Listening to Residents Important for Helpful Legislation

Note: This is one of several excerpts from the Kerner Commission, which President Johnson established in 1967 to examine the riots that occurred that summer. The Commission’s report was issued in 1968, making 2018 the 50th anniversary of the work. In short, the Commission found that unresolved grievances helped trigger the unrest and violence. It wrote: “Virtually every major episode of urban violence was foreshadowed by an accumulation of unresolved grievances against local authorities (often, but not always, the police.) The excerpt, featured below, captures the exact language of the time:

The need to gather community input and take local legislative action to redress racial inequities was one of the recommendations of the Kerner Commission.

“Many of the grievances identified in our study of the conditions underlying civil disorders can be redressed only through legislative action,” the 1968 Kerner Commission report states. “Accordingly, we recommend that the legislative body of each city with a substantial minority population hold, as soon as possible, a series of hearings on ghetto problems.”

The Kerner Commission, formally called the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, directed one of its chapters to local government officials. The report examined the reasons riots occurred in 1967 throughout the United States and offered recommendations to prevent future unrest.

The commission also recommended that these hearings should be held in neighborhoods where people most affected by the problems live. The neighborhood meetings would “facilitate full citizen participation,” the commission said.

“In addition to establishing a foundation for needed legislative measures, these hearings would constitute a visible demonstration of governmental concern for the problems of ghetto residents,” the commission said. “They would also provide a most useful means of bridging the communications gap, contributing to an improved understanding in the white community about the conditions of ghetto life.”

The All-America Conversations toolkit, a free National Civic League resource, offers guidance on how to have more meaningful conversations. The National Civic League promotes having smaller conversations that may yield more useful comments and increase the confidence of those who may feel uncomfortable speaking out.

Aaron Leavy, an architect of the All-America Conversations toolkit, said town halls often lend themselves to hearing the loudest and angriest voices. On the other hand, smaller, more focused conversations provide several benefits, he said.

“They are generally easier to facilitate, they are often more comfortable for residents who may have previously felt excluded or ignored, and they lower the chances of political grandstanding,” Leavy said. “Lastly, these smaller conversations provide each resident with more time to discuss their ideas, their experiences and their aspirations for the community – making them more powerful as tools to learn from marginalized groups.”

The toolkit, which can be downloaded here, encourages communities to discuss these questions:

  • How can our community reflect the best of what we see in America,
  • What are the divisions in our community, and how do they impact our ability to live in the kind of community we want, and
  • How can we bridge these divisions?

The toolkit also offers tips for facilitators and notetakers, a note-taking tool, ground rules, a sign-in sheet, sample recruitment letter, and sample email to engage the media around these conversations.

To Kerner’s point about holding hearings in diverse neighborhoods, a city government should consider locations that are easily accessible and comfortable for participants. For example, government officials might consider a community center rather than expensive hotel or restaurant or public libraries rather than a country club.


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