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The Lessons of 1968

Jon Meacham

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Marshall Frady saw what was coming. It was the spring of 1968, and Frady, a writer for Newsweek, The New Yorker and Harper’s, was finishing a slim, evocative portrait of George C. Wallace, the once and future governor of Alabama who’d taken his segregationist platform national as a third-party candidate for president. “He has come virtually out of nowhere to intrude himself into the most vital political process of this country, at one of the most perilous moments in this country’s history,” Frady wrote in April of that tumultuous year. “For some time now — perhaps since the assassination of John F. Kennedy — there has been the sense of a certain dishevelment in the national life; in some subtle but fundamental way things seem to have become ungeared. It has been a season of anarchic happenings: a natural time for a bizarre happening like Wallace.”

In our own chaotic political moment, the literature of 1968 repays attention, for many of the forces then in evidence — surging white populism, racist politics and an ambient sense of doom — are in play anew. The year had opened with the Tet offensive in Vietnam and descended ever deeper into bloodshed and madness. More than 500,000 American troops were deployed in Southeast Asia, and American combat deaths averaged 46 a day, for an annual total of 16,899. A single week in the spring brought the end of Lyndon Johnson’s storied political career, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and ensuing riots across America. In June Robert Kennedy was murdered, followed later that summer by the violence at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. And November brought the election of Richard Nixon — with a strong 13.5 percent popular-vote finish by Wallace, who carried five states in the Electoral College.

Wallace had come to power in Alabama as an unapologetic defender of segregation. (After losing the 1958 race for governor to a Klan-backed candidate, Wallace had reportedly promised that he’d never be “out-nigguhed again,” and he wasn’t.) In January 1963 Wallace pledged “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever,” and in June of that year he showily attempted to block federal officials seeking to desegregate the University of Alabama. His base appeal to racism and assorted white anxieties about status was elemental. In his book WALLACE, Frady relates the story of a state senator, Kenneth Hammond, who, in the fall of 1965, rose in the Capitol — not far from the spot where Jefferson Davis had taken the oath as president of the Confederacy — to denounce Wallace’s “Nazi tactics.” To Hammond, the bantamweight, cigar-chewing governor was “one of the greatest political manipulators this century has known”; anyone who questioned Wallace was attacked as “a nigguh-lover, a pinko or a Communist.” The governor’s goal, Hammond said, was to “destroy democracy at its best,” and it wasn’t going to stop in Alabama. “In order to pick up support,” Hammond said of Wallace, “he is going to pit the white race against the minorities in this country” in “the same way Adolf Hitler pitted the master race against the Jews.”

In 1968, Wallace took his act on the road. As Stephan Lesher wrote in his GEORGE WALLACE: AMERICAN POPULIST, the Alabama Huey Long was at once a maker and a mirror of white anxieties. “You know,” Wallace told a group of police officers in Bethany, Okla., “there’s nothing wrong with this country that we couldn’t cure by turning it over to the police for a couple of years. You fellows would straighten it out.” Elsewhere, Wallace remarked: “Folks are mad about law and order and about schools. Race mixing doesn’t work. Show me a place where it’s worked.”

In late February 1968, the REPORT OF THE NATIONAL ADVISORY COMMISSION ON CIVIL DISORDERS indicted structural racism as the underlying cause of the terrible riots that had stretched from Watts in 1965 to Newark in 1967. “What white Americans have never fully understood — but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto,” the commission, led by the Illinois governor Otto Kerner and the New York City mayor John V. Lindsay, said. “White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it and white society condones it.”

As Lesher indicated, Wallace and the Kerner report forced Richard Nixon to the right. “In what was to be a major turning point in Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign,” Lesher wrote, “the former vice president used the Kerner Commission report as a springboard for embracing as his own the pith of George Wallace’s powerful appeal. … As the campaign wore on, Nixon espoused more and more of Wallace’s core campaign; in addition to the Wallace positions on crime, Nixon spoke out against school busing, federal enforcement of school desegregation, antiwar activists and the federal judiciary.”

In Washington, D.C., meanwhile, Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy and others were mounting a Poor People’s Campaign to bring attention to many of the same issues the Kerner Commission had highlighted. As the photographer Jill Freedman quoted in her moving collection RESURRECTION CITY, 1968 — a series of images of the encampment of the dispossessed built on the Mall — King was clear about what must be done. “Now we are tired of being on the bottom,” King had said. “We are tired of being exploited. We are tired of not being able to get adequate jobs. We are tired of not getting promotions after we get those jobs. And as a result of our being tired, we are going to Washington, D.C., to the seat of government, and engage in direct action for days and days, weeks and weeks, and months and months if necessary, in order to say to this nation that you must provide us with jobs or income.” King’s focus on economic justice — including a guaranteed basic income — was evident in his 1967 book WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE: CHAOS OR COMMUNITY?

King’s murder in Memphis in the first week of April was one of the inflection points that led the British journalists Lewis Chester, Godfrey Hodgson and Bruce Page to title their book AN AMERICAN MELODRAMA: THE PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN OF 1968. To them, the Wallace campaign was like an iceberg — you could see only a part of it. A vote for Wallace, the Democrat Lawrence O’Brien told Chester, Hodgson and Page, was “the vote a guy doesn’t tell the pollsters about — the mean vote a guy keeps in his gut, until he goes in that booth, and sees red and pulls that lever.” With keen eyes, they saw, too, that Ronald Reagan, the actor-G.E. spokesman turned California governor, was “no ordinary political phenomenon. He is, as Goldwater was, a symbol of the old values of God, Home and Country. His appeal is visceral.” Reagan fell short in a challenge to Nixon for the Republican nomination that year, but he would be back. “He is for lean government, low taxes and flag-waving patriotism,” Chester, Hodgson and Page wrote. “He is against civil-rights legislation, university radicals and expenditure of government funds in the ghetto.”

The hopes of the decade that had begun with John Kennedy’s call for a mix of public-spirited idealism and Cold War realism unraveled as the year wore on. Still, the veterans of those wars at home and abroad tried to keep the flame alive. “The ’60s, after all, were not a unique and isolating episode in the American chronicle,” Richard N. Goodwin wrote in his memoir, REMEMBERING AMERICA: A VOICE FROM THE SIXTIES. “At our very beginning, Washington admonished that the fate of liberty and democracy were ‘deeply … finally staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.’ America as ‘experiment’ — the guiding theme of two centuries, has recurred to dominate the life of the nation during every shaping period of our history. The ’60s were the latest stage in that great experiment. Turbulent, violent, laced with corrupting digressions, it was also a time when most Americans felt the future could be bent to their wills. … The ’60s, so filled with promise, came to an end. Not a failure, but abandoned. Never given a chance.” These books suggest such chances are vanishingly rare, and must be grasped, and grasped firmly, on those few occasions when they present themselves.

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