Even before the presidential candidate arrived at the rally, the arena seethed. Fistfights broke out as the national anthem played. Supporters tore up demonstrators’ signs, beat them with sticks, pummeled them with folding chairs.
The year was 1968; the candidate was Alabama Gov. George Wallace.
If you’re struggling with feelings of deja vu, you’re not alone. The recent dark turn of the 2016 presidential campaign — the ugly scuffles and confrontations at Donald Trump‘s rallies — has brought back memories of the turmoil of the 1960s, and fueled fears that America is careering into a similarly angry and violent era.
Will it happen? There’s no way of knowing. Some note this is a different time: When Wallace climbed the stage of Detroit’s Cobo arena, on Oct. 29, 1968, college campuses were exploding, American cities were in rubble, and Wallace’s incendiary words were just some of many, many angry words of that era.
As contentious as our times may seem, they’re not that bad — yet. But protesters, drawn by Trump’s positions against immigrants and Muslims, have been ejected from his rallies; one North Carolina man was charged with assault after he was caught on video hitting a man being led out by deputies at the event in Fayetteville. Trump says he does not encourage violence; the fault, he says, lies with the demonstrators.
In fact, if you take the long view, what’s happening is not all that unusual. Politics and violence have been mated since the republic’s earliest days. It was black power activist H. Rap Brown — now serving a life sentence in the 2000 murder of a sheriff’s deputy — who said “violence is as American as cherry pie.” Other, more reputable observers agree.
The colonies’ victory over the British, believes Glenn W. LaFantasie, professor of civil war history at Western Kentucky University, taught Americans “that violence can be justified so long as it can be done for a good cause.” And in the decades that followed, they often used violence in support of — or opposition to — various causes:
- When Irish and German Catholics arrived in the 1840s, the Know-Nothing party arose to oppose them, rioting in Louisville (more than 20 killed, many more injured) and turning a series of elections in Baltimore into a series of bloodbaths.
- In the run-up to the Civil War, Kansas had its own war between pro-slave and abolitionist forces. In that same year, 1856, abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner gave a speech in which he demanded Kansas’ admission as a free state, and ridiculed Sen. Andrew Butler for his efforts against it; two days later, Butler’s cousin Rep. Preston Brooks accosted Sumner in the Senate chamber and nearly caned him to death.
- For four days in July of 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, there was fighting in New York City: working-class men, angry because the rich could buy their way out of fighting for the Union, rioted. They turned their wrath on their black neighbors, and thousands of them fled.
There followed lynchings and other attacks on blacks and race riots in the North and South that left untold numbers of blacks dead. A series of anarchist bombings spread fear after World War I. Mobs preyed on purported communists — most prominently, at two concerts by singer Paul Robeson at Peekskill, N.Y., in 1949.
“This is a dark streak that runs through American history,” said sociologist Todd Gitlin, who was president of the Students for a Democratic Society in 1963-64 and an organizer of the demonstration that brought thousands of protesters to Washington in 1965.
By experience and by scholarship, he is an expert on that decade, and the many ways in which violence became its hallmark, from the “police riot” that was the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago to the attacks on the Freedom Riders who bused to the South to fight for civil rights.
“The mobs were there to fight against the invading Yankees, the legions of communism and John F. Kennedy; their way of life was at stake,” Gitlin said.
Wallace gave voice to those same people. “When he’s on ‘Meet the Press,’ they can look to George and think, ‘That’s what I would say if I were up there,'” his wife, Lurleen, once said.
Michael A. Cohen, author of the forthcoming book “American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division,” said that aside from Detroit — where the violence was so great that Wallace cut his speech short after a few moments — the candidate held similarly contentious rallies in Minneapolis, San Diego and elsewhere.
His speech at New York’s Madison Square Garden drew more than 15,000 spectators, among them an unknown number of demonstrators who heckled him while others were guarded by a huge show of police force outside the arena.
Like Trump, Wallace was openly disdainful of his protesters. Cohen believes Wallace courted mayhem, thinking it helped his cause. He taunted hecklers from the stage:
“After Nov. 5, you anarchists are through in this country. I can tell you that,” he said. And, regarding a long-haired heckler: “If he’ll go to the barbershop, I think they can cure him.”
“There is menace in the blood shout of the crowds,” wrote the New Republic columnist Richard Strout, who covered the event. “You feel you have known this somewhere; never again will you read about Berlin in the ’30s without remembering this wild confrontation here of two irrational forces.”
In November, Wallace won 13 percent of the vote and five Southern states.
Cohen said the context of Trump’s rallies is far different than Wallace’s, because our times are placid compared to the chaos of the ’60s. He fears the months to come: “This is only March. If Trump’s the nominee, I can’t even imagine what will happen in September or October.”
LaFantasie, the civil war historian, also feels foreboding. “This is not good and it’s going to get worse,” he said. “The divisions will widen. I think the violence is going to get worse.”
Miles Rapaport, the president of the civic organization Common Cause, is not so sure.
He started his career as a community organizer; he recalled attending a Wallace rally in Boston in 1968, and said he sees some parallels. “I think the kind of rhetoric that Donald Trump has engaged in and the kind of anger that he has encouraged takes us down a path we do not want to go,” he said.
Rapaport likes to think that if all Americans are encouraged to participate in the electoral process, democracy can overcome violent impulses. He likes to think that this will happen.
He wishes, he said, that he could be sure.
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.