The conclusions and recommendations were urgent, vast yet granular, attentive and astringent. The report deduced that, among other things, the roots of the violence demanded massive housing and police reform, a serious political and economic commitment to social programs, and higher taxes. But nothing meaningful came of it. The conclusions were too overwhelming — too indicting. Johnson seemed to take the findings personally. Plus: the money required to confront them was being spent to prolong the fight in Vietnam. So white America went the opposite direction, electing Richard Nixon, who ran, in part, on a law-and-order campaign. The wound festered.
When it was published as a book early in ’68, the report became a best seller. But it ought to have been part of a one-two punch. Part two should have been a televised, multipart presentation of the commission’s intensive effort: its conclusions, considerable field work and still-bracing historical contextualizing put before the public, alongside the disgruntled, despondent, enraged, hurt Black Americans whose circumstances swell the report. The country watched the cities burn but never met the human beings who lived in them. It didn’t spend days on end hearing Kerner and especially, perhaps, John V. Lindsay, the mayor of New York and the commission’s most popular member, inveighing against the racism in our marrow. Johnson and Nixon were essentially able to look the other way.
The nation had become consumed with news of the war. But there was evident hunger to know more about the terrors at home. Nine years after the Kerner Report, a century after Reconstruction’s abandonment, we got “Roots” — eight nights of generational magnum opus meant to inspire as much as explain. It was far from the Kerner Report, set in Gambia and the antebellum South, during the Civil War and its aftermath.
ABC aired “Roots” on consecutive nights as a hedge; the network, home of “Happy Days,” had expected a dud, despite the Alex Haley novel it was based on being a huge hit. The year before, during the bicentennial, NBC had a ratings smash with the network-television debut of “Gone With the Wind.” “Roots” wasn’t perfumed with nostalgia. It was, for 1977, a watershed retrospective, in which a Black family were the heroes, and the dads from some of America’s favorite shows — “The Brady Bunch,” “The Waltons,” “Bonanza” — played racists. Scores of millions of people beheld its 12 or so hours; the finale on ABC remains the third highest-rated television episode ever. Which is to say that we once were ready to go through something ugly together as a nation.
Neither the times nor the climes are, of course, what they were in ’77. For one thing, most of the country watched that series because there wasn’t much else on. A truth and reconciliation event in 2020 would help make up for 150 years of missed opportunities. It should be broadcast live and streamed the way impeachments and inaugurations are; the way certain trials are. That would require more than just ABC’s audacity, however backhanded. It would need CBS’s, NBC’s and Fox’s; CNN’s, BET’s and the Weather Channel’s. It would demand the platforms of Netflix, HBO, Disney+, Hulu and Amazon. There would be no escaping this thing, since there is no escape in the daily lives of many Americans. We’ve marched for systemic reform. This event — some of it recorded, some broadcast live — would tell the horror story of the system, draw straight lines from slavery to right now and demand the system be reformed.
Credit: Source link