1968 Part II: The Center Vaporizes

by Michael Liss

There was a sense everywhere, in 1968, that things were giving. That man had not merely lost control of his history, but might never regain it. —Garry Wills, Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man

Robert F. Kennedy speaking to a crowd outside the Justice Department, 1963. U.S. News and World Report collection, Library of Congress.

Last month, I wrote about Eugene McCarthy’s Vietnam-based primary challenge to Lyndon Baines Johnson’s reelection campaign, the angst-ridden mid-March entry into the race by Robert F. Kennedy, and LBJ’s stunning withdrawal on March 31, 1968. I ended with April 4, when the “Dreamer,” Martin Luther King, was assassinated.

Some of the chaos that ensued is the subject of this piece. “Things were giving,” seemingly everywhere, and all at the same time. America’s ability to deflect the course of history as it accelerated toward the unknown was disappearing. The months that followed the King assassination were punctuated by more violence, more uncertainty, and the continued deterioration of social discourse.

None of this appeared out of thin air. Grassroots efforts on Vietnam and on civil rights had been intensifying for years, as had been the backlash to those movements. FDR’s New Deal coalition was fraying, most notably in the South, but also in the industrial Midwest. 1968 was also to be the last stand of the “Liberal” Republicans, people like Nelson Rockefeller, Charles Percy, and John Lindsay. We think about them and their ambitions with an amused raised eyebrow, but, at the time, they were men of reputation and influence.

There were so many crosscurrents, so many strange alliances, that it’s difficult to trace each causation, but if you want to pick up on an organizing thread other than Vietnam, look to George Wallace. History frames Wallace largely as the segregationist that he was (after losing his first run for office for being more moderate than his opponent, he vowed “never to be out-n…ed again”). It sometimes skips over how Wallace had a broader message, anchored by the emotional appeal of his racism, but also including perennial themes of law and order and economic and social grievances that resonated in people’s lives. Read more »

The Birth, Decline, and Re-Emergence of the Solid South: A Short History

by Akim Reinhardt

Slave saleSince the Civil War, the American South has mostly been a one-party region. However, by the turn of the 21st century, its political affiliation had actually swung from the Democrats to the Republicans. Here’s how it happened.

It is not an oversimplification to say that slavery was the single most important issue leading to the Civil War. For not only was slavery the most important on its own merits, but none of the other relevant issues, such as expansion into the western territories or states’ rights, would have mattered much at all if not for their indelible connection to slavery.

Initially, Northerners rallied around the issue of Free Soil: opposition to slavery on economic grounds. Small farmers and new industrial workers did not want to compete with large slave plantations and unpaid slave labor. This was the philosophy that bound together the new Republican Party.

No friends of African Americans, most Free Soilers were openly racist, as were the vast majority of white Americans at the time. Abolitionists, who were fired by religion and opposed human bondage on moral grounds, were actually a small minority of the population However, as the bloody war raged on, Northerners began to seek moral assurance in their cause. For more and more people, the mere political goal of saving the union did not seem to justify the unholy slaughter of men by the tens of thousand. Though preserving the union was always Abraham Lincoln’s primary goal, he astutely played to this concern by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and establishing abolition as the war’s moral compass. It worked. The North persisted, won the war, abolished slavery, and forced the South to return.

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