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Rick Perlstein: 1966--When Everything Changed

[Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. His most recent book is Nixonland.]

For at least six months now I've been planning, and putting off, this post. The imminent occasion of the first African American major-party nominee forces my hand. It's time for me to help give a sense of just how far we have come.

When I started researching NIXONLAND I knew the congressional elections of 1966 would form a crucial part of the narrative. They'd never really been examined in-depth before, but by my reckoning they were the crucial hinge that formed the ideological alignment we live in now.

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson—and, apparently, liberalism—achieved such a gigantic landslide victory that it appeared to pundits the Republican Party would be forever consigned to the outer darkness if it ever entertained a Goldwater-style conservative law-and-order platform again. Two years later, most of the new liberal congressmen swept in on LBJ's coattails—the congressional class that gave us Medicare and Medicaid, the first serious environmental legislation, National Endowments for the Humanities and Arts, Head Start, the Voting Rights Act, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the end of racist immigration quotas, Legal Aid, and more—was swept out on a tide of popular reaction.

That reaction, I hope I demonstrate effectively in NIXONLAND, rested on two pillars: terror at the wave of urban rioting that began in the Watts district of Los Angeles; and terror at the prospect of the 1966 civil rights bill passing, which, by imposing an ironclad federal ban on racial discrimination in the sale and rental of housing—known as"open housing"—would be the first legislation to impact the entire nation equally, not just the South. (What that reaction most decidedly did not rest on: fear and loathing of"hippies," which were unknown, except in California, to most of the nation until 1967; or antiwar activists, which were not associated with either party, because Republicans and Democrats had about an equal number of hawks and doves in 1966.)

When I learned that the papers of Senator Paul Douglas were at the Chicago Historical Society (as it was known then; now it's cursed with the decidedly more prosaic name the Chicago History Museum), I decided to make Douglas's 1966 loss to Republican Charles Percy a key case study for my hypothesis. Douglas was a popular liberal lion first elected in 1948 and a civil rights champion, whose wife Emily Taft Douglas (a one-term congresswoman herself) had strode proudly across Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 arm in arm with Martin Luther King. He was also, as an economist, one of the architects of many of the New Deal ideas and programs that created the world's first mass middle class.

In the summer of 1966, as debate over open housing raged in Congress, King marched not in Alabama but in Chicago, to implore the city to enforce its own open housing ordinance, passed in 1963—which, if Chicago did, would be a first. It was the most segregated city in the north. As I put it in NIXONLAND (drawing on this classic study):

You could draw a map of the boundary within which the city's seven hundred thousand Negroes were allowed to live by marking an X wherever a white mob attacked a Negro. Move beyond it, and a family had to face down a mob of one thousand, five thousand, or even (in the Englewood riot of 1949, when the presence of blacks at a union meeting sparked a rumor the house was to be"sold to niggers") ten thousand bloody-minded whites. In the late 1940s, when the postwar housing shortage was at its peak, you could find ten black families living in a basement, sharing a single stove but not a single flush toilet, in"apartments" subdivided by cardboard. One racial bombing or arson happened every three weeks.... In neighborhoods where they were allowed to"buy" houses, they couldn't actually buy them at all: banks would not write them mortgages, so unscrupulous businessmen sold them contracts that gave them no equity or title to the property, from which they could be evicted the first time they were late with a payment.

And in 1966, a teenager answering a job ad walked over the border from Chicago into the all-white city of Cicero, and for that sin and no other was beaten to death. That was what Martin Luther King came to fight in Chicago.

At the Chicago History Museum, the Douglas collection covers seven hundred"linear feet"—archivsts' metric for how big a collection would be if you stacked the papers one atop another. And somehow, somewhere, I stumbled upon Box 722, which contained all the letters Senator Paul Douglas received about open housing and Martin Luther King's presence in Chicago. I quote many of them in a section of NIXONLAND of which I'm most proud, the one with the most original research and historical insights: the one on how"open housing" opened up the conservative backlash that inaugurated the Republican dominance of the politics of our own generation. I've always wanted to do a post printing, for the historical record, all the letters I put down in my research notes.

That's what I'm about to do. They comprise an unmatched emotional history on how the white middle class built by the New Deal learned to vote Republican. And an unmatched marker of how far this nation has come, now that this same city has given us our first African American presidential nominee.

The first is from March 11, 1965, as the Voting Rights Act was being considered—with nothing in it about open housing.

I am white and am praying that you vote against open housing in the consideration of Equal Rights.

Just because the negro refuses to live among his own race--that alone should give you the answer.

I was forced to sell my home in Chicago ('Lawndale') at a big loss because of the negroes taking over Lawndale--their morals are the lowest (and supported financially by Mayor Daley as you well know)--and the White Race by law.

Please don't take away our bit of peace and freedom to choose our neighbors.

What did Luther King mean when he faced the nation on TV New Year's day--announcing he will not be satisfied until the wealth of America is more evenly divided?

Sounds like Communism to Americans. 'Freedom for all'--including the white race, Please!

The letters start up again in May of 1966, when open housing was actually introduced. At first, there are a flurry of letters, most from liberal clergymen, supporting passage. Then these soon disappear.

From June:

Do you or any of your friends live next door to a negro--why should we have them pushed down our throats?

As a citzen and a taxpayer I was very upset to hear about 'TITLE IV' of the so-called civil rights Bill S. 3296. This is not Civil Rights. This takes away a person's rights. We too are people and need someone to protect us.

We designed and built our own home and I would hate too think of being forced to sell my lovely home to anyone just because they had the money.

The letters accelerate in July, after a black riot on Chicago's West Side, which brought this response from Mayor Daley—"I think you can't charge it directly to Martin Luther King. But surely some of the people that came in here have been talking for the last year of violence, and showing pictures and instructing people how to conduct violence, there on his staff, and they're responsible.... Who makes a Molotov cocktail? Someone has to train the youngsters"—and these from one M.R. Rosen, president of Becker Brothers Carbon in Cicero, and a resident of rural Danville:

Last night there was a show of appreciation for all that has been done to help the colored people. Even those that have been moved from the slums into high rise apartments have seen fit to shoot and wound our policemen. Don't you think it's time to have Dr Martin Luther King and other negro leaders start preaching that they should go to work the same as white folks do, if they wish to improve their lot, instead of continuing to promise them more and more in all their talks.

How much longer are we doing to be the suckers, giving away tax payer's money and in return see what it has got us. Shooting, looting, and additional cost to community in the way of police protection, hospital expenses, replacement of burned and smashed automobiles, etc.

I do not understand the Negro riots in our big cities. These negroes have civil rights. They do not suffer from discrimination. Many are supported by our taxes.

On July 28, 1966, The New York Times reported of deliberations on the civil rights bill,"Fearful of fairly widespread defections in their own ranks, Democratic leaders are counting heavily on Republican help in salvaging the open housing section." On the House floor, conservative Republican William C. Cramer of Florida, cried,"This is not going to bring about the solution of the plethora of problems relating to the ghettos. This is not going to settle the riots." A segregationist Democrat from Alabama warned of"the discord which will be provoked in communities throughout the land if this proposal is adopted.... It is ironic that many who cry for liberty and freedom for special groups...diminish and destroy the rights of all men." Another from Florida said,"In the past when legislation produced bad results, the Congress repealed it. Now sociological reasoning seems to say the solution to a statute which produces looting, burning, and rioting is to pass more of the same." And in Chicago, one Milton J. Hayes, vice president of the American National Bank and Trust Co. of Chicago, wrote his senator after a stroll in Washington D.C. was interrupted by an open housing march:

As a member of the over 150 million white population of this country, I respectfully request that some action be taken to prevent such demonstrations in the Nation's capitol. This is an imposition on the majority and prevents the average citizens from enjoying his capital. This is itself is one of the most severe forms of discrimination.

And a stockbroker wrote on his letterhead:

When the negro community & its leaders talk of civic responsibilities, I will be in favor of further civil rights legislation—not before. I live on the Lake Street 'L,' & all reason on this subject went up in smoke when riders had to lie on the floor to escape snipers' bullets fired from public (!) housing developments. You must assure me and my family of protection from this ghastly sort of thing, before you can expect sympathetic support for negro demands.

Then, the watershed. On July 29, Martin Luther King led what was supposed to be all-night vigil in front of F.H. Halvorsen Real Estate in the Bungalow Belt neighborhood of Gage Park. The police rescued them from an advancing mob. The returned to the same spot the next morning. They were met by a hail of rocks. And Senator Douglas got a raft of letters dated July 30. The one from"Mr and Mrs John Albrecth" included a column by Barry Goldwater arguing that blacks riot because their leaders demand too much,"speaking endlessly of quick solutions, of instantly setting aright old injustices, of changing men's hearts with a stroke of the pen.... We have far too long lived in the world of sociological LSD where political power was supposed to be able to make men healthy, wealth, and wise, even beautiful":

Although I am a staunch Democrat I cannot help but wholeheartedly agree with Barry Goldwater article. I'm almost sorry I didn't vote for him.

"I feel Mr Johnson Pres is much responsible for the present riot by his constant encouragement for the Negro to take any measure to assert himself & demand his rights--Rights, and respect are earned!

This one made it into the book. Elenaor M. Gavior of 5207 S. California, wrote:

As a Gage park resident & that of my in-laws & my parents, & their familes we are living as decent, hard-working people, you should consider martial law to prevent a peaceful community from getting harassed. That you should consider re-establishing law &order & change laws to protect the people and not criminals & people who openly voice their opinions against the majority as well as the government. Our children don't get sprinklers, day courts, new schools, elevators, cheap rent, yet they will be asked shortly to go fight on foreign shores. I think its time to defend our country from within. I have 3 sons & I will gladly have them defend this country here.

And, I wrote, Mrs. Gavion's sons would soon have the chance to do that, from their very own Gage Park front yards. On July 31 five hundred open housing marches were met by a mob of 4,000, and cherry bombs, bottles, and rocks. Priests and nuns ("whores!") were singled out for abuse. A first grade teacher, Sister Mary Angelica, was pummeled to the ground. A cheer went up:"We've got another one!" Marchers returning to their cars found them torched, overturned, or rolled into the muddy Marquette Park lagoon.

Back in Washington, the Republican Party passed a watershed: they chose Goldwaterism as their official ideology on civil rights. At an August 2 press conference of the House Republican Policy Committee, Gerald Ford announced the caucus's opposition to the open housing bill:"Respect for law and order is basic to the achievement of common goals within our nation," he began, and blamed the open housing struggle for law and order's decline."Since its inception, it has created confusion and bitterness. It has divided the country and fostered discord and animosity when calmness and a unified approach to civil rights problems are desperately needed."

Three days later 600 marched again in Chicago, against 10,000 counterdemonstrators. Some wore Nazi helmets. Others waved Confederate battle flags, carried George Wallace banners, Swastika placards that helpfully explained,"The Symbol of White Power." This was the famous march where Martin Luther King was hit by a giant rock, where he told the press,"I think the people of Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate," where, because Mayor Daley, scared he wouldn't be able to secure the 1968 Democratic convention if King was injured, had the cops give them (relatively) safe passage—one of the reasons (Republican opposition to open housing being the other) for the chants along the route,"Don't vote for Democrats! Don't vote for Democrats."

Letters to Senator Douglas, August 5. Reading them in that archive, I felt like I was peering into the dark soul of America to a depth I'd never thought possible. From 3111 W. 71st:

Recently we members of the Marquette Park area of Chicago witnessed violence over the so called subject of civil rights. Since the Civil Rights Act Act was passed all we have seen is violence, riots, and general defiance of the laws of our land by the Negro population under the guise of this nebulous term, civil rights. When is the Congress going to wake up to the fact that it cannot legislate morals or love?

"We white people have taken a lot from the Negro. We have been patient, and now find ourselves pushed up against a wall by groups that feel it is their God given right to have our property. We have worked hard and saved to get what we now own. Because we do work hard and wish to maintain our property are we to be denied the right to dispose of our property as we see fit? Is the ultimate aim the same as the Soviet Union when all property was collectivized....

The Civil Rights legislation amendment that which deals with the so-called open occupancy law is disgusting and makes me almost ashamed to admit that it has been proposed in America. All this civil rights legislation is un-American.

From 3322 2. 64th:

Will you please do all in your power to make the laws for the benefit of America.

The average citizen is becoming nervous, tense, and disgusted, with people being allowed to cause all this. The marchers are a direct menace to public safety. Are they the devil or communists. I live in Chicago Lawn, stayed in my own house; the noise, confusion, anxiety is impossible to bear.

To your colleagues and anyone voting on our laws. The average citizen is losing his rights.

5715 S. Kolman:

He was quoted on TV tonite as seeing more hate in the Marquette Park area than he saw down South. What I want to know? Is that hate or fear? I think its fear that another neighborhood will go down the drain

For instance, the Southeast side of Chicago had many beautiful areas that have become slums because of dirty & sloppy people. Why don't Dr King, Al Raby, and his fellow followers work at educating thse people on fundamental cleanliness and moral obligations.

7134 S. Avers:

If this is a result of passing a law that was intended to help a group of people and if this is the reaction, something is drastically wrong. IT IS TIME TO CHANGE THE LAW TO PROTECT ALL THE PEOPLE. Maybe then, we will have some kind of peace and order in our cities. Reading this morning's paper makes me shuddering and wonder where it will all end. My husband and I were both of the opinion when the Civil Rights Law was passed that everyone in this country had right to whatever the country had to offer--by hard work as our parents did and as we are doing. They did not demand anything--they worked for what they have.

When a group of people march into neighborhoods--stir up the people with their irresponsible leaders and then say that are against violence--they are talking nonsense--why, their very actions reek with violence...

I am appealing to you to use our elected office to do whatever you can to bring some sanity back into our country before we crumble from within.

5939 S. Richmond:

Up until now many of us have been sympathetic & tolerant. This no longer exists. If our present leaders in Washington are confused, perhaps a completely new group would be able to handle the situation better.

And finally, a set of petitions, also dated August 5, 1966:

We are writing to you, and requesting legislation for a repeal of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Act wil rob a great many Americans of their rights to property, individual liberty, freedom of choice, and enterprise.

This Act is the wrong vehicle, impracticale and undesirable, and we are bitterly opposed to it.

We also request legislation to stop these civil rights demonstrations.

When civil rghts leaders walk into a community and bring with them the most notorious thugs and gang leaders in the city, it is hypocrisy to call them peaceful demonstrations.

"You cannot substitute the law for incentive, responsibility, initiative, honor, duty, achievement, or creative activity of the individual."

The day after that:

At least fifty square of Chiago is occupied by negroes which means that no part of that area is safe for white people to travel...

It is safe to say that not a single white person has ever moved into a negro neighorhood yet there has been over a million white people dumped, shoved, or pushed out of their homes by expansion of negroes....


The day after that, from 6106 S. Whipple:

Please put me down as one who believes that brotherhood, racial harmony, morals or love cannot be legislated.

I also believe that bigotry, prejudice, or hate cannot be erased by additional laws or by physical force.

It is my opinion that the entire so-called 'civil rights' legislation should be reappraised. Money and laws will not automatically instill responsibility, honor, duty or achievement....

I think Negroes, as a body, will be accepted generally when and if they follow the example of the other ethnic groups that have in the past been discriminated against.

These groups worked hard, built their communities, religious institutions, hospitals, etc. through their thrift, example, education, and encouragement of their offspring to attain higher social status, they won general admiration and acceptance. This all was accomplished without any government hand-out....

Is it any wonder that people of the white race become incensed when they feel there is a threat of invasion or inundation by a people who have demonstrated their inability or incapability for concerted action for improvement of themselves or their surroundings?

This pretty much covers the tone of things for the next couple weeks—dozens of letters:"It is my firm belief, and of all my neighbors, that king should be taken into custody, charged with fomenting civil disorder and anarchy.... Today, the insufferable arrogance of this character places him on a pedestal as a dark-skinned Hitler." The only shift: the letters to Senator Douglas make more and more explicit reference to the November election:

While you sit on your butt in Washington Martin Luther King is violating everything I bought and paid for. That jackass Percy is beginning to look good to me.

Paul Douglas, for his part, stiffened his spine—"I am for open occupancy. I believe in equal opportunity of every man and woman. I do not intend to switch or to equivocate"—despite letters like this:"I have been a Democrat for over forty years, but you can be sure on November 8th that I shall turn Republican.... In all my years as a democrat I have not received any favors from any of the parties."

Perhaps he had seen the following poster that began appearing in Chicago's bungalow belt neighborhoods (also from Box 722):

"OUR SLOGAN: 'Your Home is your castle--Keep it that way by Voting STRAIGHT REPUBLICAN.


"AGAINST--violence, riots, and marches in the streets;

"AGAINST--disregard for law and order;

"AGAINST--The 3 Rs of today--Riots, Rape & Robbery...

"Did Mayor Daley make a secret deal with Martin Luther King to stop the marches until after the election?... This is you chance to show where you stand on FORCED HOUSING.... Renters, as well as homeowners, would be effected for the law applies everywhere, including the suburbs. WHERE WOULD YOU GO TO BE SAFE?

"The only way to stop this program is by you, your family, and neighbors voting Republican on November 8th."

Republican Charles Percy had gone into the race a civil rights liberal:"Chuck, do you have to talk so much about open housing?" one suburban Republican official complained to him. But by October, following Jerry Ford's talking points to the letter, he went on ABC's"Face the Nation" and said that while he still supported the"principle" of open housing, he disagreed with Senator Douglas on one thing: including"single-family dwelling" would be"an unpassable and unenforceable" attack on property rights."Right now, we aren't ready to force people to accept those they don't want as neighbors," he said in tones of rue.

Long story short: Douglas soldiered on, imploring his constituents to remember the favors they had received from the Democratic Party—entree, for one thing, into the world's first mass middle class of factory workers. To no avail. Percy won in an upset. Pundits said it was because Percy's daughter had just been brutally murdered; it was a sympathy vote. But if people voted for Percy because he was a grieving father, the ratio of the sympathetic to the callous was suspiciously high in the Bungalow Belt neighborhoods where Martin Luther King had marched. A ward analysis demonstrated that in Chicago neighborhoods threatened by racial turnover, new Percy voters were enough to account for Douglas's 80 percent decline in the city since 1960. Pundits also pointed to people's unwillingness to vote for such an old man. But in the backlash wards younger Democrats declined almost as significantly.

No, it was voters like this, from 4315 W. Crystal:

A few years ago I had written you a letter stating how I and my family would welcome the opportunity to vote you in to the highest office in the land--The Presidency. Since that time however your support of the open occupancy bill has caused me to change my support of your candidacy for senator of Illinois, and believe me sir there are many more in my category who are changing in their support of you.

Here is the fundamental tragedy of the backlash: Voters like this empowered a party that decided they didn't need protection against predatory subprime mortgage fraud. Didn't need affordable, universal health insurance; made it easier for companies to rape their pensions; kept on going back to the well to destroy their Social Security; worked avidly to shred their union protections. Fought, in fact, every decent and wise social provision that made it possible in the first place for mere factory workers to live in glorious Chicago bungalows, or suburban homes, in the first place.

Now a black man from the city King visited in 1966 and called more hateful than Mississippi is running for president, fighting for all those things that made the mid-century American middle class the glory of world civilization, but which that middle class squandered out of the small-mindedness of backlash.

This post is for Chicago. This post is for America. This post is for our future. This post is for our history—that we may redeem it. This post is for a man who, had he walked down the wrong street in his own city 42 years ago, might well have been beaten to death.

Read entire article at http://ourfuture.org