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'The Riot Report' looks back on the violence in the U.S. during the summer of 1967

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

You're old enough to remember - it's a summer you will never forget - 1967, when cities around the country went up in flames.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LYNDON B JOHNSON: We have endured a week such as no nation should live through - a time of violence and tragedy. For a few minutes tonight, I want to talk about that tragedy.

MARTIN: In response, President Lyndon Johnson appointed what became known as the Kerner Commission, to take a deep look at what had happened and why, and now writer and educator Jelani Cobb is taking a new look at that report and the summer that sparked it. He is the co-producer and co-writer of a new PBS documentary. It's called "The Riot Report," and he's here with us now to tell us more about it. Dean Cobb, thank you so much for joining us.

JELANI COBB: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: I want to go back to 1967, because I think many people forget just how many riots or uprisings - whatever you want to call it - how much civil disorder there was that summer, so would you set the scene for us? Like, what was it like?

COBB: So this had begun really even before 1967. You know, Watts happened in 1965, and then there were uprisings in New Jersey and Ohio in 1966, and then 1967 was the kind of first of what they referred to as the long, hot summers, and it was clear that the country was heading toward a kind of crisis point as it related to what was happening in American cities. This was the dawn of de-industrialization, economic stagnation, high unemployment, the demise of education. And so by the summer of 1967, it was clear that something had to be done. And in the midst of this, Lyndon B. Johnson called together what came to be known as the Kerner Commission, to examine the roots of what they called civil unrest, or civil disorders, and what could be done to prevent them from happening, in Johnson's words, again and again and again.

MARTIN: You know, one of the points that you make in the documentary is that this report rocked people's worlds. This is from a news program from March 3, 1968.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRY REASONER: This is Harry Reasoner. For the last few days, this country has lived under indictment - a charge of white racism national in scale - terrible in its effects.

MARTIN: This is the famous phrase from the report, that this nation is moving toward two societies, one Black, one white - separate and unequal. Why was this so shocking for people to hear?

COBB: They went back and forth on language. They thought that it was crucial that they highlight that the problems that people were seeing, the conflagrations that were breaking out in American cities, were the direct product of deliberate, intentional policy decisions that had been discriminatory in their nature, and that was - I think hearing that from a government source was shocking to a lot of people then, and, really, now.

MARTIN: One of the points that you make is that a lot of the news coverage of the time just did not prepare people to hear this, and this is where I want to play a clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The burning and looting, the shooting and beating went on for nearly a week. In the background is a long chronicle of defeat and disappointment; of discrimination and negro grievances; of pure hate for the white man.

MARTIN: And as a person who is now - you know, you are the Dean of the School of Journalism at Columbia, which means you are a part of shaping future generations of journalists. I have to ask - you know, what was it like for you to receive that?

COBB: One of the things that's notable is the reporters, the journalists who cover these stories, are almost uniformly white and male, and they say that, you know, the coverage of the problem exemplifies the problem. Now, of course, the other part of it is that, you know, it didn't mean that they had - you had to color-coordinate coverage. What it did mean - the big problem there was as much in terms of their attitudes and the approach that they took to covering these communities was very often snide or glib.

MARTIN: Say more about what you think the legacy of the commission was.

COBB: I mean, there's a tragedy in that the report was really orphaned. When it emerged, Lyndon B. Johnson wanted nothing to do with it. You know, he recognized how politically explosive it could be to say that the problems happening in American cities were the product of white racism. As a consequence, the very many suggestions that it makes around housing, around police reform, around employment, around education. The comprehensive approach that it took to looking at what was happening in American cities was never really enacted, and it just kind of - those ideas just kind of died on the vine.

MARTIN: I wonder if here, there's a kind of cautionary tale there for other leaders, too, now that you think about it.

COBB: I think the cautionary tale is that if you appoint a commission to avoid solving a problem, that commission may actually force your hand in terms of addressing that problem. It doesn't happen all the time, but that is a possibility, and I think the Kerner Commission - and I shouldn't say that, you know, Johnson hadn't, you know, because of course, you know, the war on poverty and the Civil Rights legislation that he signed, you know, those were very significant acts, but on the specific problem of what was happening in American cities, you know, the Kerner Commission report really kind of, you know, painted him in a corner in some ways.

MARTIN: I mean, obviously, you've been working on this for quite some time, but it emerges at a moment when there is another mass movement emerging in response to the situation in Gaza. You've had a front-row seat to it, as the Dean of the journalism program at Columbia, so I'm just - I'm wondering if you see some connection there, given your very, sort of, unique vantage point.

COBB: So I don't want to be too elastic because, you know, the Kerner Commission was looking at a very specific problem, you know, rooted in very - in a very particular American history, but I do think that, you know, it's notable that kind of contextually, you know, it emerged almost in dialogue with the discord around Vietnam and other kinds of discord that were emerging, you know, from American foreign policy. So it's not at all surprising, I think, for me, to see the great deal of criticism and anger and activism that has been - the outpouring that we've seen on American college campuses, you know, at a point in time where we're thinking about this other problem. I think that those things tend to go hand in hand in some ways.

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD BUCKNER SONG, "A CHANCE COUNSEL")

MARTIN: Jelani Cobb is the co-producer and co-writer of "The Riot Report." Jelani Cobb, thank you so much for talking with us.

COBB: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD BUCKNER SONG, "A CHANCE COUNSEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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