If you ask Illinoisans today what they know about Otto Kerner, who served as their governor from 1961 to 1968, they’d probably tell you that he spent time in prison, and that’s it. They wouldn’t know about his landmark work on mental health, about the creation of the state’s community college system, about his crucial role as head of Lyndon B. Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (known to history as the Kerner Commission), or a host of other accomplishments. In other words, it’s time for a thorough reassessment of one of Illinois’s most progressive governors of the 20th century.
He was a decorated soldier and a tough prosecutor. He governed a major state and helped the nation examine racial violence. He became a federal judge but wound up in federal prison.
Gov. Otto Kerner and his complex legacy will be the focus of a conference presented by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and the Institute for Government and Public Affairs. Political experts, journalists and former Kerner aides will gather on Nov. 2 for a reassessment of Illinois’ 33rd governor.
Panels of experts will examine the goals and accomplishments of Kerner’s administration, his public and private personas, his conviction on corruption charges and the views of the journalists who covered him.
The public, particularly college students studying history or political science, is invited to attend this examination of an important Illinois figure.
The conference begins at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 2, at the Lincoln Presidential Library, 112 North Sixth St., Springfield. It includes lunch in the library atrium. Seating is limited.
Tickets are $35. Students with proper identification can attend free of charge. To buy tickets, please visit http://tinyurl.com/KernerTickets or call 217-558-8934.
“So many of Kerner’s achievements in multiple areas – mental health, school reform and especially civil rights – broke new ground and bettered people’s lives. We need to understand both his failures and his achievements,” said Eileen Mackevich, executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.
Kerner was a Chicago Democrat who won his first term in 1960. As governor, he modernized state services for the mentally ill and backed a statewide system of community colleges.
His name became a household word after President Lyndon Johnson chose him to lead the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders – known everywhere as the Kerner Commission. The panel examined the riots flaring up in African-American neighborhoods across the country, and it concluded that segregation and lack of economic opportunity were driving the nation "toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal."
Kerner left the governor’s office soon after the report’s release and was appointed to the federal bench. But his time as a judge was cut short by accusations that, as governor, Kerner had accepted bribes in exchange for granting favorable racing dates for an Arlington Heights track.
He was convicted in 1973 for mail fraud, conspiracy, perjury and more. Today, however, some people question the case against him and the legal theory underlying the charges.
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum
112 N. Sixth St.
Springfield, IL 62701
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