members of this forgotten commission and their importance to the nonprofit sector’s treatment of racial/ethnic issues today.

Some of us remember former Oklahoma Senator Fred Harris fondly for his populist run for the Democratic presidential nomination in the 1970s. But he currently serves on the board of the Common Cause Education Fund, dedicated to clean elections, and his wife, LaDonna Harris, is the founder of Americans for Indian Opportunity, a very important advocacy and service organization for Native Americans. Harris is one of the few living members of the Kerner Commission, and his lifework reflects the currency of the Commission’s recommendations to today’s conditions.

People forget that President Johnson also appointed Roy Wilkins to the Commission in his capacity as executive director of the NAACP. It was a time when civil rights organizations were accorded great credibility both in the public and among funders. But as the press has well covered, the NAACP has suffered over the years since Wilkins retired and was replaced by Ben Hooks and others, and some other well known civil rights mainstays have withered.[1]   But all of civil rights have faced reduced support from institutional philanthropy: The Foundation Center’s annual reviews of the largest foundations’ funding by type of recipient shows their total grants increasing by 26.7 percent, but grant dollars to civil rights organizations decreasing by 0.6 percent between 2000 and 2006.

Looking back twenty years later on the riots that led to the formation of the Commission, Commission vice-chair John V. Lindsay referred to conditions as a “slow motion riot,” [2] people not necessarily taking to the streets, but nonetheless disconnected from the mainstream of the nation’s economy and society. Forty years later, for a large segment of the population, it may still be a slow motion riot. And forty years later, Commission member Fred Harris is still putting the question of racial equity squarely in front of the American public.

Harris is a trustee of the Eisenhower Foundation, which just issued a retrospective on how the nation has lived up to and fallen short of the Kerner Commission. The Foundation’s report [3] noted, among other findings, that African-American unemployment has been twice as high as white unemployment all four decades since the release of the Kerner Commission report, only 31 percent of middle income African-American children compared to 68 percent of white middle income children grow up to surpass their parents’ inflation adjusted incomes, and that full-time white employees earn 22 percent more than equivalent African-American workers and 34 percent of equivalent Latino employees. [4]

One dimension of the Kerner Commission’s investigations was an examination of the anti-poverty program, at that point undermined by the Johnson Administration’s competing commitment to fund a massive military commitment in Southeast Asia. The war on poverty, as it as called, found some of its origins in the Ford Foundation’s Gray Areas program. People continue to debate whether the Gray Areas agencies and their successor community action program agencies were helpful or harmful, but what stands out about the Ford Foundation’s work in that area was a vision of racial/ethnic equity and social justice. Today’s philanthropic discussions about “diversity” sometimes feel off the mark, perhaps intentionally so, a papering over of the racial and ethnic divides, undergirded by economic inequalities, that persist and fester in our society.

Footnotes

1.  See Darryl Fears, “Civil Rights Groups Seeing Gradual End of Their Era ”, Washington Post (April 5, 2008),
2.  John V. Lindsay, “Slow Motion Riot ”, in New Perspectives Quarterly (Winter, 1987),
3.  Although he never attended a meeting or met his colleagues, this writer is listed as a member of the 40th Anniversary Kerner Commission Advisory Task Force as a result of having contributed ideas about the potential roles and shortcomings of community development corporations (CDCs) and foundations in responding to the Commission’s recommendations.
4.  USA Today