Occasionally, a particular year transcends its function as a temporal marker to become shorthand for all the tumult that occurred within its parameters. 1968, a leap year, brought the Tet Offensive, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the student protests at Columbia University, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, the bedlam of the Chicago Democratic Convention, the Black Power salutes at the Olympics, the emergence of George Wallace as an avatar of white-resentment politics, and the triumph of Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy. That’s a great deal of history, even adjusting for the extra day in February. We have not, in the past half century, had a year freighted with such emotional and historical heft, in part because we have not seen the convergence of so many defining issues—war, civil rights, populism, political realignment—in so short a timespan. Yet the singularity of 1968 does not diminish its pertinence to our present turmoil. This week, two events in particular are worth considering in tandem: one a cataclysm, the other a tragically predictive attempt to understand how such cataclysms occur.
On February 29, 1968, the bipartisan National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, which President Lyndon Johnson had established to examine the causes of the racial riots that had punctuated the four previous American summers, released its report. Five weeks later, King was shot dead on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel, in Memphis. Devastating riots broke out in several cities. Washington, D.C., where King had spoken four days earlier, exploded: four days of rioting resulted in thirteen deaths, as more than eight hundred fires burned in the city. Smaller conflagrations across the country were too many to number.
The Warren Report, which Johnson also established, in 1963, telescoped the vast implications of the assassination of John F. Kennedy down to the actions of a single individual. The Kerner Report, by contrast, critically rendered the failings of an array of institutions and social forces that had delivered the country to that moment of racial reckoning, beginning in the Colonial era and continuing through the formation of what were then called ghettos. The report stated, bluntly, that “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 institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” Notably, the commission delved into questions that might have seemed ancillary at the time but became matters of enduring concern, such as access to health care and the dearth of African-Americans working in the media, a situation that impacted the skewed way in which the riots were covered. But the report is best remembered for its warning that, barring corrective measures, the nation would continue on its path toward becoming “two societies—one black, one white—separate and unequal.”