WASHINGTON (NNPA) - It was the summer of 1967 and riots raged across America.
Watts, Milwaukee, Detroit, Plainfied and Newark were all sites of explosive racial violence, rooted in social ills emanating from race discrimination.
As elected and civil rights leaders scrambled for answers, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed an 11-member commission, headed by Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner Jr., that issued its observations 40 years ago this week, Feb. 29, 1968.
The commission pointed out that it was a climate of race discrimination in police practices, unemployment and underemployment, inadequate housing, inadequate education and poor recreation facilities and programs that had led to the anger. It also pointed to 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.
However, the most memorable conclusion in the document that has become known as the Kerner Report is as follows: ''Our nation is moving toward two societies, one Black, one White - separate and unequal.''
Civil rights leaders this week declared that this Kerner conclusion was prophetic. Moreover, even with the historic possibility of a Black or female Democratic president, the vastly separate and unequal societies in which America continues to exist, will not become equal and just without specific plans and action.
"In 40 years there has been no plan to heal the breach. There has been more abandonment and less investment in these 40 years," says Rainbow/PUSH President the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. "Today, we still have essentially two societies, one half in a surplus and the other half in a deficit. Essentially in the city and suburbs, there is Black and Brown on the one hand and White on the other. Our infant mortality rate is higher. Our life expectancy is shorter, less access to good jobs, less access to the board of directors, less access to capital. Our cities have been essentially abandoned. Manufacturing jobs are out, investment out, guns and automatic weapons made legal; taxes up and services down, first class jails and second class schools."
Amidst euphoria over the candidacies of Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, social ills based on racial disparities are still among the most vivid reminders of how far America has not come in 40 years.
"There is a new America emerging who are willing to cross the color line to vote. Men voting for women and Whites voting for Blacks. That's a good thing. But, the structural inequality between Blacks, Whites and Browns is still quite evident," says Jackson. The challenge is to invest in healing the breech and closing the gap. You can change from George Washington Boulevard to Martin Luther King Boulevard. But without investments, you won't have houses. … Barack's candidacy is so exciting and it means so much to us. But, to close the educational gap, the health care gap, the business gap, the jobs gap, it will require a commitment of investment."
Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, agrees, pointing to current events that most vividly depict the estranged societies.
"The mortgage foreclosure debacle is just the latest example of racially-tinged inequality, in this instance, resulting in the greatest single loss of wealth by African-Americans and Latinos ever recorded, [some $213 billion]. The recent downward adjustment in crack cocaine sentencing by the Federal Sentencing Commission suggests that thousands of African-Americans previously sentenced under the old regime were the victims of unequal justice," Henderson says.
He too particularly sees the Obama candidacy as a sign of hope. But, only with action.
"While race continues to be salient factors in American life, persistent poverty has become the most significant barrier to real opportunity," he says. "Only by reducing and ultimately eradicating long-term poverty can we really reverse the predictions of the Kerner Commission's Report."
While racial disparities remain clear, some believe that the Kerner prophecy on race separation has become more clouded by economic class separations.
"Blacks are on the bottom, but the disparities in the income are now multi-racial," says the Rev. Joseph Lowery, civil rights icon and co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. "A small group of White elitist people now control more than 80 percent of the wealth. And we're in a situation where a handful of people have more than they will ever need while masses of people have less than they always need."
He adds, "The privileged groups are growing proportionately smaller. Those who are discriminated against and comprise the bulk of the masses are growing proportionately larger. So, the disparities are increasing in the country and Black folks remain on the bottom."
Lowery views the Obama candidacy as a good sign that a new era has begun in which people will look beyond race in voting for viable candidates. However, for the moment, the historic candidacy is limited to that conclusion, he says.
"We'll have to wait and see whether it's reflected in the economic cycles."
Two weeks ago, a controversial remark by Michelle Obama, the wife of the presidential candidate, made headlines. She told a Milwaukee, Wis. Audience, ''For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country. Not just because Barack is doing well, but I think people are hungry for change.''
Though some misunderstood the remark, many African-Americans simply empathized. Myrlie Evers-Williams, former NAACP chair and the widow of the late civil rights leader Medgar Evers, says Michelle Obama's statement illustrates the accuracy of the Kerner prediction.
"I have said practically the same thing so many times over the years," Evers-Williams says. "And people who are criticizing her just don't understand the experience that we have had and have gone through, a fight like hell to make our country what it should be, but not feeling fully appreciated…And to work without ceasing to change things to where all of us will feel like true Americans."
Obama's candidacy is now among the few times that Evers-Williams says she has felt proud of America.
"I never thought that I would live to see this day," she says. "I never thought that we would get this close."
But, she also concludes that without a plan and action, nothing will change and the prophecy of the Kerner Report will remain alive.
"We still cannot fall into an attitude of we have made it. We cannot afford to embrace an attitude of everything is okay. There is a vigilance that we must have on a daily basis," she concludes. "Not just for this election. But, with an ongoing built-in attitude that we must know what the issues are. We must know who the elected officials are. Once they are elected, we must be sure that they are accountable to us. There's no rest and there should not be. There should not be a period of rest where we assume that everything is alright and we have made it in this country. Some have grown tired of hearing me quote the old saying, 'Freedom is not free'. But it's true. We must nurture it on a daily basis."