A month before the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, a Western Union telegram arrived at the Illinois Statehouse addressed to Gov. Otto Kerner.
Kerner had just completed seven months of work on a voluminous report about rioting and the lousy state of race relations in America. The report minced no words about how racism pervaded American society and caused violence in the nation’s cities. Back in 1968, a telegram was the fastest way to get a written message to someone. When a person received a Western Union telegram, it was a big deal — always something important.
THE HONORABLE OTTO KERNER
THE STATEHOUSE SPRINGFIELD ILL
King had just finished reading the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, publicly released on March 1, 1968. The report minced no words about how serious things were getting. Its most famous passage was an ominous warning: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”
Telegrams, in those days, were always written in capital letters, which had the unintended effect of looking like the sender was shouting. It was sort of like sending a tweet with a lot of exclamation points. One could almost hear King’s booming voice through the text of the March 4 telegram he sent to the governor.
YOU, AS A MEMBER OF THE PRESIDENT’S COMMISSION ON CIVIL DISORDERS, DESERVE THE GRATITUDE OF THE NATION BECAUSE YOU HAD BOTH THE WISDOM TO PERCEIVE THE TRUTH AND COURAGE TO STATE IT.
Surely, those thunderous words from the noted civil rights activist comforted Kerner, skewered by politicians from coast to coast for the report’s blunt conclusions. An 11-member commission wrote it, but most people just referred to it simply as the Kerner Report, as if he were the only one responsible for it.
President Lyndon Johnson named Kerner to head the commission on July 29, 1967. Kerner was told to get the report done well before summer when violence tended to explode in African-American neighborhoods.
In those days, telegrams were delivered by Western Union representatives known as telegram boys who would wear snappy, crisp uniforms. The person receiving the telegram had to sign for it to ensure the message did not fall into the wrong hands. It was sort of like sending a direct message on Twitter.
THE COMMISSION’S FINDINGS THAT AMERICA IS RACIST SOCIETY AND THAT WHITE RACISM IS THE ROOT CAUSE OF TODAY’S URBAN DISORDERS IS AN IMPORTANT CONFESSION OF A HARSH TRUTH.
The phrase “white racism” stung many Americans. The report said segregation and poverty were the causes of rioting, and white Americans were responsible for creating ghettos where rioting happened.
“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.”
King’s telegram was 123 words, lengthy by telegram standards since the sender was charged by the word. The Economic History Association estimated that by 1970 it cost about $2.25 to send a 15-word message within the United States. That means King’s message cost about $8, which would be almost $58 today. Twitter is free.
MY ONLY HOPE NOW IS THAT WHITE AMERICA AND OUR NATIONAL GOVERNMENT WILL HEED YOUR WARNINGS AND IMPLEMENT YOUR RECOMMENDATIONS.
The report said Congress needed to act immediately. But the problem was the recommendations were all really expensive. Among them were a call for fair housing and a news media that presented coverage beyond a white point of view. and The nation was fighting the Vietnam War, already costing a ton of money.
The Kerner Report said, “This deepening racial division is not inevitable. The movement apart can be reversed. Choice is still possible. Our principal task is to define that choice and to press for a national resolution.”
Kerner must have recognized the historical significance of the telegram. The original is preserved in Kerner’s personal papers now stored at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois. One thing telegrams had over tweets: They were a physical thing that could be cherished, saved and preserved for historical significance.
President Johnson certainly might have agreed with King, but he did nothing to put Kerner Report recommendations into action. Johnson felt the report gave him absolutely no credit for all the work he had done to improve race relations in America. Johnson was so miffed with Kerner and his report he refused to sign thank-you letters to commission members.
King was a telegram kind of guy, sending some famous ones that are now historic documents. One of his most famous was one sent in September 1966 to labor rights leader Cesar Chavez, co-founder of the National Farm Workers Association, to express his solidarity with the labor movement. Perhaps King would have used Twitter instead of telegrams had it been around.
GOD GRANT THAT YOUR EXCELLENT REPORT WILL EDUCATE THE NATION AND LEAD TO ACTION BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE.
The report did educate the nation. When Bantam Books created a paperback version, it became an immediate bestseller. Congress and Johnson may have ignored the Kerner Report, but the rest of America did not. People around the country, notably the news media and law enforcement, did heed its advice, which surely would have pleased King had he lived to see it happen.
Historic is certainly what the Kerner Report became in the almost 50 years since it was released. The report crystalized in plain English the terrible state of American race relations. It is still being read today.
While the use of telegrams faded over time, the Kerner Report did not. Telegrams were completely gone by the 2000s. Yet King’s praise to Kerner about his report and the warnings of the report itself are as timeless as the telegram he sent to the governor on March 4, 1968.
Tom Hrach is author of “The Riot Report and the News: How the Kerner Commission changed media coverage of Black America.”
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