Articulated Insight – “News, Race and Culture in the Information Age”

Explore the events that shook the nation and Detroit in 1967 through a gripping documentary that delves deeper into this pivotal moment in history.

Detroit Mayor, 1967 holds a conversation with a young Black youth during the Detroit riots.

Julie Hinds

Detroit Free Press

Recalling a debate between Kerner Commission members, former Sen. Fred Harris says the vote to approve the use of the word “racism” in a key chapter of their ultimate report was a close 6-5.

Some members preferred a gentler term like “intolerance” or “discrimination,” according to Harris, who didn’t want to soften the language. He thought it was important to make white Americans think about the commission’s conclusions, not lessen their discomfort.

“We also wanted to say, to young Black people particularly: ‘You’re not crazy. There is systematic racism that you’re a victim of,’” says Harris in the new documentary screening Saturday and Sunday at the Freep Film Festival and airing May 21 on the PBS series “American Experience.”

Troops on Linwood Avenue on July 30, 1967, after rioting erupted in Detroit.

“The Riot Report” covers the violence that erupted in Black neighborhoods in 1967 in numerous U.S. cities, including Detroit, and the attempt of a commission appointed that same year by President Lyndon B. Johnson to understand why it happened and how to prevent it from recurring.

 Nearly 60 years later, the Kerner Commission’s finding are still as relevant today as they were then, says Jelani Cobb, dean of the Columbia Journalism School.

In today’s divided America, it’s difficult to imagine figures from both major political parties reaching a consensus that white racism is a huge problem that needs to be addressed. But that’s exactly what happened with the Kerner Commission report, which ultimately was unanimously approved by both the commission’s liberal and conservative members.

As Harris says in the film, “We thought if we can’t come together, there’s no hope the country can.”

President Lyndon B. Johnson (seated, center) with members of the Kerner Commission on July 29, 1967.

Directed and produced by Michelle Ferrari and written by Ferrari and Cobb, “The Riot Report” tells the inside story of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, the official name of what’s better known as the Kerner Commission. The 11-member panel was tasked by LBJ with the mission of getting to the root causes of the rebellions that roiled the nation and finding what could be done to stop them from happening again.

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