Detroit was one of 164 cities where race riots broke out in 1967, a phenomenon the Kerner commision sought to understand.

Detroit was one of 164 cities where race riots broke out in 1967, a phenomenon the Kerner commision sought to understand.

Bitter Harvest

Explosive analysis of the 1967 race riots by Robert Shellow ’51 was suppressed by the White House and forgotten for 50 years. How does it look today?

By Ann-Derrick Gaillot ’12 | November 26, 2019

Throughout 1967, American cities combusted as a series of riots spread around the country. Cities from Tampa to Sacramento erupted in violence, with two of the most destructive occurring that summer in Newark and Detroit. “So, last week, the ‘long hot summer’” of Negro discontent began,” declared the New York Times. The article concluded that the uprisings, part of a civil rights fervor creeping up from the South, were the fault of lawless young black men with no real political aims. “The riots appeared to have no specific objective in furthering Negro rights other than the immediate one of protest against police ‘brutality,’” it surmised. Before the year was out, more than 76 people would die in riots that convulsed 164 cities. President Lyndon B. Johnson convened a commission headed by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner Jr. to understand what happened and suggest ways to make sure it never happened again.

The Kerner Report and its warning that the nation was moving towards “two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal” were considered stark, even radical, by the standards of the time.

What no one knew was how much it had been watered down.

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That August, social scientist Robert Shellow ’51 had just returned to Maryland after a year working in Italy when he got a phone call—out of the blue—inviting him to dinner at the White House. “That’s how it started,” he says.

At that dinner, the leaders of the commission offered him a job of a lifetime: deputy director of research. He would be responsible for analyzing the mountain of data compiled by the commission. Floored and flattered, he didn’t hesitate to accept. “It was a pretty heavy experience, being invited by members of the White House, and they were turning their attention to me,” he remembers. “I said eventually, ‘But why me?’”

He was highly qualified for the job. He was an expert in the sociology of policing and police-community relations, with extensive experience doing research and an unfailing curiosity. But he would later learn several prominent social scientists had already turned the offer down, worried that if the final report were whitewashed, it could ruin their reputations. “I was naïve,” he says. “What reputation? What reputation could I possibly sully?”

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Born in Milwaukee a few weeks before the Great Depression, Shellow fondly remembers braving bitter Wisconsin winters in only a sweater on the mile-long walk back and forth to school. His mother was a psychologist, while his father, a Russian immigrant, worked as a bookkeeper. He had little interest in college until his older brother told him about an intellectually rigorous school he had visited while stationed in Portland with the navy. He applied to Reed and, against his expectations, got in.

A slow reader, he struggled to keep pace with his assignments at Reed, but was nevertheless fascinated by the expanded world of experience and thought he was discovering. He found shepherds—Prof. Stanley Moore [philosophy 1948-54] and Prof. Monte Griffith [psychology 1926–54]—who guided him through his studies and led him to major in psychology. “Reed taught me not to be afraid of ideas. It gave me an important sense of the sweep of history,” he says. With Prof. Fred Courts [psychology 1945–69] he wrote his senior thesis about the relationship between auditory stimuli and visual acuity. “I was able to get a soundproof room at the University of Portland, and the good friars who were there used to store their beer there, so I was able to do my research and share some of the beer with the brothers,” he remembers. Four years later he had his PhD. In 12 years, he was working at the White House.

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On the Kerner Commission, Shellow and his team of scientists dug into the data. And what they began to learn turned against the popular narrative that the riots were the apolitical roilings of chaotic young black men. Another widespread theory held that Russian operatives had played a part in sowing discontent. “Sound familiar?” he jokes—the FBI quickly disproved it. With enough time, the team could offer the commission a thorough and incisive report on the meaning of what happened in summer 1967. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t have that time. The Commission and its lawyers soon tired of scientists’ painstaking deliberations and demanded a draft by the end of November.

In their report, titled The Harvest of American Racism, the scientists asked whether the disturbances should be called “riots” at all. They took a careful look at the participants, dispelling the myth that all rioters were black and all counterrioters were white, and that rioters were poor, uneducated young men devoid of political aims or concerns. Most controversially, they examined how improper police responses could actually exacerbate the chaos and violence, while also noting that officers “often take the brunt of much hostility that might more logically be directed at the larger society and its less visible institutions.” Indeed, some of the uprisings erupted in response to cases of police brutality in black and Latino communities. They concluded that, until America’s white power structures were meaningfully opened, violence and racial unrest would not only continue, but get worse:

There is still time for one nation to make a concerted attack on the racism that persists in its midst. If not, then Negro youth will continue to attack white racism on their own. The harvest of racism will be the end of the American dream.

He never could have expected what was about to happen. The Commission’s executive director, David Ginsburg, deemed the draft “politically explosive” and fired Shellow’s staff. His time working with the Kerner Commission petered to a close.

“I thought, ‘Well, what the hell do they want? We did what we were supposed to do,’” he says, remembering that time. “There were a lot of very unhappy team members and it was a very fraught situation. I turned my attention to the task at keeping them from going to the press.”

When the Kerner Commission finally released its report in 1968, it included Harvest’s data but omitted his team’s careful analysis of the disturbances as a response to American racism, as well as their recommendation for major overhauls of policing and a national reckoning with the country’s antiblack racism. The report still pinpointed racism and inequality as the root causes of the riots but had been stripped of Harvest’s politically inconvenient teeth.

Following Harvest’s rejection, Shellow went on to work as the assistant to the public safety director in Washington, D.C., teach at Carnegie Mellon, conduct a study on the Chicago transit system, and spend some time working at the National Institute of Drug Abuse. There he worked on a report that found that drug abuse was not a major, direct cause of crime. That report, too, was rejected and suppressed as the nation pivoted to the War on Drugs. “I find that really the par for me, they didn’t want to hear it,” he says about having multiple critical studies turned down by government powers. “Now they have spent billions upon billions of dollars on this cockamamie war which is not controlling anything, but has made many careers and many millionaires, if not billionaires.” From there, he continued in social science for a few years until, out of work, he returned to his high school job, auto mechanics, for a time. He then started and ran security consulting companies until he retired in 2006.

His work on Harvest, ever relevant, suddenly became prescient as, in 2014, protests and riots erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, after white police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. Four years later, the public could finally read it, published by the University of Michigan Press along with recollections of the experience from Shellow and fellow analysts from his team. Going forward, analyses and criticisms of the Kerner Commission report can finally include this once-hidden piece.

Looking back on the report, Shellow has no illusions that the contemporaneous release of Harvest could have altered the course of American history. But the experience continued to inform his work and perspective on America, helping him recognize that no social attempt to improve society can exist without a strong political element aiming to thwart it. The threat of failure and suppression is no reason to abandon the effort. “I think without Reed College I probably wouldn’t have followed this trajectory,” he said. “[Reed] kind of tells you, ‘You can do that and risk things.’”

Over half a century after Harvest was left to collect dust in the LBJ Presidential Library, its vision of a broken, enduringly racist nation continues to prove true.

Ann-Derrick Gaillot is a freelance writer based in Missoula, Montana, where she lives with her partner, Miles Jochem ’12, and their dog, Sappho.

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