Dispatch November 2008

Yes We Did. Overcome.

The author, who was among the activists in Chicago's Grant Park during the 1968 Democratic Convention, reflects on Obama's unifying spirit as part of the lost legacy of the sixties.

For much of the last century, the melting pot was a sanctioned American ideal.  Theodore Roosevelt, John McCain’s hero, admired Israel Zangwill’s play of that name.  “That’s a great play, Mr. Zangwill, that’s a great play,” Roosevelt cried out from his box at the American premiere 100 years ago, later agreeing to let Zangwill dedicate the published version to him, writing:  “I do not know when I have seen a play that stirred me as much.”  TR, an Anglo-Saxon supremacist whose name is too easily taken as an unproblematic emblem of American virtue, would have been horrified to know that, a century on, the pot has melted so much alloy. But the election of Barack Obama shows that America is not done taking its ideals literally.

This moment brings to mind three personal tableaus I am old enough to remember.  The first:  a mid-Fifties stopover in Richmond, Virginia, and, in the bus station, my first sight of “White” and “Colored” water fountains and bathrooms, and the dumb disbelief a Bronx teenager felt to behold such things, which I had of course read about­—to know in my bones that a whole society went to the trouble of putting this craziness on earth and keeping it there.

A few years later, in 1963, I was one of a handful of nonviolent hotheads, black and white, who forded a stream to outfox the police and found ourselves surrounded by a mob screaming “n— lovers” in the middle of a hitherto lily-white (as they used to say) amusement park outside Baltimore. (The county executive who denounced all the demonstrators, even the thousand plus who had walked decorously across an invisible park boundary to submit to arrest, was a Republican moderate named Spiro Agnew.)  

Five years later­—an eternity in Sixties time—I was among the crowds in Chicago's Grant Park, where mayhem arrived at the hands of the police under Mayor Daley's command.  These crowds, it should be remembered, were overwhelmingly white.  Black people were not up for attempts at nonviolent faceoffs against the Chicago police. (I remember a little black boy on the West Side who asked me if I was going to the demonstration one day that week.  I told him I was. “Are you gonna kill a cop?” was what he wanted to know.)  There was, unbeknownst to us, an unappreciated irony:  By August 1968, Mayor Daley, who was no friend of the civil rights movement, opposed the Vietnam war.   A majority of the country did.  But Daley wouldn’t say so, wouldn’t yield an inch to accommodate even nonviolent demonstrators, just as, in 1966, he had stonewalled Martin Luther King’s doomed efforts to integrate Chicago.

No politician emerged to federate all the opposing factions within the democratic party and coax a new majority into being.  Or rather, the one who tried had been shot dead.  Now, the black militants, student radicals, professional-class liberals, white ethnics—these offspring of the once mighty New Deal coalition were at loggerheads.  The longtime civil rights hero and party standard-bearer Hubert Humphrey, proud New Deal scion, was emasculated. Having estranged both its antiwar Left and its George Wallace Right, the center went limp.  The Democratic Party disbanded, in effect.

There followed the wilderness decades when the Democrats were a rump party, Scotch-taping together a winning coalition only when a white Southern Baptist could hold some of the breakaway Dixiecrat South.  We know what happened—the Dixiecrats never said die but became Republicans.  Even when they didn’t have a lock on the whole country, they had a lock on their party of choice.

Presented by

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and the author of Letters to a Young Activist and The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage.

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