Out of the fire

Nov 21, 2007 at 12:00 am

Fred Harris was one of the youngest members of the U.S. Senate back when Detroit went up in flames, 40 years ago. He was from Oklahoma, which then (and now) was about as culturally distant from Michigan as, say, Mars.

But he knew something needed to be done, so he suggested the president appoint a high-powered panel to look at the causes and possible solutions to the urban riots that swept America. The panel got created. Fred was appointed a member. They took less than a year to do the job.

Alas, their solutions were tragically stymied and ignored, and we've paid a heavy price ever since. You can see part of it driving around the city.

But something happened last weekend that may give us a glimmer of hope at fixing something broken a long time ago. I'll explain.

First, however, here's what occurred after the riot or rebellion of July 1967. An alarmed President Lyndon B. Johnson listened to Harris and appointed an all-star commission, literally before the embers stopped smoldering in Detroit.

Officially, it was the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, but everyone just called it the Kerner Commission, after its chairman, Otto Kerner, governor of Illinois. What they produced was one of the most important — and tragically ignored — official studies ever. I have a whole bookshelf full of various government reports that I keep only in case I have to wedge a door open.

This one is different, right from the famous lines on its very first page: "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal." That sentence gets quoted all the time. What almost never gets heard are the next few lines: "This deepening racial division is not inevitable. The movement apart can be reversed."

But if we don't do something about this enormous divide, the result would "threaten the future of every American." Worse, "to pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community."

Ultimately, it would mean "the destruction of basic democratic values." The commissioners urged a series of programs to lead to "common opportunities for all within a single society." Some of their ideas were brilliant and some not so, but what matters is that the commissioners agreed we should try, damn it.

Nor were they a bunch of liberal do-gooders. They included the CEO of a big corporation (Litton Industries) and the crusty old head of the United Steelworkers. There was only one African-American, and he was a Republican.

Nevertheless, they all agreed: We had to change this society or eventually lose it.

They knew doing so would take "a commitment to national action — compassionate, massive and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful nation on earth." They had guts. "Hard choices must be made, and if necessary, new taxes enacted." Imagine those quivering hunks of gelatin in Washington or (even worse) Lansing saying that now.

Sadly, what was probably the best and most important report in our history arrived at the worst possible time. The war in Iraq — oops, Vietnam — had taken a savage turn for the worse. LBJ was getting more paranoid. "Someone had falsely told him [the report] didn't have a good word to say about his administration, and he ignored it," Harris told me last week.

The report landed on the nation's desk on March 1, 1968, just as all sorts of authentic new hell broke loose across the nation. The New Hampshire primary slapped LBJ hard in the face. Robert Kennedy promptly launched a campaign for president.

Two weeks later, LBJ dropped out of the race. They had given him the Kerner report on the first day of March; on the last day, his career ended.

Five days later, a high-powered rifle blew Martin Luther King Jr.'s jaw apart. Riots erupted across the nation. Exactly two months later, Kennedy, the only politician to fully embrace the Kerner report, was shot dead as well. Then the Democratic convention was ruined by the chaos of what was later accurately described as a police riot.

Richard Nixon was elected, while George Wallace, running a third party candidacy everyone knew was racist in nature, got 10 million votes. By the time the year was over, few cared to spend money to help black America.

The Kerner report was put on a shelf. But not quite forgotten. Last summer, thinking about the coming anniversary, I reread parts of it, and was stunned by how relevant so much of it remains.

Now, to my astonishment, someone at last is doing something about it.

The Eisenhower Foundation (named after the educator Milton, not his bro the president) has decided to update what the commission did. Last Saturday, the group held hearings in Detroit, at Wayne State's law school.

They were chaired by Fred Harris himself, no longer a senator, but still full of energy and one of only two surviving members of the original commission.

I couldn't go to the hearings, but did talk to Harris at length earlier. "We want in a way to show that what we did and what we recommended were right," he told me. "Things did get better for years," though not enough was done.

Progress then stopped, and to some extent was reversed under Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush, he told me. Things began improving again under Bill Clinton, and then came the Shrub, "and we began going backward."

What, I daydreamed, if we spent a fraction of the money we spend on the wasteful and destructive war on fixing the cities and trying to be one country?

What would that be like? We've tried neglect and encouraged corruption and greed and fostering selfishness for many years. Maybe, just maybe, trying to do what we needed to do in 1968 couldn't be too bad.

And speaking of ancient wrongs:
Back in the day, "urban renewal" too often meant "Negro removal." That was the case in Hamtramck back in the 1960s. Black neighborhoods were (not so) mysteriously always at the head of the list for demolition. Housing was promised to replace the bulldozed homes, but when the time came to build, the largely Polish little city never had the money.

Well, times have changed. Now, any African-American who had to move out of Hamtramck in the bad old days has an opportunity to rent a brand-new home in the city for as little as $157 a month. Or they can buy a nice two-bedroom home for as little as $105,000 — with additional subsidies as well.

What's more, if they are no longer with us, their children and grandchildren may qualify as well — but they only have until Dec. 1 to do it. "We've found about 250 people who qualify for this program, but there are undoubtedly others" scattered around the area, said Michael Barnhart, a lawyer.

Barnhart, in a press release that asked the news media to "spread the word and help find those who are entitled to this housing."

Well, it's been a slow week for Lindsay, who had to spend 84 minutes in jail, so I guess spreading the word is justified. To find out more call the city of Hamtramck at 313-876-7708.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]