Fifty years ago today, the Girl Scouts of the USA released this telegram:
Copies were also sent to Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Judge Otto Kerner, every member of the Kerner Commission, every member of Congress, and every Girl Scout council president.
Two months earlier, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder released a landmark study on race relations in the United States. President Lyndon B. Johnson had convened the 11-man panel of experts following riots in Newark, NJ, Detroit, MI, and 23 other cities the previous year. The violent uprisings, concentrated in African-American neighborhoods, were responsible for the deaths of 69 people in Newark and Detroit.
Known as the Kerner Report, as Judge Kerner of the US Court of Appeals chaired the panel, the report’s conclusion was concise and alarming: The United States faced such deep social and economic division that
Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.—Conclusion of the Kerner Commission
The Report called for massive investment in housing and jobs to improve living conditions for African Americans and an end to segregation in urban neighborhoods, among other recommendations.
GSUSA received many responses to the telegram, including one from Judge Kerner:
Your message of the action of the Board of Directors of the Girl Scouts of the United States should be hailed by all throughout the United States. I am a great believer in using existing organizations to work on the greatest social problem the country has ever faced. I am sure that through the Girl Scouts you can reach into the economically deprived areas and give new experience and opportunity there as well as to those people outside the depressed areas by becoming acquainted with the conditions. Please extend my congratulations to the officers and the Board of Directors.
—Judge Otto Kerner
President Lyndon B. Johnson ignored the Kerner Report’s advice, mainly due to the cost, but the Girl Scouts paid attention.
At the 1969 National Council Session, GSUSA launched “Action 70,” a program to improve race relations within Girl Scouting. Within Nation’s Capital, the leaders of the Southwest Montgomery County and Mid-Eastern Washington Associations took up the challenge of fostering good relationships within the council. Mary Ann Claxton, of Southwest Montgomery County, invited Field Vice President Ethel Harvey to a discussion on “The Kerner Report and Its Implications for Girl Scouting.”
This discussion evolved into the Inter-Association Friendship Committee, a series of joint events between the Girl Scouts from the urban Mid-Eastern Washington and upper-middle class Southwest Montgomery County Associations spanning more than three decades. The Friendship Committee brought together troops for camping, swapping program ideas, service projects, and fun. One of the Committee’s most popular annual traditions was polishing the brass on the carousel at Glen Echo Park, once a whites-only establishment.
A half century later, the United States remains a sharply polarized society. The Girl Scout’s persistent determination to be inclusive is still a model worthy of consideration.
For more about the 50th Anniversary of the Kerner Report, follow the link to an interview with the last surviving panel member.
©2018 Ann Robertson