Barbara Howard: What happened and why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again? Those were the questions that President Lyndon Baines Johnson tasked the Kerner Commission with answering back in the summer of 1967 amid a recent wave of race riots across the United States. Seven months later, on February 29, 1968, the Kerner Commission released a report concluding that racism and poverty sparked the riots. It noted the social isolation and neglect by the government of African-Americans and the rampant poverty that many African-Americans endured. Part of the report read, “Our nation is moving toward two societies — one black, one white; separate and an unequal.” The report condemns the media for its portrayal of the riots, and it pushed for immediate and thorough racial integration.

So it's now been 50 years since the Kerner Commission's report was released on that Leap Day back in 1968. And with us to talk about it is Judge William Cowin. Back then, before he was a Massachusetts judge, he was an assistant to Massachusetts Sen. Edward Brooke, one of the 11 members of the Kerner Commission. Thanks for coming in, Judge Cowin.

Cowin: Thank you for having me.

Howard: So take us back, 50 years ago, you were a staffer on the Kerner Commission. It was named after Gov. Otto Kerner of Illinois, the chairman of the commission. But what was your role?

Cowin: My role was principally as a spectator. Each of the commissioners was invited to bring an aide and Sen. Brooke brought me.

Howard: And what was the atmosphere in those deliberations?

Cowin: My recollection is it was surprisingly calm given the mandate and given the obvious political ramifications of what the commission was doing.

Johnson had appointed all 11 members. There were natural suspicions that he had selected people who would come out and say he's a great president and he is the new Lincoln. And if you look at them, I don't think it's an accident that six of the 11 were elected officials. There were two senators, two congressmen, a governor and a mayor. That means that the political pros were a majority of the commission. And my feeling is that the president or the people who advised him on this, thought of that as a hedge against the commission doing something crazy. There was a very able, I would say somewhat liberally oriented staff that put together much of the information, made many of the proposals, and the commission debated and refined them.

Howard: Well, Sen. Brooke was black. What were his thoughts on the issues of the Kerner Commission was looking into?

Cowin: I think that Sen. Brooke had insights into this that a number of the commissioners did not. I think he saw it from an interesting point of view in that he himself was extremely middle class, came from a home in which his parents were educated, his father was a professional man.

Howard: Could he then relate to the plight of poor black people back then?

Cowin: I think he did. That was always a question and sometimes a criticism of him throughout his political career. I thought that that was an unfair criticism. He had a lot of insights into this and considerable empathy.

Howard: Well, the commission came out of course — a lot of urban violence had precipitated this commission being formed. But how did it go about reaching its conclusions?

Cowin: There were hearings. There were trips to various affected areas. I remember going to Detroit with Sen. Brooke. And while we refer to this as the Kerner Commission, most of the time — it was, at the time, was referred to as the Riot Commission. That has sort of disappeared over the 50 years.

We used to call it the Riot Commission ourselves and the Johnson message struck me as, "I'm less interested in how to fix these problems than I am in not having any more Newarks and Detroits. If you can tell me how to do that, the commission will have done its job."

Howard: With Newark and Detroit going up in flames, you're talking about.

Cowin: That's right. And Watts a couple of years earlier, Chicago and there were other places. I think that's what the president was looking for.

And what he gets back is this 500 page diatribe saying you need to spend billions of dollars, you need to integrate the schools and the neighborhoods, you need to revolutionize the police, you need to do all sorts of things that Johnson knew he was not going to do and that he didn't expect he would be hearing.

I do remember that he was disappointed that the commission had not given him more credit for things that he had been responsible for: the passage of the ‘64 Civil Rights Act, passage of the Voting Rights Act, pushing the Congress to do the right thing. And I think he expected that the commission would say, you know, he deserves credit for this, and they did not want this document perceived as supporting a political party or a particular political figure. And it certainly did not.

Howard: But that didn't make the president very happy, President Johnson.

Cowin: He clearly was not happy about the whole thing. Well look, he wasn't happy about anything at that stage of the game: the Vietnam war, the increasing recognition that he was becoming politically impotent and his decision not to run for re-election.

Howard: Of the Kerner Commission recommendations, which one that has been implemented that you think has had the most effect?

Cowin: The improvements in education. More African-Americans proportionally graduate from high school, more have higher education, more have achieved educational levels that have enabled them to be employed at higher levels. There's also the social integration aspect; more whites and more blacks go to school with each other. They learn more about each other, they're more comfortable with each other. They engage with each other. I would say that the educational improvements with housing improvement slightly behind.

Howard: Which of the Kerner Commission recommendations have not been fulfilled?

Cowin: I think we have a long way to go in the criminal justice system, including but not exclusively the police. Sometimes racial attitudes, sometimes simply statistics get in the way of being fair to individual defendants. Social services could be far more efficient, and we could get much more bang for the buck for both white and black clients. Child welfare systems, for example. We've come a long way but they could still be greatly improved. That client population is predominately white. It isn't black. So government can do better than it does. It's doing better than it used to in my opinion.

Howard: So overall the Kerner Commission report?

Cowin: I'm glad that it happened. It pushed things forward. States began passing anti-discrimination legislation. We did beef up both federal and state social service processes. We at least began to pay attention to police attitudes and to the criminal justice system. And this has worked its way out, in my view, in a positive way over the 50 years.

Howard: OK. Well thank you very much for joining us, Judge Cowin.

Cowin: Thank you for having me.

Howard: That's Judge William Cowin. Before he was a judge back in the 1960s, he was on the staff of U.S. Sen. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts. He worked alongside Brooke as the senator served on the Kerner Commission investigating the causes of racial strife in the United States. The Kerner Commission's report was released 50 years ago this week.