“Civil wrongs don’t make for civil rights,” John Lindsay quotes Adlai Stevenson, as American cities convulse with riots in 1967. This press conference, held the day after President Johnson’s speech announcing the formation of the Kerner Commission, on which Lindsay would serve, finds the New York mayor in his familiar role of attempting to navigate the minefield of black rage and white backlash as the country threatens to descend into chaos. Lindsay is clearly sympathetic to the plight of African-Americans in America’s inner cities. He is also attempting to maintain law and order while running an underfunded municipal government. He insists there is “no evidence” of a conspiracy or outside agitation linking the riots in Cleveland, Newark, and Detroit, but when a reporter asks if this is the beginning of a “black revolution” there is a painfully long silence before Lindsay responds, “I don’t know the answer to that. I really don’t.” Similarly, pressed about “white backlash,” he frankly shrugs, “I don’t know. I don’t know how to respond to that. I read the same as you do…the same newspapers.”
His solutions range from congress allocating more money to social welfare programs to vague efforts to reach sixteen-year-olds, a problem “we have got to lick.” The causes of the rioting that he reels off, “general conditions, housing, schools, education, city services, job opportunities” are daunting, especially when the only immediate solutions he has to offer are a “splash ladder” from the Fire Department spraying down a playstreet in Harlem, and additional lights for playing fields in “ghetto areas” throughout the city. This press conference took place in late July. The country’s long hot summer was not over yet.
John V. Lindsay (1921-2000) was swept to office in 1966 on a wave of glamour and optimism. The handsome, Kennedyesque liberal Republican represented a break from his machine-backed predecessors. But labor strikes, fiscal decline, and racial tensions made his two terms as mayor among the most bruising in New York City history. Listening to the worried questions posed in this press conference, one realizes the extent to which these sudden and seemingly unconnected riots unnerved America. The Dictionary of National History attempts to put them in context by explaining:
Beginning in April and continuing through the rest of the year, 159 race riots erupted across the United States. The first occurred in Cleveland, but by far the most devastating were those that took place in Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit, Michigan. The former took twenty-six lives and injured fifteen hundred; the latter resulted in forty deaths and two thousand injuries. Large swaths of ghetto in both places went up in flames. Television showed burning buildings and looted stores, with both National Guardsmen and paratroopers on the scenes. These upheavals seemed to come out of nowhere, but that was not really the case. Urban violence, including race confrontation, was always present in America; “politics out of doors,” as it was called in the nineteenth century, was evident in the coming of the American Revolution, the Age of Jackson, the Civil War, and the century following. In the long view, 1967’s explosions were important but far from unique episodes of civil disorder in American history.
New York did not suffer this fate, due in a large part to Lindsay’s credibility among blacks. He is heard here clearly advocating for black causes and sympathizing with their lack of opportunities. In its obituary, the New York Times points out:
…when riots tore at Detroit, Newark, Los Angeles and other cities, he walked the steamy night streets of Harlem and other black areas, tie askew, jacket flung over the shoulder, taller than anyone else, talking to people with only a detective at his side: a calm figure of civic dignity. And while other cities burned, New York had only minimal looting and violence.
As for the Kerner Commission, whose formation is under discussion here, one hears many of Lindsay’s points echoed in its findings. But just as the mayor’s voice seems a lonely one, echoing in the maelstrom of hate espoused on both sides, so the commission’s calls for reform failed to gain an audience. The website History Matters tells how:
President Lyndon Johnson formed an 11-member National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders in July 1967 to explain the riots that plagued cities each summer since 1964 and to provide recommendations for the future. The Commission’s 1968 report, informally known as the Kerner Report, concluded that the nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Unless conditions were remedied, the Commission warned, the country faced a “system of ’apartheid’” in its major cities. The Kerner report delivered an indictment of “white society” for isolating and neglecting African Americans and urged legislation to promote racial integration and to enrich slums—primarily through the creation of jobs, job training programs, and decent housing. President Johnson, however, rejected the recommendations.
As for Lindsay himself, few former mayors have fallen on such hard times after leaving office. Never rich, he suffered from a series of financial reverses that, along with mounting medical bills and lack of health insurance, left him almost penniless. In 1997 an honorary position was found for him and new rules were put into effect enabling him to collect a city pension.
Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.
WNYC archives id: 150364
Municipal archives id: LT2654