Nearly 50 years ago, the Kerner Commission, which was created in the aftermath of the country’s 1967 riots, warned that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” And now, six years after the election of our first African American president, we still find ourselves riven by racial distrust and fear. The string of deaths of unarmed blacks by police officers in Cleveland, Phoenix, New York and Ferguson, Mo., challenge not only the strength of our criminal and social justice systems but also the credibility and legitimacy of our political system.
In 1965, when I came to Congress, I joined a legislative body that was still able to work together at times of national crisis. The first major bill I voted on, the Voting Rights Act, was a response to widespread outrage over the police reaction to the “Bloody Sunday” protests, including the beatings in Selma, Ala. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) and his Republican counterpart, Everett Dirksen (Ill.), introduced the bill, and the final legislation enjoyed more support from Republican than Democratic members, an almost unthinkable dynamic today.