Finding Unheard Voices from the Past: An Analysis of Local Citizens’ Views on the War on Poverty through the Kerner Commission Papers, 1967

Heleen Blommers, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Historians rely on materials left from the past as their data. The data are not “cut-to-the-question” and historians are confronted with the fact that not every voice is represented in their sources. However, the unheard voices– usually those of people not in power – can give new perspectives on historical events. This is especially important when these events actually concern these “unheard” people. So how can we find unheard voices from the past? This paper will use the under researched background papers of the National Advisory Committee on Civil Disorders, also known as the Kerner Commission, archived in the LBJ Library, as a test case for this question. Instated by President Johnson, the Kerner Commission had the task of finding out what happened during the disturbances of 1967 and why. To do this, field teams interviewed residents, community leaders, and local officials in 26 cities about the disturbances. The interviewees often referred to federal poverty programs. After their trips, the teams reported about their visits. By analyzing how the interviewees thought about federal anti-poverty efforts, this paper will answer the question how historians can give voice to those people not actively represented in their data. The reports function as an interesting test case for the question how to find unheard voices from the past for three reasons: (1) the materials resulted from a government commissioned study, possibly impacting the reporting of the answers of interviewees; (2) the topic of analysis – poverty programs – were not the direct concern of the interviewers; (3) the “voices” to be studied are indirect, with interviewers and short reports as mediator. This paper will analyze the Kerner Papers and reflect on how these three factors determine if historians can find unheard voices and what these voices can and cannot say about the past.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 250. Race, Cities, and Citizenship