The year 1968 was momentous. Abroad, the Vietnam War raged on, while at home the civil rights movement marched on. Amid the violence and protests and sweeping change, the United States elected a new president and sent a man to orbit around the moon. Before the year’s end, the country would lose two important progressive figures, each struck by an assassin’s bullet: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. This year marks the 50th anniversary of 1968, meaning the U.S., and the world, will have numerous commemorations about these events, all deserving serious contemplation. And yet, Americans risk misremembering 1968. The events of that year as they relate to race and politics still live on in American public memory and policies, in ways that we continue to fail to understand.
Public memory is how a nation remembers its past. It’s shown through acts of commemoration such as the dedication of statues, presidential proclamations, or national holidays. Memory can bind together the citizens of a nation through symbolism and pageantry. Conversely, it can also gloss over the legacies of important figures and moments. The deaths of King and Kennedy loom large in any misremembering of 1968. Though the two men had minimal interaction in their lifetimes, and what relationship they had was complicated, their assassinations during the same year marked a turning point. They occurred just prior to the rise of a staunch conservative ascendancy and liberal division that have continued to saturate American politics. King’s death left a hole in the moral leadership of the American left, while Kennedy’s death was the end of the optimism that defined the “Camelot”-style politics of the 1960s. For Americans to properly talk about what the nation is missing without those two figures would mean to fully reckon with the myriad of ways the United States has failed to uphold King’s dream and has ignored the words of Robert Kennedy’s campaign for president.
In the public imagination, King is the hero that everyone extols, but few uphold his ideals. During this year’s Super Bowl in February, a Dodge commercial for Ram trucks used part of King’s “Drum Major Instinct” sermon, which he gave in February 1968. Many people objected to the use of his words to sell trucks—especially since his sermon included a denunciation of consumer culture. But it is now commonplace to see King’s powerful image and voice, most notably in constant public use of choice sections of his “I Have a Dream” speech, in ways that have served to minimize his commitment to radical social justice. Recently, President Donald Trump’s proclamation commemorating the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination, stated, “It is not government that will achieve Dr. King’s ideals, but rather the people of this great country who will see to it that our Nation represents all that is good and true, and embodies unity, peace, and justice.” The statement ignores King’s repeated calls for the government to invest billions of dollars in a more aggressive and robust “War on Poverty” program, and for the federal government to support affirmative action programs.
Likewise, Robert Kennedy’s 1968 run for president, and his broader political career, have been largely minimized to a collective memory of what could have been. The full picture of his political trajectory—from working for Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s to being a stalwart opponent of the Vietnam War in 1968—should be highlighted and examined more often, as opposed to merely consigning him the role of a lost son of a political dynasty. Too often, his work with McCarthy is minimized in the public lore surrounding Kennedy’s life. And yet, his views on tackling racism and discrimination in a forthright manner, along with seeing the importance of community control of critical Great Society programs, allowed him to campaign for the creation of a liberal coalition that could have replaced the faltering New Deal liberalism that was losing steam by 1968.
Today, the discussion around King’s death may at times include mentioning why he was in Memphis: to help with a sanitation workers’ strike in that city. Such recollections of King’s final days also make mention of his Poor People’s Campaign, his last fight for freedom. Examining the Poor People’s Campaign up close shows what the American left could have been, if not for King’s death: a multiracial alliance dedicated to fighting the issue of poverty. Instead, after his death, the Poor People’s Campaign largely collapsed under leadership failures in Washington, D.C. It would be decades—until the Occupy Wall Street Movement—when issues of economic inequality once again gained the kind of mainstream political attention it had in the late 1960s. Campaigns such as the Rev. William Barber’s attempt to resuscitate the Poor People’s Campaign for a new generation speak to the fact that the urgency of activism on display in 1968 still has something to say for activists today hungry for new visionaries—and new visions.
There was distance between King and Kennedy’s views, but both men believed something needed to be done to alleviate poverty in the richest nation in the world. Kennedy’s 1968 speech at the University of Kansas posed deep questions about what Americans truly valued. He argued that gross national product did not measure “the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.” Two years earlier, King and other civil rights leaders offered their “Freedom Budget” as one example of how they thought about the intersection of race, poverty, and the economy. A. Philip Randolph wrote in his introduction to the budget that they could eliminate poverty “not in some distant future, not in this generation, but within the next ten years!” Such promises seem grandiose today, but that speaks less to a naivete about economics and more to a modern-day paucity of political courage.
King and Kennedy were spurred to do more on poverty by visits to some of the poorest parts of the United States. Their separate trips to Mississippi highlighted for the nation the interrelated problems of racism and poverty that left behind so many African American Southerners. Likewise, both men reached out to Appalachian whites as key constituents in the fight against poverty. They recognized the need for a multi-racial coalition to buttress a vibrant movement for social and economic justice. Whereas today much media commentary equates Appalachia with Trump voters—although there is much-needed pushback against this argument by scholar Elizabeth Catte and others—in the late 1960s, concern about white Appalachians was a way for liberals to argue that the problem of poverty was not just an issue that affected African Americans. In 1968, Appalachian whites were part of the Poor People’s Campaign, and they were also targeted by Robert Kennedy as potential voters to support his campaign for president.
While Eugene McCarthy could not galvanize African American voters, and Hubert Humphrey struggled to gain the anti-war vote until the final months of the campaign, Kennedy was able to bring together anti-war voters, African Americans, and working-class whites in a coalition that may have defeated Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy. Of course, it is by no means certain that it would have. As Rick Perlstein argued in his book Nixonland, one way to interpret the 1968 election results is that 57 percent of the population voted for either the conservative (Richard Nixon) or right-wing (George Wallace) candidate for president. The pressures of Vietnam, the rise of Black Power, and the slowing down of the economy all contributed to a national mood open to a Nixon victory. Assumptions of a Kennedy victory, which will likely be bandied about in June with the anniversary of his assassination, are wrong-headed at best and dangerously naïve at worst about the kind of nation the United States was in 1968. It was not the anti-war protesters or Black Power advocates who won the day that year—it was the so-called “Silent Majority” that won the election and, in the process, changed politics in the country for decades to come.
In 2007, Andrew Sullivan argued, in an essay for The Atlantic titled “Goodbye to All That: Why Obama Matters,” that the ascension of Barack Obama to the top tier of presidential candidates meant that the United States had finally left behind the demons of 1968. “Unlike any of the other candidates, he could take America—finally—past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that has long engulfed all of us,” Sullivan wrote. Such optimism, looking back from 2018, seems misplaced. But it points to America’s struggle to deal with the legacies of 1968. Misremembering what Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy believed only adds to our confusion and makes it easier for politicians to evoke these men as heroes—without even detailing what they stood for.
The deaths of these two figures can perhaps best be understood in context of what they did to black America. Kennedy spoke about the anger and grief of black America in his landmark speech in Indianapolis just after King died; just two months later, he would also be dead. The country at large was shaken by the assassinations, but for African Americans, their deaths marked the end of the brief moment of hopefulness that followed the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The long, hot summers of the 1960s, as well as the white backlash politics on display in elections, had dampened enthusiasm among African Americans, but Kennedy and King offered hope. Their assassinations snuffed out such optimism. The funerals for both men were reflections on what the nation had lost—and, in retrospect, what the country has never gotten back. “When white America killed Dr. King,” thundered a grief-stricken Stokely Carmichael after King’s assassination, “she declared war on us.”
That feeling was compounded again after Kennedy’s death. Ebony magazine’s coverage of Kennedy’s assassination in their July 1968 issue made it clear: “many Negroes saw Kennedy’s death as the last shred of hope wrenched from the land.” John Lewis, the congressman and civil rights activist who worked for Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, recalled in his memoir Walking with the Wind that when Kennedy was killed, he thought to himself, “What could we believe in now? How much more of this could we take?” One of the few men to work with both King and Kennedy, Lewis recognized how both men represented the unrealized hopes and dreams of millions of Americans.
By allowing King and Kennedy to become empty historical figures who stood for nothing controversial, we do a disservice to the causes they fought for. Their statements about America’s foreign and domestic policies continue to speak to us, 50 years later, as words of warning from the past. They dared us to dream in ways most politicians and activists refuse to do so now. If we fail to understand their words and deeds before and after 1968, we weaken the legacies of Americans, who like us wanted—in a variety of ways—to help create a more perfect union.
Robert Greene II is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of South Carolina who studies African American history and American intellectual history. He is also a blogger and book review editor for the Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians, and he has written for The Nation, Dissent, Jacobin, and Scalawag.