Senator Fred Harris on Politics, Part 1

Part 1: Fred Harris and the Kerner Commission Are Never Out of Date

By Lance Chilton

New Mexican Fred Harris was there – has been there at many of the most important events of the past 70 years.  Senator Harris (he was a Democratic US Senator from Oklahoma from 1956 to 1972, when he made his first of two runs for president) lives in Corrales, where he graciously received me for an interview among many other recent interviews he’s granted recently to much more prestigious writers.

Fred Harris has been receiving increased attention of late because of his membership on the Kerner Commission, founded by proclamation of President Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1967 at the behest of Senator Harris.  The Kerner Commission (officially the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, and named after Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois, the group’s chair)  following race-based riots in many cities in 1967.  The report, issued the following year, has obvious relevance to the recent protests following the murder of George Floyd.

During my interview with him, Senator Harris quoted the report and its reception by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We found that the riots resulted from black frustration at the lack of economic opportunity. Rev. King pronounced the report a “physician’s warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life.” It listed African-Americans’ grievances as being of three levels of intensity:

First Level of Intensity

  1. Police practices 
  2. Unemployment and underemployment 
  3. Inadequate housing 

Second Level of Intensity

  1. Inadequate education 
  2. Poor recreation facilities and programs 
  3. Ineffectiveness of the political structure and grievance mechanisms 

Third Level of Intensity

  1. Disrespectful white attitudes 
  2. Discriminatory administration of justice 
  3. Inadequacy of federal programs 
  4. Inadequacy of municipal services 
  5. Discriminatory consumer and credit practices 
  6. Inadequate welfare programs

Senator Harris indicated that he felt that the report and the concerns surrounding it began to make a difference right away on racial relations, including increasing economic opportunities and de-segregation.  But he felt that that progress ended about 10 years later and that there has been much backsliding since, both on race relations and on combatting poverty.

He stated that he held considerable hope for results from the current Black Lives Matter coalitions and protests, for several reasons:

  • The wide base of coalitions that have been formed,
  • The already long-lasting nature of the protests and responses to the protests,
  • The fact that protestors come from many backgrounds, varying by race, gender, and age, and 
  • The very low level of violence of the protests.

Senator Harris addressed the proposal to “defund the police,” saying that the Kerner Commission had recommended against the militarization of police (by providing them with surplus military weapons) and had pushed for “making the police look like community they’re policing.”  He rejects the overload on the police caused by their being called to all sorts of family disturbances and mental health, and hopes that these functions can be transferred to more appropriately-trained people, such as social workers.

A 26-page summary of the 426-page Kerner Report is available at http://www.eisenhowerfoundation.org/docs/kerner.pdf.  It is still relevant today.

New York Times article  during the 50th anniversary of the report, 2018: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/02/28/opinion/the-unmet-promise-of-equality.html

Address by Senator Fred Harris to the University of Minnesota Hubert Humphrey School of Public Affairs, Minneapolis, about the Kerner Commission report: https://www.c-span.org/video/?450902-1/kerner-commission-report-50 

Recent KQED story about the 1967 riots, the Kerner Report, and the current unrest, quoting Fred Harris: https://www.kqed.org/news/11821827/opportunity-lost-the-radical-1968-report-on-white-racism-the-government-chose-to-ignore 

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