Thoughts on the 50th Anniversary of the Kerner Commission Report

On February 27, 2018, I had the opportunity to provide welcome remarks at an event on campus entitled "One Nation Indivisible? America 50 Years After the Kerner Commission." This forum, which GSEHD hosted in partnership with the Learning Policy Institute, the Eisenhower Foundation, and the Economic Policy Institute, coincided with the release of a 50 year update to the original 1968 Kerner Commission report. This new report, Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years after the Kerner Report, looks at the state of civil rights, racial disparites, and social justice in this country and re-examines the work still necessary to move towards the goals of the Kerner report.

These were my opening remarks:

We are here to commemorate, celebrate, contemplate, and -- most important -- commit.

We commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission report, its extraordinary architects, and its noble vision; we celebrate the progress, limited though it may be, that our nation began to make toward addressing the problems enumerated in that report; and we contemplate the challenges we confront, in the face of overwhelming evidence of unfinished business and unfulfilled promises, and the work that awaits us if we are truly going to “heal our divided society.”

It is fitting to hold this event here, at a university devoted to the ideals echoed in the Kerner reports. Our education school is a tapestry of programs and disciplinary traditions: but the thread that unites us is the goal to prepare leaders with the knowledge and skills to advance the cause of equity and excellence for our country’s gloriously diverse population -- and especially in our communities and classrooms with the greatest needs.

The report released today provides stark evidence that many of the problems identified 50 years ago have not yet been resolved, and that early gains have in many aspects been erased. Those data are certainly depressing, even to a congenital optimist like me. But I am also encouraged: by the powerful (and perhaps audacious) message of hope in the report, hope nourished by the determination to apply rigorous evidence toward the understanding and correction of our society’s most vexing flaws.

George Santayana taught that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Fair enough. But here’s the thing: memory and knowledge – of the sort documented in the Kerner reports -- are necessary for progress; but they are not sufficient without action.

And so we need to move from contemplation to commitment. If we want a better way, we must find, fuel, and sustain our collective will. It is not a task for the easily discouraged. As Martin Luther King taught, “Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

--Dr. Michael Feuer, Dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development, The George Washington University