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A 50-year-old report called for taking on racism in America – but what’s been done?

CHICAGO -- A 50-year-old best-selling book bluntly warned white racism led to the black riots of the '60s. But are we dangerously close to repeating history in America?

Over 50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Chicago and lead a peaceful protest to demand affordable housing, jobs and civil rights for African-Americans.

Dr. King was assassinated not long afterward on April 4, 1968. The next day, all hell broke loose in parts of Chicago. A two mile strip on Madison St. between Western and Pulaski was a bustling business district, filled with both white and black businesses. It was torched.

A concerned Mayor Richard J. Daley and President Lyndon Johnson burned the phone lines and talked about bringing in the National Guard. It was a pivotal moment in Chicago’s history.

President Johnson, shocked by race riots that occurred even before Dr. King’s assassination, set up a commission headed by then Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner. The president wanted answers to three simple questions: What happened?  Why did it happen? What can be done?

The answers are not nearly so simple.

Today, Garfield Park is 90% African-American and more than 40% live under the poverty level. Unemployment is as high as 25% and a quarter of the folks there never graduated high school. Tragically, crime is daily event.

What’s left of the burned-out strip on Madison St. 50 years later? Empty lots, many vacant buildings and very little commerce.

Are we repeating the mistakes of the past?

Might some answers be buried within the 600 pages of the Kerner’s Report, which became a best-selling book after it was published 50 years ago?

WGN Investigates went to New Mexico to speak with one its last surviving authors, former U.S. Senator out of Oklahoma Fred Harris.

“The president called us together in the Kerner Commission by telegram on a Saturday morning. We met in the cabinet room. The vice president was there, the attorney general, the president ... and that’s when he gave us the three questions he wanted us to answer,” Harris recalls.

Back then, Harris was one of the Democratic leaders in Washington.  He joined with a team of politicians, businessmen, a union representative, a local police chief and civil rights leader.

“We then met for twenty days of hearings, where we heard from 130 witnesses ranging from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr to J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI,” Harris remembers.

The volunteers then split into groups and hit the streets.  They pounded the pavement looking for answers. What happened? Why did it happen and what could be done?   Part of Harris’s mission was to canvass the Midwest.  At one point, he sat down in a Milwaukee barber shop.

“I spent a morning in Milwaukee in a black barbershop, and I started out asking people, and everybody came in it turned out of course came in from Birmingham, Jackson, Mississippi or someplace in south. They’d come there looking for jobs at about the time the jobs are disappearing,” Harris said.

“I started with a question to each one at first.  Do you find more segregation here, more discrimination against black people in Milwaukee or where you came from in Birmingham? And people were puzzled by the question," he said.   "And I finally discovered in Milwaukee they didn’t see any white people. There was actually more segregation in Milwaukee than there had been in the city where they lived."

WGN Investigates followed in Harris’ footsteps stopping at Madison Street Barber in Chicago where the riots burned in the 1960’s. We found young men who never saw the fire or the riot on their street, but their stories have a familiar ring to years past. One patron agreed the strip of Madison St. still looks like it’s cordoned off from the rest of the society.  He said it looks like a war zone even today.

“It’s like another world. Yeah, it’s just basically when you cross a certain street I can actually feel the climate change,” he said.

The Kerner Report talked about that too during an entire section on the relationships between the police and the community. Former Sen. Harris said they found 50 years that urban blacks faced city police departments that looked nothing like them.

“What we found then was that in virtually all these central cities, the police were all white, they didn’t live in that area. They came in a sense to enforce the law against these people. What we thought, the police ought to be a part of this community. First of all, there must be more black people and Hispanics among the police, and we’ve made some progress on that,” Harris said.

Back at the Madison St. barber shop, we asked a black barber if he experiences racism.

“I really don’t experience it too much. Unless like I’m approached by the police. That’s when you get stereotyped. I could be like going for my ID, they can run my name and see no records, no nothing, and I can still get treated like I’m a ten-time felon,” he said.

“Have I been treated like that? Yeah. Of course. Definitely. Pull you out of the car. Search you. That’s real embarrassing. Everybody in traffic driving by looking at you. Thinking like what’d he done do. He’s going to jail. Hands on the car. Shut up. I was always told just give them respect. I understand they’ve got a job to do. Hopefully that works. Sometimes it do. Sometimes it don’t,” he said.

The Kerner Report blamed the lack of quality education for some of the problems in the 60’s. Not much has changed for Jordan, another black barber, who grew up in public housing with a single mom. Just getting to school wasn’t easy.

“If you make it there, ‘cause it’s not always guaranteed, because there is a lot of distractions. Before you can get to any of that you have to survive ‘cause there was real bad gangs. It was like real bad around here you know. I remember getting shot at going to school, my shoes got stolen. It’s just real sad and other communities don’t have to go through that,” he said.

Each in the Madison St. barber shop talked about their jobs, working hard to get where they are while most businesses fled to the suburbs. Like Sen. Harris’s 1960’s testimony all over again.

Harris said the minorities he talked to leading up to the Kerner Report said repeatedly, “Jobs. Get us a job man we need a job.”

It’s eerily similar. As WGN Investigates was walking down Madison St. with Illinois Congressman Danny Davis, two women saw the congressman talking with us and said, “We want a job we need some jobs.  That’s the newsman there. I want to hug you too.”

Davis was teaching in Chicago during the 60’s and remembers well what took place here.

“The cause had become so big and so magnetic that when Dr. King was assassinated, it was if the bottom had fallen out of the tub,” said Davis.

As we talked, in the background standing all alone was the congressman’s abandoned office.

He said the area he represents has lost 150,000 good paying, solid manufacturing jobs over the last 50 years, some of which no longer exist but some of which moved to other places.  Comparing events today with those in 1968, well, there is no equal comparison. But the lessons are haunting.

The Kerner Report’s findings were harsh, direct and stinging to a white majority country.

“We could describe with particularity the condition of which these riots had occurred. And we said it was wretched poverty, a background in criminally inferior schools, terrible housing...  and the conditions were such and there was such hostility between the community and the white police, they were virtually all white that we said almost any random spark could set off these riots and that is what had occurred,” he said.

“We said – this kind of shook up some of our members at first we said, white racism created these black ghettos and its white racism that sustains them. The major thing we said was that our nation is moving to two societies’ one black one white separate and unequal.”

Headline generating material that even President Johnson didn’t want to see.

“The headlines all over the country were pretty much this: ‘white racism cause of black riots commission says,’” Harris said.

He realized it was explosive stuff to say.  But Sen. Harris makes clear his commission meant the riots were sparked over frustration that whites in power, and a white-dominated society, segregating itself from the black community, making it impossible for minorities to flourish.

Back on the corner of Madison St. and Western is Moon’s Sandwich shop which survived the riots because residents loved the place.  And they still do.  A rare place of success along this stretch of Madison St.

In fact, the owner of Moons showed us a framed picture that hangs behind the counter.

“This is the National Guard. It’s a picture from 1968 on the cover of Newsweek. The National Guard actually standing in front of Moon’s. This is all the people in the neighborhood protecting Moons, you understand. They’re not going to let anybody burn it down,” he said proudly.

Moons is still loved by the neighborhood. It’s packed and clearly the exception. One Moon’s patron we talked to about the area that sits empty, block after block 50 years after the riots, because people are unwilling to take a chance.

“If you can go elsewhere and make it work, why chance going back into an area that proves to be not worthy of your investment. There’s a risk – I’ll say it risk, fear, it’s a risk. “

Keep in mind, there was a third and final question in the Kerner Report: What can be done to prevent it from happening again?

Here’s what former Sen. Harris remembers:

You’re locked in to the answer to the third question. If it’s racism and wretched poverty that’s created these riots, then you’ve got to do something about racism and wretched poverty.  The most basic things was jobs at a living wage and education. Those were the two main things, but we also talked about housing and police-community relations in what ought to be done in regards to that.

A patron at Madison Street Barbers says the headlines goings-on from Charlottesville to Chicago make it feel like history is creeping dangerously backward.

“But also like the way things are today it all still exists to a certain sense. The things we were learning it’s like, it’s kind of coming back up repeating itself over and over again," he said.  "Racism and like all of the Laquan McDonalds, the Trevon Martins, the stuff that happened in Ferguson. It’s about like the same thing.  History repeating itself.”

Congressman Davis looked out at his deserted district when asked what is happening here to keep it down?

“Unfulfilled promise. And part of the struggle is to keep hope alive. To keep people believing. To keep people understanding that yesterday does not have to be tomorrow. And that there is some possibility. There is some hope. And there can be the realization of dreams for your children and grandchildren and prosperity right along the line down the road.”