Protests and Politics Echo 1968

Downtown Raleigh Saturday night
N&O photo, Robert Willett

2020 feels like 1968.

Peaceful protests erupt into looting and burning. Police battle demonstrators in the streets. Black Americans vent their rage and frustration.

In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in Memphis lit the fires. This year, it was the death of George Floyd at the hands of policemen in Minneapolis.

In 1968, the nation was already divided by the Vietnam war – and protests against the war. This year, our nerves were already rubbed raw by the Covid pandemic, the economic meltdown, stay-home orders – and protests against the orders.

Then, as now, there was the sickening sense that the floor under American society was collapsing.

1968, like 2020, was a big election year. 1968 ended 36 years of Democratic dominance in Washington, since FDR’s election in 1932. It ushered in an era – more than half a century now – dominated by a Republican Party dependent on white Southerners and dedicated to the proposition that government is the problem, not the solution.

In 1968, an anguished President was trapped inside the White House by protesters chanting, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” Four years after winning a historic landslide, he withdrew as a candidate for reelection. His dream of a Great Society slipped away.

Today inside a White House again surrounded by protesters, an angry President lashes out at critics, the media and political opponents. Four years after winning a historic upset, he fears his dream of a smashing reelection victory fueled by a rising economy is slipping away.

In 1968, Democrats’ election hopes were shattered when their national convention in Chicago exploded in violence. This year, the Republican convention will be in Charlotte, assuming the city and state can come to terms with the Republican Party and President Trump over Covid precautions.

They also must consider the risk that Charlotte could attract a volatile mix of protesters against racism, “tyranny”-protesting Reopeners and camo-clad white nationalists waving Confederate flags and wielding assault weapons.

We don’t want Charlotte to be to 2020 what Chicago was to 1968.

Then, the violence in Chicago and the riots nationwide set off a white backlash that helped elect Richard Nixon President. George Wallace, running as a third-party candidate, fanned the flames.

Nixon benefitted from Democratic disarray, Roger Ailes’ TV genius and Strom Thurmond’s Southern Strategy. Republicans began their rise in North Carolina and the South. In 1972, North Carolina elected a Republican governor and a Republican Senator named Jesse Helms.

It almost didn’t happen. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the seemingly hapless Democratic candidate, nearly caught Nixon in the final days.

Former North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford and his chief political adviser, Bert Bennett, helped lead Humphrey’s national campaign. Bennett said years later that Humphrey would have won with another week.

But he didn’t. Nixon won and promised to “bring us together.” But he didn’t. The Vietnam War dragged on, and our racial divide persists today.

Politics, like life, rarely moves in a straight line. We don’t control events; they control us.

Even people with power – Governor, President, police chief, protest organizer – are no more in control than a ship in a storm is in control of the winds and waves.

A few months ago, we thought this election would be about impeachment and a roaring, soaring economy.

Then a virus kills 101,000 Americans and puts millions out of work.

A white policeman keeps his knee on a black man’s neck for almost nine minutes even after the victim pleads “I can’t breathe.”

An angry protester throws a firebomb.

History pays no attention to human intention.

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