Last night and this morning marks 40 years since RFK was assassinated in the kitchen of a California hotel, a harbinger of things to come for the Democratic Party in ’68. Between LBJ’s refusal to run again, MLK’s assassination on April 4th, and RFK on June 5th, any traditional Democrat, liberal or even someone with some sense of hope in America’s future must’ve been devastated. All of these events occurred over 69 days in ’68. No wonder the Democratic Convention in Chicago was more a mob sense for protest and chaos than a real attempt at winning an election again Nixon.
I was born in ’69, so I didn’t get the chance to experience living through these horrible events. But I did learn about them early on. Seeing painting of MLK, JFK and RFK in the living rooms of my mother’s friends. Through John Lennon’s music and CBS’s All in the Family. That sense of lingering hopefulness in changing the world that I did see at the end of America’s Vietnam era. In some ways, I’m as much a child of the 60s as anyone who was ten or fifteen years old at the time of RFK’s death.
But I grew up in the 70s and 80s, a time in which most liberals and Democrats forgot about the overall message of change and social justice that RFK and MLK represented. The youthfulness and motivation that was JFK in the early 60s. The sense that by breaking down barriers and encouraging the end of those practices that leave many Americans behind, our nation would retain its strength as a beacon of democracy, freedom and equality. As much as it pains me to say it, the Democratic Party and the rest of the liberal establishment have yet to recover from ’68. Many from the era have rejected these ideals or have deluded themselves into thinking that they could achieve them by “working within the system.” Or have worked tirelessly to achieve them with only the most old and tired of methods.
Yet I’m old and wise enough (age doesn’t equal wisdom — just look at who’s been running our country for the past four decades) to know that American liberalism and the Democratic Party’s liberal faction had and has its limits. Civil rights reforms were only meant to be implemented gradually, “in due time,” “with all deliberate speed,” to quote a few catch phrases from the era. It took MLK’s March on Washington and JFK’s assassination to push LBJ into pushing the Civil Rights Act of ’64, and murders of voting rights workers in Mississippi (as highlighted in the movie Mississippi Burning) in the summer of ’64 and the Selma, Alabama march in ’65 to push LBJ into pushing the Voting Rights Act of ’65 through Congress.
The reason why “The ’60s” happened in the first place was in no small part because many American liberals thought little about education, poverty, racism and sexism as social justice issues in the previous two decades. It’s been said on numerous occasions how Americans “discovered” or “rediscovered” poverty in ’62 or ’63 because of new research and interesting articles on the issue. America’s post-WWII prosperity, the communist scare of the late ’40s and the McCarthy era that came with it also helped to dampen liberal enthusiasm for social justice issues.
So in looking at the ’08 Democratic primary season, we shouldn’t be surprised by anything that occurred. HRC, the presumptive nominee long before anyone had casted a vote, lost to Barack Obama, a biracial Black man with a “funny” name. For all atypical liberals, this turn of events wasn’t surprising. I’m sure that for them it might’ve even been refreshing. But for typical American liberals — the ones who want every group’s lives to improve but still see themselves as ones most qualified to do the improving — BHO’s victory was a shock to the point of outrage. This isn’t racism in any typical sense. Not a lot of N-word shouting or “Go Back to Africa” venom spewing occurred. Just a lot of accusations from HRC’s camp about inexperience and naivete on BHO’s part. Just an avalanche of assertions about the viciousness of BHO’s camp, the media’s misogyny and the stale linger of sexism throughout the primary season. All indicate that even liberals like HRC and her second-wave feminism followers have a lot of growing up to do.
Even HRC’s innuendo about BHO has a long history in America’s liberal discourse. In the years before the Civil War, the abolitionist movement and the women’s suffrage movement were literally joined at the hip as mutual causes. Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass worked together on their relative causes throughout the 1850s and 1860s. Then, once slavery ended, the cause for full Black voting rights and women’s suffrage intensified. But once it became clear that the Radical Republicans were only willing to give Black men the right to vote — and passed the 15th Amendment in 1868 to both punish the unrepentant South and to bolster their election numbers (not really Frederick Douglass’ fault, right?), the two causes split.
Not only were Douglass and other prominent Blacks no longer invited to women’s suffrage meetings. Black women were no longer welcome either. Between 1870 and the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 granting the franchise to women, few if any Black women were involved in this first wave of American feminism. Nor did first-wave feminists generally work in the cause to prevent the emergence of Jim Crow and Black disenfranchisement at the end of the 1800s.
It’s obvious from the historical record that even liberals working on similar causes often have a falling out because of the combination of arrogance and bigotry, one in which one group believes they are more necessary to their own and other’s group’s success than that other group. It doesn’t have to be a conscious or obvious thought. But HRC’s language indicates — sometimes in not-so-subtle ways — her belief that she’s better than BHO the young Black man (no younger than her husband was when he took the oath of office, by the way). The reason why so many folks still feel hurt 40 years after RFK’s death was the same reason so many people had pictures of him, JFK and MLK in their living rooms. He didn’t talk about people from other backgrounds as if they needed his help — even when he likely had the thought in his head. His ego wasn’t so big that he saw himself as better than MLK. His grace and populism is what Americans who remember June 5th and 6th of ’68 remember. Maybe this is why BHO won and HRC lost, as the country may well be ready for a change that will reveal its better self.