New Documentary ‘The Riot Report,’ From Harlem To Watts Premieres On PBS

April 9, 2024

When neighborhoods in black communities in scores of cities erupted in violence during the summer of 1967, President Lyndon Johnson appointed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.

He did this informally known as the Kerner Commission––to answer three questions: What happened? Why did it happen? And what could be done to prevent it from happening again? The bi-partisan commission’s final report, issued in March of 1968, would offer a shockingly unvarnished assessment of American race relations––a verdict so politically explosive that Johnson not only refused to acknowledge it publicly, but even to thank the commissioners for their service. The Riot Report explores this pivotal moment in the nation’s history and the fraught social dynamics that simultaneously spurred the commission’s investigation and doomed its findings to political oblivion. Directed by Michelle Ferrari, co-written by Ferrari and New Yorker journalist Jelani Cobb, and executive produced by Cameo George, The Riot Report premieres on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, on AMERICAN EXPERIENCE on 9:00–11:00 p.m. ET (check local listings) on PBS, and the PBS App.

“… the worst crisis we have known since the Civil War …”

“The simple fact is this: We are in the worst crisis we have known since the Civil War,” said a television journalist in September 1967. Several weeks before, a police raid on an after-hours club in a predominantly Black section of Detroit had sparked racial unrest unlike anything Americans had ever seen: a furious uprising that paralyzed the city, left 43 people dead and burned hundreds of buildings to the ground. Nor was it an isolated incident. The disturbance in Detroit had been preceded that summer by violence in Newark, Watts, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Harlem, Rochester, Toledo, and scores of other cities, mainly in the North and Midwest. 

Few contemporary observers expected the bi-partisan Kerner Commission (named after its chair, Governor Otto Kerner Jr. of Illinois) to deliver meaningful answers. Only two members of the commission were Black and both, like the nine white members, had been chosen by Johnson on the strength of their allegiance to him. Adding to the skepticism was the widespread perception that such commissions were typically convened as a gesture without commitment to any particular course. Johnson, for his part, hoped the commissioners would find evidence of outside agitation––ideally, by Communist-aligned advocates of Black Power––and would draw conclusions that both acknowledged his significant civil rights achievements and shored up support for his ambitious social agenda

But the Kerner Commission defied expectations. In addition to holding pro forma hearings with experts, the commissioners toured many of the afflicted cities, an experience that moved Tex Thornton, arguably the commission’s most conservative member, “about ninety degrees to the left,” he said. Those visits were followed by thorough field investigations conducted in 23 cities by teams of social scientists. In the end, although the commissioners split over many issues, there was unanimous consensus for the report’s central conclusion: the cause of urban disorder was white racism––and the spark that set it off was almost invariably police brutality.

Hurried into print, the 708-page report instantly became a New York Times bestseller, with more than 700,000 copies sold in two weeks. CBS and NBC aired documentaries inspired by the book, and millions watched as Marlon Brando read excerpts aloud on the late-night talk show circuit. The urgency of the report’s message was further underscored mere weeks after its publication when Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated and the nation’s inner cities erupted once more. Yet, according to a poll later that same month, a majority of white Americans rejected the commission’s conclusions and its recommendations. By the time Richard Nixon’s law-and-order campaign won him the presidency that fall, the Kerner Commission had been swept from national consciousness. In diagnosing a crisis that Americans then elected to ignore, however, the so-called “Riot Report” was destined to endure. Its findings remain tragically relevant and a dramatic, timely reminder of both the persistence of American racism and the limits of American liberalism. 

“.. the heart of structural racism and inequality in America …”

Says AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Executive Producer Cameo George, “The Kerner Commission’s unanimous and blistering report put a spotlight on what was at the heart of structural racism and inequality in America. The findings of this dedicated and bipartisan group remain relevant in today’s America, and we hope our film adds some much-needed context to the ongoing national conversation.


AMERICAN EXPERIENCE The Riot Report will stream simultaneously with broadcast through June 24, 2024, on all station-branded PBS platforms, including and the PBS App, available on iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, Samsung Smart TV, Chromecast and VIZIO. The film will also be available for streaming with closed captioning in English and Spanish.


For more than 35 years, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE has been television’s most-watched history series, bringing to life the incredible characters and epic stories that have shaped America’s past and present. AMERICAN EXPERIENCE documentaries have been honored with every major broadcast award, including 30 Emmy Awards, five duPont-Columbia Awards and 19 George Foster Peabody Awards. PBS’s signature history series also creates original digital content that innovates new forms of storytelling to connect our collective past with the present. Cameo George is the series executive producer. AMERICAN EXPERIENCE is produced for PBS by GBH Boston. Visit and follow us on FacebookTwitter,  Instagram and YouTube to learn more. 

Major funding forAMERICAN EXPERIENCE provided by Liberty Mutual Insurance, Carlisle Companies and by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Funding for The Riot Report provided by Ford Foundation JustFilms, GBH Voices and Equity Fund and members of The Better Angels Society including The Fullerton Family Charitable Fund and Bobby and Polly Stein. Additional funding for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE provided by the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation, The American Experience Trust, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and public television viewers. 

Photo credit: Wiki.

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