I had never been to a political rally, although I had seen TV news snippets of such productions. Even then, I had little interest in being immersed in large crowds of enthusiastic and sometimes angry people. Life is not a spectator sport. Still, after Jerry begged me to at least hear what the man had to say, promising that we ‘would not stay long,’ I politely but silently assented. I was raised to believe in the best in people, expecting (and usually finding) that most people are good and kind and decent. But I had also seen the dark side of the human condition and personality, so I agreed to listen with an open mind (while being on guard instinctively).
The speaker was gifted, not by intellectual expertise or a repertoire of success and valuable ideas for America’s future, but rather by (an apparent) adherence to populist ideas that elicited a visceral response from the audience. He was the first politician to offer tax breaks and other perks to big businesses if they would move their facilities to his state, a rather successful effort to bribe companies to offer employment to locals and one that is still used today. He also wanted to increase Social Security and Medicare benefits to the elderly while ending foreign aid and getting out of the Vietnam quagmire.
Many of this man’s ideas were reasonable and quite in line with the Democratic Party of the day. In the 1968 election, however, this staunch Democrat chose to run in the American Independent Party, thus splintering the Democratic votes irreparably, allowing Nixon to become President. I still wonder how different things might have been had a Democrat won. The 1968 campaign was probably the most chaotic election season ever in the most chaotic year ever (arguably).
One would think that a man who suggested populist ideas that appealed to the average working American would be perfect, but, alas, this Southern Democrat had sold his soul to the devil in his hot pursuit of political fame and fortune. When President John F Kennedy had ordered the desegregation of all schools, the Governor of Alabama blocked the school house doors, vowing this law would never be enforced in HIS schools. Early in his career he had discovered that he could only beat his opponents, who were supported heavily by the Ku Klux Klan, if he were to ‘join them.’ He became the horrible icon of racism and race hatred.
That was why the Democratic Party eventually dropped him and that is why I had no interest in attending a rally for him. As a Christian, I was raised to believe that we are all God’s children, regardless of race or creed, and in my family, this man’s name was spat out when he was spoken about at all. He was the worst of bigots, for he had political and legal power over his victims and he used invective, stereotyping, and fear to excite the mob of poor white men seeking a scapegoat for their problems. His rallies often attracted loud protestors and violence (another reason NOT to see him).
I remember the separate restrooms and drinking fountains, one for whites and the other for blacks, which were ubiquitous in the 50s and 60s, even in Akron and Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio (my hometown). It was a shameful time in our country, when people of color were treated as less than human. The town I grew up in had been named by a national magazine as “One of the 24 Nice Places to Live,” and it was. I only learned the true meaning of that idea in high school when I discovered that realtors and those with rental properties had an unwritten law not to sell or rent to blacks. Imagine that, in the 20th century!
To add gasoline to these confrontations, other tragedies that year electrified the very air with fear and hatred. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that my entire world view changed with the assassination of John F Kennedy in 1963. How different the world, and America, would be if not for the nut job Lee Harvey Oswald, who killed the hope of many of us that day in November. Just 5 years later, and still in shock over that tragedy, we faced new ones—Dr Martin Luther King, Jr was shot down in the Spring, and in June of that year, Democratic candidate Robert F Kennedy was likewise assassinated!
What a loss to our country. How sad and shameful and depressing. How can one go on believing in the American dream when the best and brightest of us, who offered hope to all, were slaughtered like the American buffalo? The death of the buffalo was a deliberate effort by the government to commit genocide on Native Americans. The death of men like John and Robert Kennedy and Dr King came close to destroying all Americans. These senseless murders put us in the hands of men like Nixon who hated the people he was meant to serve, who played politics with boys’ lives in ‘Nam, who encouraged the wholesale slaughter of unarmed college students whose crime was objecting to an unconstitutional war.
So, that night in 1968 was, for me, filled with fear and confusion. I was in danger; America itself was in danger. The people who claimed to know what was right, who wanted to lead us to a better tomorrow, ostensibly, could not agree on even the simplest of principles. How, then, could we find the right path, surrounded by lots of rhetoric, hyperbole, and invective? Even knowing what is right does not guarantee that one will do right. Sometimes, knowing what is absolutely the wrong thing can spur us to head in the opposite direction. Sometimes, a bad example is more effective. That’s what I heard that dark night in Akron—the worst example ever offered to the American people.
I had reason to be concerned. I did not want to listen to this hateful man spewing his hate-filled threats, his twisted view of America. I also did not want to witness what I knew would follow his words. The Armory seemed to bulge at its seams, as countless numbers of mostly white working-class men filled the auditorium to hear their new-found spokesman. Lots of talk, laughter, then whispers, followed by loud, angry cries when a small group of black men in suits entered the room, attempting to listen to the speech. Suddenly, small Confederate flags appeared, waving rapidly, as the crowd, emboldened by the polite silence of the ‘intruders,’ began flinging insults and threats of physical violence.
What I feared most of all began to emerge—a lynch-mob mentality, as armed security guards surrounded the young black men and attempted to remove them. Terrible words were exchanged by the speaker and these visitors. The crowd of mostly men, all white, began stamping their feet and yelling for blood. If not for the speaker’s next words, I think these regular guys would have shed blood that night. Horrified, I begged Jerry to take me out of there. I was more afraid for the black men down below, the only men in suits that night (except for the speaker), but I was also afraid for my own safety.
I have never seen a speaker so charismatic that he could actually convince the angry mob to calm down and allow the visitors to leave unmolested. They hung on his words like bees clinging to flower blooms. I couldn’t believe it; it was as if they had all been hypnotized by this man (or mesmerized, as the 19th century folks would have called it). With a few sentences, he commanded everyone to be calm, to be quiet, and to let those people go IN PEACE. I was astounded; the crowd, over-awed, performed like hungry seals, sitting down, ceasing the horrific racist rants and threats, calming, and waiting for this enigmatic ‘leader’ to tell them what to believe, how to behave.
It was the spookiest episode of my young life, watching this short, pudgy, badly dressed race bully calmly instruct his armed guards to escort the young black men out of the auditorium, at the same time convincing the angry crowd NOT to be angry, NOT to act with violence. We didn’t stay to hear his prepared speech, for I had witnessed a mind-boggling performance and wanted no more of it. I grabbed Jerry’s forearm with a strength born of fear and anguish and told him to ‘get me out of here, NOW!’ or face my father’s wrath when I told him about this date from hell.
I had learned too much about my so-called boyfriend that night, and also, perhaps, too much about the desperation of working men who had no clue about right and wrong, good and evil. They hated the scapegoat created by smug politicians intent on their own power and willingly gave up any claim to humanity that night. I was relieved that the speaker had stopped the potential violence that night, but I had no illusions about the reason he did that.
That was my last date with Jerry.
[The Democrat turned Independent running for president in 1968, the man who enthralled the crowd in the same creepy way that Hitler used to do in Nazi Germany, was George Wallace. He lost the election. Four years later, he was paralyzed after being shot by another nut job. He later recanted his racist views, claiming to have been ‘born again,’ and apologizing to the black people of America for what he had said and had done against them.]
© 2015 Linda L Labin, PhD