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The Illinois Governor Who Headed a Landmark Commission on America – and Had a Tragic Fall from Grace

Daniel Hautzinger
Otto Kerner smiles in front of a crowd of people on a new highway in a black and white photo
Governor Otto Kerner at ribbon cutting and opening ceremony for the Southwest Expressway (I-55, later Stevenson Expressway) in 1964, at Damen Avenue interchange, Chicago, Illinois. Credit: ST-11005198-0012, Chicago Sun-Times collection, Chicago History Museum

American Experience: The Riot Report airs on WTTW on Tuesday, May 21 at 8:00 pm and is available to stream via the PBS app.

“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” That was the stark assessment of a landmark National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967 to investigate the root causes of violent unrest that had swept the Black communities of American cities that summer and in previous years. The group’s report – which was published and became a New York Times bestseller – is known as the Kerner Report, for the Illinois governor Otto Kerner, Jr. who led the commission. It made him a household name for a time, and is the subject of a new American Experience, The Riot Report.

Kerner was on a boat on the Mississippi River near the Quad Cities when Johnson called him to ask him to lead the commission. “We are being asked, in a broad sense, to probe into the soul of America,” Kerner said upon accepting. In announcing the commission, he was dwarfed on either side by the towering Johnson and vice-chairman John Lindsay, mayor of New York City. But he was up to the task.

As head of the eleven-member commission, Kerner took part in closed hearings with scholars, law enforcement, J. Edgar Hoover, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others; visited neighborhoods that had been devastated by uprisings and spoke to residents; and voted on the language and conclusions that would be included in the final report. That document called for some enormous changes to address the conditions that had led to the riots in Black communities:  2 million new jobs, 6 million new units of affordable housing, an overhaul of the welfare system, diversification of the media, a guaranteed income program, and police reform. The costs were less than the annual budget for the Vietnam War, some commissioners pointed out.

In protest, Johnson refused to thank the commissioners after they released the report in early 1968. Nevertheless, he nominated Kerner to the U.S. Court of Appeals a week after its publication. In his confirmation hearings, Kerner defended the report’s blaming of “white racism” and segregation in large part for the riots. “Over a period of years the Negro was kept within a certain area economically and geographically and he was not allowed to come out of it,” he explained.

In the ensuing months, Johnson announced that he would not run for re-election. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated soon after, setting off more violence, including a wave that destroyed large swaths of Chicago’s West Side. Robert F. Kennedy, a leading candidate to replace Johnson as president, was assassinated that summer, and unrest again flared up in Chicago during the Democratic National Committee that sought to name the next presidential candidate. The divisions in the Democratic Party over the Vietnam War and the chaos on display helped lead to the victory of Richard Nixon as president that November on a law and order platform that flew in the face of the conclusions of the Kerner Commission. None of its recommendations were acted upon.

President Lyndon Johnson sits at a table surrounded by members of a commission in a black and white photo
President Lyndon Johnson (seated, center) with members of the Kerner Commission on July 29, 1967. Otto Kerner is seated on Johnson's left. Credit: White House Photo Office Collection, LBJ Presidential Library

Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley was a major power broker at the DNC that year, and he had also been integral in Kerner’s political career by helping him win the Illinois governorship in 1960. Kerner was born in Chicago to a father who served as both Illinois Attorney General and a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals, as his son later would. Kerner, Jr., married the daughter of an earlier powerful Chicago mayor, Anton Cermak, and served as a district attorney and county judge before becoming governor.

Kerner was known as “Mr. Clean,” an honest politician free of corruption with brilliant blue eyes and a strong jaw. “He left behind him a generally distinguished record as chief executive of Illinois, a reputation for integrity – especially with Downstaters – and a genuinely positive effect on the life of his state in many real, everyday ways,” claimed his obituary in the Southern Illinoisan. He had “one of the better records of any governor in the history of the state.” Among the issues he championed were “education, more humane care for the mentally ill, racial justice, government reform, more just taxation and a fairer criminal justice system.” 

And yet, in 1973 he became the first sitting appeals court judge to be convicted in a criminal trial, and the first in a long line of Illinois governors to be convicted of a crime involving corruption. He was accused of dispensing political favors in return for benefiting from racetrack stock, as well as lying to a grand jury. The lengthy, complicated trial against him was led by future Illinois governor James R. Thompson, who made his name prosecuting corrupt officials in Illinois. Thompson supposedly pushed for jail time as a warning to corrupt politicians.

Kerner was sentenced to three years in jail and was given a fine. He always maintained his innocence, arguing that he had committed an indiscretion rather than a crime, and that the Nixon Administration was politically pursuing him because he had helped deliver Illinois to John F. Kennedy against Nixon in the 1960 presidential election. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Kerner’s appeal, and he was sent to federal jail in Kentucky two weeks before Nixon resigned as a result of Watergate.

He only served seven months, being released on parole in part at the urging of Thompson after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He went straight from prison to the hospital. When not ailing, he pushed for prison reform, having experienced it himself. “I wonder of what use is our prison system – as I have often wondered when I was seeking an alternative to this inhuman manner of restraining those who have violated the law,” he wrote in a journal he had kept in prison. 

His reputation had not been entirely destroyed – the NAACP held a luncheon honoring him for his contributions to civil rights after his release – but his finances were, as he lost his pension due to his conviction and was ordered to pay extra taxes. As his health declined, supporters in the Illinois congressional delegation pushed for a presidential pardon; the Chicago City Council unanimously passed a resolution in favor.

When he died in 1976, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. as a twenty-year veteran of the Illinois National Guard who had served in World War II. Newspaper obituaries portrayed him as a tragic figure. His conviction came about “either by malicious, greedy design, or simply sliding into what was and remains the ethos of too many Illinois politicians,” wrote the Southern Illinoisan. “Otto Kerner, like all human beings, deserves to be remembered for more than that.”