September 16, 2014

1968. Reflections on Racism and Violence in America

Reflections on American Society
"The Newark Community Union Project (NCUP) Police Brutality March across Broad and Market Street in Newark, NJ, 1965" (source)
In this broadcast transcript, Bill Downs discusses the newly published findings of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the Kerner Commission). Lyndon Johnson established the commission to evaluate the causes of racial tension and civil unrest in recent years. Its findings implicated institutional racism and white society in general.
On Racism and Discrimination
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

March 3, 1968
If the Bible is must-reading for a Judeo-Christian society, and the Koran is must-reading for a member of the Moslem faith, then I suggest most seriously and with no intent at sacrilege that "must" reading for every American of every race and creed is the report just issued by the White House Commission on Civil Disorder.

It's impossible, of course, for most of us to read the full report of the Commission's investigation of the urban riots and ghetto uprisings which have plagued the nation over the years. The complete documentation runs into hundreds of thousands of words.

But let me emphasize again that it is most important that every person capable of spelling "cat" sit down and read the summary, which runs about ten thousand words. Because this summary, like the Bible, is prophetic. It deals with the sins of our 20th century society, and it prophesies doom if the guilty continue to sin against their fellow man. But most of all it offers the American society hope and outlines a way to social salvation if Americans unite to solve their problems.

If I sound evangelistic about the shocking findings of the President's Commission on Civil Disorder, then I plead guilty. And this guilt is personal because, as a reporter, I should not have been shocked about the Commission's report. But like most members of the white majority in this country, my natural sympathy for the plight of my 22 million fellow American Negroes was based on tolerance—a kind of blind faith that the guarantees of the Constitution and the free-swinging and expanding profit system would allow the ten percent of the population which are colored people of the United States to fight their way out of the slums and the ghettos.

What the Commission on Civil Disorder makes most clear is that the time for such complacency is long since past. It just has not worked out that way. Despite all the efforts of the groups like the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People to achieve social, political, and economic justice for American Negroes—despite all the federal and state civil rights laws and the public and private brotherhood drives—the black man is still a second class citizen in this country.

As I said, every white American knows this. And except for the small number of white extremists, I believe that most whites wish it were not so. But what have you and I done about it? Except for perhaps a few dollars contribution to a local brotherhood organization and maybe some cocktail party arguments over civil rights . . . exactly nothing.

Now, says the Commission, "discrimination and segregation have long permeated much in American life; they now threaten the future of every American." By "every American" the distinguished panel of private citizens meant exactly that. Whether red, white, blue, black, yellow, or green. Whether Christian, Jew, Hindu, Moslem, atheist, or agnostic—everyone shares the peril.

And who's to blame for this crisis in American society? The men and women who made the new study of Civil Disorder used simple logic to find the answer. Since the nation's founding, men with light skin color have been in the majority, made laws, and directed the moral tone of the country. The whites, whether they are members of the NAACP or of the Ku Klux Klan, must share the blame for the poverty and ignorance and oppression that colored Americans are now suffering.

And what this report makes most clear, especially to the complacent middle class strata of whites who have scattered to the suburbs, is that the word "tolerance" has lost its meaning. In fact, in terms of human relations, it has become a dirty word, because no person of sensibility likes to be simply "tolerated."

Perhaps the most revealing single fact in the report is the almost total ignorance of the white majority of Americans concerning the colored minority. As the Commission put it: "Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans. What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it . . . white society condones it."

To those well-meaning whites who protest that "I didn't have anything to do with the slums. I pay my taxes and obey the laws." Well, such protests have no meaning. Because the stinking, rat-ridden ghettos are there. And there are the angry and hopeless people forced to live in them because they have no other place to go.

Like the laws of the courts, ignorance of the laws of human society can be no excuse for the violation of human dignity. And the white man's ignorance of the slum and ghetto world of the Negro is abysmal.

A California social worker named Adrian Dove illustrated this in an intelligence test he devised for the great majority of the middle class. The kind of multiple choice test about the cultural world of the ghetto. Much has been made of the fact that Negroes do not show up well in similar intelligence tests made up by whites, and possibly this is because the black man is not familiar with the culture of the suburbs.

We must admit that we failed the Dove intelligence test because we did not even know the meaning of the language of that Los Angeles ghetto called Watts. For example, we didn't know who T-Bone Walker was; or what was the "slave name" of jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal; or how long you should cook "chitlins" to be more edible; or what the ingredients contained in "bo-diddly" are; or what the Negro ghetto people mean when they talk about "Juneteenth," a euphemism for June 19th which many people in Watts think should be a legal holiday. Incidentally, June 19th was the day Texas freed the slaves some 100 years ago.

In other words, just as the Negro may be considered lacking in education because he cannot pass the white man's tests, most whites would be flunked out if they were graded on their knowledge of the language and culture of the big city slums.

And this is why we consider the summary findings on the National Commission on Civil Disorders so important; why every American should read it and think about it and consider it. It may be the Bible that can lead the American society out of the abyss of racism, incipient or otherwise, and away from what the report calls "a movement towards two societies in this country: one black and one white . . . separate and unequal."

The Commission brutally outlines the problems and conditions of this crisis in the American society, and it also has recommendations for their solution.

"This deepening racial division in the nation is not inevitable," says the report. The movement apart can be reversed. Choice is still possible."

But the White House Commission also warns that "to pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community between whites and blacks, and ultimately lead to the destruction of basic democratic values."

The Commission goes on to say that the "alternative is not blind repression or capitulation to lawlessness."

The truly American answer is the building of common opportunities for all within a single American society, so says the report.

This is nothing new to anyone familiar with the basic principles on which this country was founded and which were set down in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution as now amended.

The Commission also restated the obvious: that "violence cannot build a better society" . . . that "disruption and disorder nourish repression, not justice." And that these things "strike at the freedom of every citizen . . . the community, black or white, cannot and will not tolerate coercion and mob rule."

And one final word. It is just as important that the depressed and deprived Negro Americans in the slums and ghettos become familiar with the findings of the National Commission on Civil Disorder as it is for white Americans.

For there are outlined the tremendous problems which are confronting all of us. And perhaps therein is the beginning of mutual understanding, which in the end must come.

Far at the bottom of this nationwide problem is white ignorance and black ignorance, and they feed on each other. And in this 20th century world, there is no substitute for knowledge and truth, and no society can appeal to history for the lack of it.

This is Bill Downs in Washington. Now back to Don Gardiner in New York.

On Violence
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy
Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4. The subsequent riots across the country reflected the disillusionment of the time. Senator Robert F. Kennedy gave a passionate speech in the aftermath of King's death. After Kennedy was assassinated two months later on June 5, Bill Downs addressed the current turmoil.
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

June 7, 1968
Good evening. This is Bill Downs in Washington sitting in for Joseph C. Harsch.

Americans are taking a close look at violence in their society, but history may prove that modern man has never had it so good.

It is part of the definition of civilization that groups of men live together in mutual respect and conduct their affairs in reason and in absence of violence to settle their disputes and conflicts.

The presence of the word "gentleman" in our language is no accident, for it sums up the ideal of a civil society populated by Gentle Men.

However, as the too recent assassinations of the Kennedy Brothers; of Civil Rights leaders Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King have demonstrated, the truly civilized society in this country and every other nation in the world still remains one goal . . . rather than a complete reality.

Unfortunately—and without condoning the violence which so concerns present-day America—civil disobedience and urban rioting loom large in the history of the United States. Historians point out that as far back as 1741, rumors swept through the colonial port of New York that African slaves and impoverished whites were conspiring to burn down the city. These rumors touched off rioting in which 13 Negroes were burned alive. 22 persons were hanged.

In 1764 a band of some 15-hundred frontier hoodlums known as the Paxton Boys marched on Philadelphia bent on killing Indians sheltering there, and the city panicked. As historian Samuel Eliot Morison describes it: ". . . it took Ben Franklin to talk the ruffians into going home . . . but only after promising more frontier protection and legislative bounties for Indians' scalps . . ."

The Civil War draft riots in 1863 were ended only after more than a thousand residents of New York City were killed and another 8-thousand injured.

If, as some sociologists define it, slavery is violence to the enslaved, then in the 1850s when the United States had a population of only 23 million citizens, this majority was doing violence to three and a quarter million African slaves being held as chattel. And few would deny that the new wave of urban uprisings and ghetto explosions which has shaken the country the past few years is the price that the United States continues to pay until the last vestiges of that slavery has been purged.

And even the eminent justices of the highest court of the land must admit that it was a historically ironic situation the other day when a group of American Indians demonstrated on the steps of the Supreme Court. It was a non-violent demonstration, incidentally, except for some pushing and shoving and a couple of broken windows.

All this is to say that the dangerous and deplorable violence in present-day America may be a heritage from the past. But, seen in perspective, there is nothing in our current society to match the violence used against the Indians in seizing the American continent—or peacetime violence which the system of slavery imposed on the American Negro.

As the rest of the world watches while the nation prepares to bury Senator Robert Kennedy tomorrow, the United States will be judged in history by the way people react to this tragedy. It should be with reason and justice. It must not be with violence.