“How to Survive the Next Four Years –
Lessons I Learned the Hard Way in Chicago, 1968”
A Service by Ron Cordes
At First Parish in Bedford
March 5, 2017
A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
“Look at the facts of the world. You see continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight: I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”
—REV. THEODORE PARKER, 19TH C. UNITARIAN MINISTER
Where Are We Going and Why Are We in this Handbasket?
When John Gibbons first asked me to do a service on my experiences in 1968, I have to admit I was quite hesitant. There are some very painful memories buried in here. Memories that I haven’t fully shared with anyone – including myself – for half a century. Memories that I really wasn’t sure I wanted to unpack.
But then I began to realize that the pain that I see all around me since the election last November is the same kicked-in-the-stomach feeling I felt in the aftermath of the 1968 election. And I realized that maybe – just maybe – some of those lessons-learned can help me – and maybe you – get through the next four years.
So what brought me to Chicago? Glad you asked.
I was born in the city of New Orleans at a very young age.
In spite of being raised in the deep South in the ’40s and ’50s, I came by my liberal Democratic beliefs honestly. My grandfather Cordes was a Union organizer in the 1920s on the New Orleans waterfront. He was a tough old bird. I only saw the old man cry one time. April 12, 1945 when he announced to the family “Franklin Roosevelt died today.”
My dad spent the war as a shipyard supervisor at the J. C. Higgins shipyard building PT boats for the Navy. He proudly claimed that his crew had built PT-109, President Kennedy’s boat. After the war, old man Higgins ordered him to report any employees who were engaged in Union organizing activities so he could fire them. My dad promptly resigned.
Being a young man with liberal leanings in the deep south in the 1950s and 60s, I didn’t have a lot of friends with whom I dared talk politics. I secretly attended a few Civil Rights rallies here and there, and several campus rallies while LSU was being desegregated in the early 60s, but that’s about it.
In 1966, my best friend from High School went to Vietnam where he stepped on a land mine and lost both his legs – above the knee. Safely back home in a VA hospital, he somehow got his hands on his service pistol and took the only way he could find out of his pain and depression.
I found out about his death just days before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made his “Beyond Vietnam” speech on April 4, 1967, bizarrely, one year to the day before he would be assassinated. In that speech he said that there is a common link forming between the civil rights movement and the peace movement. He gave those who were fighting for Civil Rights permission to move into the anti-war movement.
I felt like he was speaking directly to me and had given me an outlet for my rage at the unnecessary death of my friend.
So I marched, and I demonstrated. But it felt hollow. I wasn’t actually doing anything to change the nation’s reckless course and stop the war that had taken my friend’s life. I felt that the country was going to hell in a handbasket and there was nothing I could do about it.
Meanwhile, a man named Allard Lowenstein, a veteran political organizer and anti-war activist, was furiously trying to find a candidate to run against Lyndon Johnson in 1968. He offered the job to New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who flatly turned him down, saying he would not risk his political career to challenge a sitting President.
Then, on October 20, 1967, Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy entered the race as the anti-war candidate.
I heard McCarthy’s speech on the evening news. I was spell-bound. Here at last was something I could do besides sneak off to demonstrations. I could organize and work for a candidate who was actually promising to end the damn war.
The next morning I called Information – remember them – and asked for the number of the McCarthy for President office. No such listing. In desperation I called Senator McCarthy’s Senate office in Washington.
“Hi, can you tell me how to get in touch with the McCarthy for President people?”
“Experience? Well, I’ve worked in Presidential campaigns as far back as Adlai Stevenson in 1952.”
(OK, that was a tiny fib, but I did help my Granddad distribute leaflets for Stevenson that year, so it wasn’t an outright lie.)
“Where am I? New Orleans. Yes, Louisiana.”
“OK. Here’s my number. I will await his call.”
An hour or so later my phone rings and it’s somebody who sounds like he’s calling from a phone booth.
We chatted for a while and by the end he agreed that they would send me some seed money to set up an office in New Orleans.
Then, on March 12, 1968, Senator McCarthy narrowly lost the New Hampshire primary to President Johnson. The vote was so close that it shook up the race. Lyndon Johnson was vulnerable!
Four days later – FOUR DAYS LATER – Bobby Kennedy, who in September didn’t have the courage to put his political career on the line by challenging Johnson, now jumped into the race.
Many of us felt betrayed and called this an act of political cowardice – sitting safely on the sidelines and letting McCarthy take the political risk. And then, when we had proven that Johnson could be beat, jumping into the race.
Two weeks later President Johnson stunned the nation by announcing that he would not run for re-election.
Four days after that, Dr. King was assassinated. And only two months later Bobby Kennedy was assassinated.
We were all shell-shocked. We all felt like we had been kicked in the stomach. Coupled with President Kennedy’s assassination four years earlier, it seemed the forces of evil had decided to kill all our liberal leaders, and there was not a damned thing we could do about it.
And you think things are depressing today!
Around the end of June I got a call from Curtis Gans, the McCarthy campaign’s political director. There was an African-American organization in Mississippi who were challenging the all-white delegation of Governor Ross Barnett to the Democratic National Convention. Would I be interested in meeting with them and coordinating with them? Senator McCarthy would support their challenge and was hoping they would support his candidacy. I replied that I would be happy to and was told to expect a letter of introduction in the mail.
The letter showed up a week later. It was addressed to one of the founders of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Ms. Fannie Lou Hamer. The letter introduced me as Senator McCarthy’s Louisiana State Coordinator – news to me! – and authorized me to negotiate with the MFDP for their support at the Convention. A second letter gave me directions for how to contact Ms. Hamer.
I met Fannie Lou Hamer at an all-black roadside diner in the utter boondocks of Mississippi early one afternoon. I may well have been the first white person to ever set foot in the place. When I drove up I was admonished to park my car around behind the diner where it could not be seen from the highway.
We sat at a single table in a curtained-off part of the joint. The only other person I saw was the owner, who brought us our food. Ms. Hamer agreed that she would happily support Senator McCarthy. I assured her that her group would have our full support.
I left that meeting absolutely mesmerized. Fannie Lou Hamer remains one of the most amazing human beings I have ever met. She dazzled me not only with her presence, but with her knowledge of Mississippi state politics, and with the extraordinary means her organization had to go through to keep one step ahead of not only the state authorities, but the Ku Klux Klan as well.
This was not just a political game – it was life-and-death.
I have to admit I kept looking in my rear-view mirror all the way home that evening, being very careful to stay within the posted speed limit.
The next day I call Curtis Gans and told him that Ms. Hamer was on board. He was thrilled and said that he wanted me to come to Chicago as a member of the Senator’s national campaign staff so I could continue to work with the challenge delegation.
I asked my boss for three weeks’ vacation and he said, “Sure. Go lay on a beach somewhere.”
My beach would be on the shores of Lake Michigan.
How I spent my summer vacation and how to avoid Deja Vu all over again.
I arrived in Chicago a week before the convention began, on the very day that Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to crush the so-called Prague Spring reform movement.
My first job was to attend the meeting of the Credentials Committee, which would determine who would be seated to represent the State of Mississippi.
Governor Ross Barnett was his own worst enemy. Red in the face, he berated the racially-mixed Credentials committee for even considering “those, those people as the legal delegation from the sovereign state of Mississippi.”
When it was her turn, Fannie Lou Hamer rose and said simply: “Governor Barnett has disqualified himself by publically supporting the Republican nominee, Barry Goldwater, against Lyndon Johnson in 1964.”
Well, that was all the committee needed to hear. End of story. We had our delegates and Ross Barnett packed his bags and went home to join the Republican party.
Chicago would be the last time I ever saw Fannie Lou Hamer. She died in 1977. She even wrote her own epitaph: “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
By now, Vice-President Humphrey had entered the race. With Lyndon Johnson’s political muscle behind him, he was quietly assembling a vast majority of what we today call Super-delegates without ever running in a single state primary.
George McGovern had also entered the race and was trying to rally the Kennedy delegates to his cause.
I was working the convention floor trying to persuade uncommitted delegates, and a few committed ones, to support Senator McCarthy, saying that if we split the anti-war vote we can’t possibly win the nomination. But the handwriting was on the wall.
Senator McCarthy’s headquarters were on the 15th floor of the Conrad Hilton hotel just across Michigan Ave from Grant Park. For some reason all the network TV cameras had set up right in front of the hotel, which, of course, attracted the demonstrators. I had a room on the 15th floor, as did the Senator and all of his national campaign staff.
Now picture this. The hotel elevators on the 15th floor opened onto a foyer that was about half the size of this room. The wall facing Grant Park was all windows. There were nice couches and a very large – for those days – TV set.
On the night before the Convention would vote to nominate a President, Senator McCarthy called his entire staff together in that foyer. He read us a poem he had written – he was quite the poet. He told us that we would not win the nomination. He told us how proud he was of all of us for having tried. He told us that we had fought the good fight, but that sometimes Good does not always prevail.
Over in the corner, the TV set was on, showing the first film smuggled out of Czechoslovakia of the Soviet tanks rolling into Prague a week earlier. The parallel was striking. The whole world seemed caught up in bending that arc of the moral universe that Theodore Parker mentions in today’s Thought to Ponder away from Justice. Sometimes Good does not always prevail.
That evening, I and several of my fellow staff-members wandered out of the hotel, through the police lines, and into Grant Park where thousands of demonstrators were peacefully gathered to hear Mary Travers and Peter Yarrow – of Peter, Paul & Mary – sing. I have been told that somewhere in that crowd was a teen-aged boy named John Gibbons.
The next day I was on the floor of the Amphitheater as the vote for President took place. Senator Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut nominated George McGovern. In his speech he denounced, quote, “the Gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago.”
Mayor Daley, who was front and center with the Illinois delegation, went berserk. He launched into an extended obscenity-laced rant. He pointed his finger up at Ribicoff and screamed, quote, “I’ll get you, you son of a bitch!”
When the convention adjourned after nominating Humphrey, I joined many of the anti-war delegates in marching from the Amphitheater to Grant Park to join the thousands of peaceful demonstrators still gathered there. When we got there, things were anything but peaceful.
The Chicago police had been ordered to clear the streets, most likely by Mayor Daley in response to Senator Ribicoff’s comment. The police were tear-gassing and indiscriminately beating demonstrators.
I’m sure you have all seen the TV footage where the demonstrators are chanting “the whole world is watching. The whole world is watching.” This is what you – and the whole world – were watching.
My group of delegates was forcibly pushed off Michigan Avenue by baton-wielding police. Most of the delegates left the scene to go to their hotels. I went up to the 15th floor of the Hilton.
Several of my fellow staffers had set up a make-shift infirmary in the foyer and were treating demonstrators who had been beaten by the police and just left where they fell.
All the McCarthy staff members had ID badges – like this one. One by one, we would put someone else’s badge in our pocket and, flourishing our own badge, cross through the police lines into Grant Park. We would find a wounded protester who physically somewhat matched the photo on the extra badge we carried, put the extra badge on them, and help them walk back through the police lines and into the Hilton. I made the trip three or four times that night without incident.
Shortly before dawn, I was standing by the windows of the 15th floor foyer taking pictures of the goings-on below when I heard a commotion behind me. The elevator doors had burst open and half a dozen Chicago cops, in full riot gear, had stormed into the foyer, their billy clubs in hand. I think there were maybe a dozen patched-up protesters still there and five or six medical people.
One of the nurses approached one of the policemen, her arms stretched out before her. She said something which I could not hear. Without warning, the officer swung his club and hit her right across the head. She dropped to the floor, unconscious.
As he stood over her, I could plainly hear his voice. “We left them in the gutter where they belong and that’s where we want them to stay.”
The other adults rushed forward to their fallen comrade and were treated to a hail of nightsticks.
Like an idiot, I raised my camera and started taking pictures.
I awoke in a jail cell with my comrades. My right wrist was broken. I had a bloody gash on the side of my head, and a splitting headache. The half-dozen other McCarthy staffers in the cell with me were in similar condition.
Hours later Senator McCarthy appeared outside the cell. He had negotiated our release on condition that we leave Chicago and not return. He had a van outside and took us to the airport where, along with most of his campaign staff, we boarded his chartered flight back to Washington.
Sometimes Good does not always prevail. Sometimes you get kicked in the stomach. Or hit over the head.
So what did I learn from 1968 that may help us survive the next four years?
In 1968 we all thought that we could end the war in Vietnam through political action alone. Boy, were we ever wrong. The intransigence of the Democratic party establishment thwarted our people’s crusade, and the pro-military alignment of the Republican party under President Nixon prolonged the war for another 7 years and 21,000 more American deaths. Plus God alone knows how many Vietnamese deaths.
Too many of us dropped out after that, not just out of the anti-war effort, but out of mainstream society. Those who were left were badly fragmented. Some stayed in the anti-war movement. Others turned back to the Civil Rights movement. Others moved on into the Women’s movement and the Gay rights movement. All were effective in their own little niches, but there was no organized progressive opposition that might have had enough critical mass to change the country’s course.
So here we are today, half a century later. The anti-progressive forces have only grown stronger and better organized.
There is a part of me that sees a future as bleak as the one I saw after Chicago. Looking ahead to the next four years – or eight years – of Supreme Court stacking, voter suppression, and the gerrymandering of both state legislative and Congressional districts, I fear that we may never get our country back. At least not in my lifetime.
But there is another part of me that recognizes the mistakes we made in the aftermath of 1968 and believes that if we can learn from those mistakes then maybe we are not doomed to repeating Deja Vu all over again.
Dr. Martin Luther King condensed Theodore Parker’s 1853 quote into the famous line: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
It was our own Rev. Jack Mendelsohn who commented that the arc does not bend by itself. Human hands must keep on shaping it.
So how do we keep on bending that arc towards Justice? What do we need to do differently now than we did in ’68?
Barry Goldwater – of all people – said it best in his made-up fake Latin: Illegitimus Non Carborundum. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.
Don’t drop out. Don’t throw up your hands in resignation and let the illegitimati win by default.
There are decisions you can make in your daily life that will have a major effect on the direction this country takes.
Get involved in politics. You knew I’d get there eventually, didn’t you?
Run for office if you can. We need to build a stronger bench. If you are a woman who might be interested in running for political office, there is an excellent local group – called Emerge whose main function is to prepare women to run for office. It provides them with training, valuable resources, and a wonderful peer support network. Our own Margot Fleischman is an Emerge Alumna. Talk to her.
Support candidates who support your moral values. As my Sicilian grandfather used to say, “cash is always in good taste.”
Get involved in their campaigns. Volunteer. Knock on doors. Make phone calls. You can make calls for candidates in other states, too, without leaving home!
Not your thing? Ask Alan MacRobert. It wasn’t his thing either, but he tried it and, guess what – he’s pretty good at it and has come to enjoy the experience.
If you are not registered in one of the two major political parties, please do so. Now! Registering as Unenrolled or Independent or in one of the fringe parties like the Greens or the Libertarians is, frankly, a cop-out and a royal waste of your franchise. There are only two political parties that can have any effect on the American government for the foreseeable future. Choose one. Make a commitment. And then get to work within that party to move it in the direction in which you would like to see it move.
This is barely less important than your own heartbeat.
Politics is necessary, but not sufficient.
Let me repeat that: Politics is necessary, but not sufficient.
There are many things outside of politics you can do to insure that that arc bends even farther towards Justice. Many of you are already involved in one progressive cause or another. To you, I say, “keep on keepin’ on.”
But! Do not “keep on keepin’ on” in isolation like many did after 1968. Don’t get caught in the trap of saying, “my progressive cause is the most important one, and if you don’t recognize that, then we have nothing in common.” Down that path lies division and defeat and the continued victory of the illegitimati.
It is vital – it is critical – that you drive your progressive cause to reach out to other progressive causes. Make common cause with them.
Use on-line tools like Indivisible to find local meet-ups or to announce one of your own.
Build grassroots umbrella organizations that join together the various progressive causes that we all support.
Organize! Organize! Organize!
And along the way, march and work and demonstrate.
But please – and this is the most important thing – remember to take care of yourself first!
Yes, we need you to march and work and demonstrate now, but we will need you even more during next year’s election cycle, and especially during the Presidential election cycle in 2020. Don’t over-do it now and burn yourself out.
If you get stressed-out at the news, TURN IT OFF! It’s OK. The world will not stop turning if you don’t watch every news show every day!
Take what is coming out of Washington right now with a very large grain of salt. The President’s political advisor has stated in the past that his favorite tactic is to bombard the public with so many things all at once that people overload and quit paying attention. His goal is to make you overlook the one thing buried in the avalanche of you-know-what that he really intends doing.
Don’t react to everything that comes your way. You have limited resources. Ration them wisely.
Take care of yourself.
As Gandalf cautioned Frodo, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
We are, as somebody recently said, “Stronger Together.”
And Together – only Together – each and every one of us – Together – we can take our country back.
Somebody say “Amen.”
Have courage, my friends. Believe in yourselves. Have faith in the innate goodness of your fellow citizens.
Remember, nothing moves in a straight line. This is a bump in the road. It may be a big bump. It may even turn the car over. But this is a tough old car. It has survived far worse. Twice.
We will come out the other end.
Stay true to your values. Stay true to each other.
And keep on keepin’ on bending that arc towards Justice.
Go in peace – and give ’em hell!