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What Is the Kerner Commission and Why It Should Be Revisited in Light of Ferguson

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FERGUSON
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What we must remember always -- and something I have told many juries in the past -- is that the most powerful person in the world, on a day-to-day basis, is not the president of the United States. No, it is a police officer. Your local police officer can engage you -- one-on-one, every day of the week, anywhere and any place. Your local police officer has the authority and power to take your life; and more often than not, get away with it; particularly if you happen to be a black or brown male in our society.

And how does it, all too often occur, that a police officer -- most often a white police office -- happens to shoot and kill or otherwise brutalize a black or brown male? Because by doing nothing when our local police officers engage in everyday minor, but insidious wrongdoing -- most often directed at black and brown community residents, we enable and embolden all law enforcement personnel to believe that any wrongful conduct is acceptable simply because they wear a badge. They assume and too many in our society accept that, because they are police officers, our Constitutional constraints, under which they are sworn to perform, do not also apply to them even though they apply to each and every other American citizen.

So when I discuss the civil rights issues we tackled yesterday and the civil rights issues we confront today, including those that focus on law enforcement, I constantly advance the position that, while everything has changed, nothing has changed.

When the race riots of the 1960s occurred in communities across the nation, President Lyndon Baines Johnson appointed a commission, chaired by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner. My mentor, the Honorable Nathaniel R. Jones, served as an Assistant Counsel on the staff of this commission before he assumed the position of General Counsel of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and then was appointed by former President Jimmy Carter to the federal Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

The Kerner Commission Report concluded that the trigger for the riots -- throughout the country -- invariably derived from confrontations between the local police and members of local African-American communities. It also concluded that the residents' held an often justified perception of the largely white police as an occupying force which was in the community to serve and protect the interests of the privileged white communities rather than to serve and protect the legitimate interests of the local minority residents and that the police inherently harbored racist attitudes toward residents of minority communities that they were also charged to serve.

Moreover, the Commission found that the underlying conditions in the making over decades -- in fact, over centuries -- in African-American communities provided the context for the precipitating trigger incidents of the unrest in the 1960s: racially segregated communities, inferior schools, high unemployment, and insufficient or inadequate governmental responses and attention to community needs leading those who resided in minority communities to suffer from a societal-imposed color "cast" status. They became victims of what the Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her award-winning novel, Americanah, more recently described as the "oppressive lethargy of choicelessness" -- a choicelessness growing out of government sanctioned inequality and second-class citizenship and a choicelessness that was waiting to explode.

Do these findings of the 1968 Kerner Commission sound familiar in 2014?

So, I urge President Barack Obama to revisit the Kerner Commission, some 50 years later; and to ascertain where -- if anywhere -- we have come since the founding of our nation with its original sin (slavery and its ongoing legacy); and where we have yet to go, since we are far, far from having arrived at a "more perfect union."

What to do?

I propose that President Obama appoint a Commission, chaired by not one governor, but by two former presidents -- Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, under the auspices of the Carter Center and the George W. Bush Library; and comprised of distinguished and diverse members such as Governor Deval Patrick, Oprah Winfrey, Henry Cisneros, Retired Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, John Paul Stevens, David Souter, former Attorney General Janet Reno, to be supported by a staff of highly respected and renown professionals from all walks of life to address and to courageously face our past and our present in order to plot our course forward.

While everything changes, the one constant that has not changed is the deeply embedded institutional and individual attitudinal racism that pervades our country. The fact remains that the impetus for local community explosions -- racism -- almost always is triggered by a confrontation between police officers (most often white) and black and brown males -- youth and men, alike.

In 1852, at the Friends House in Rochester, NY, Fredrick Douglass stated in his historic address entitled, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?, that "We must do with the past only as we make it useful to the present and the future." Such is as true today as it was in 1852. And it is as true today as it was in the 1960s.

James I. Meyerson served as an Assistant General Counsel in the Office of the NAACP General Counsel, 1970-1981; and currently maintains a civil rights trial and appellate practice with longstanding focus on law enforcement misconduct.