Presidential Politics in Merrimack History

Kevin McPherson

Merrimack College was founded in 1947 just two years after the end of World War II. The alumni of our College have witnessed quite a bit of history unfold in their time here. There is no better example of this than the collection of past issues of the Warrior found in the basement of the McQuade Library. The writing of student reporters give us a unique look into history from the perspective of people of the same age and from the same university as ourselves.

The 2016 Presidential election cycle has finally come to a close. This may be welcome for many, however the divisive rhetoric and outcome also may have left some feeling unsettled. For most of the students at Merrimack College this was the first time we were afforded the right to actually participate in any election. Therefore, it is the first time many of us have paid very close attention to a Presidential election. If this applies to you, you may be left feeling scared by just how divided this nation has seemed over the last year and in the days since the election. In times such as these it is important to reflect on the past and realize that just because it may be the most divisive election in our time does not mean this has never happened before. The 1968 Presidential election is specifically one you can take solace in, although perhaps not too much solace because it was also divisive. This election was defined by an incumbent President choosing to sit out, the candidacy of a staunch segregationist, several assassinations and of course the universally loved Richard Nixon. In comparison, 2016 candidates include a self-described socialist, a real-estate billionaire, a man whose father President-Elect Trump accused of assisting in the assassination of JFK, and a career politician whose life goal was to become President. Through two editions of The Merrimack Warrior from the year 1968 we can explore a few parallels between the elections of 1968 and 2016.

“A carnival atmosphere permeated the crowd,” writes Warrior Managing editor Bill Franz reporting from a political rally for Alabama governor and Republican Presidential candidate George Wallace in 1968. The rallies for Republican candidate, and now President-elect Donald Trump were widely discussed and scrutinized events of the 2016 news cycle. While some people were terrified by the atmosphere others were electrified. Either way these rallies transcended simple political gatherings and become can’t miss/ must watch events. While it would be a somewhat offensive to compare our newly elected President to the man who called for “segregation today, Segregation tomorrow, Segregation forever!” the feelings, energy, and rhetoric surrounding their rallies are strikingly similar.

Trump constantly criticized the cameras and press at his rallies claiming they were not properly covering his campaign. Wallace did the same with protestors, who in truth far outnumbered his supporters, asking the cameras to “Get these boys on tel’vision.” The small contingent of Wallace supporters were none the less proud, one even welcomed the protestors and media saying, “I shore am glad that y’all here t’see the fastest, largest growing political movement in America.” A statement the somewhat biased Franz called “unquestionably true.” Donald Trump became a politician roughly a year and a half ago and is now President-elect of the United States. This is a meteoric rise which Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, and Hillary Clinton would likely sell their souls for. The foreign policy of George Wallace appears to be the most similar to that of Donald Trump. Wallace promised to “bring a military end” to the conflict in Vietnam with no negotiation and no compromise claiming that any NATO ally that did not comply and support this mission would lose all foreign aid supplied by the U.S. This policy certainly has echoes of the “Bomb the crap out of them” plan put forward by Donald Trump in the Republican primary. Speaking to those that opposed him, Wallace called for anyone supporting a “communist victory” or flying communist flags to be locked up because those are, “not means of legal dissent.” One protestor quipped, “Who defined legal dissent? You, George?”  These exchanges between protestors and Wallace is eerily similar to Donald Trump’s idea to “open up our libel laws” in order to sue the press if they report something he deems untrue. To some people these two men may represent the same issues but I believe at the very least they have different ambitions. My comparisons will end at their rallies because George Wallace was a truly despicable man who actively fought against Civil Rights and Donald Trump, for better or worse, is our President-elect. Regardless, both Wallace and Trump are electrified and emboldened by the energy of their crowds. They taunt and tempt protestors and inspire their supporters. This kind of energy is nothing new in American politics however this time it worked. All we can hope and advocate for is that the parallels between these two men truly do end at their rallies.

On April 4, 1968 a devastating blow was dealt to the fight for African American Civil Rights. At the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed by assassin James Earl Ray. Dr. King’s message of non-violence and progress through peace was lost for a time and a series of riots shook African American communities across the nation. The country, in disarray, sought guidance and leadership. One beacon of hope in this time was Democratic presidential hopeful and former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. On April 4, 1968 Kennedy gave an impassioned speech to a crowd in Indianapolis sharing the news of Dr. King’s assassination. He stated, “For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand and go beyond these rather difficult times” (RFK Speeches). Indianapolis was one of the only cities in the U.S. that did not experience riots and many credit that fact directly to Kennedy who assumed the role of unifier in a time of division. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy was killed and five years later his brother met the same devastating fate. In June of 1968 Robert Kennedy met the bullet of assassin Sirhan Sirhan in California after winning that states Democratic primary. The nation was left in deep shock and the Democratic Party was left with Hubert Humphrey as their nominee. Say what you will about the 2016 Presidential election and the negativity of the rhetoric but all participants were able to have their discourse without being killed. Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz and John Kasich are all left standing to work in cooperation or opposition with the next administration and that alone is a victory for our democracy.

Civil unrest in regards to the outcome of an election is nothing new in America. In 1968, similarly to 2016, many took to the streets to protest the election of Republican Richard Nixon. Two reporters for The Warrior attended the “anti-election demonstration” held in Boston, which devolved into violence. News Editor Brian Burns described chants of, “The election’s a fake! The election’s a fake!” The Warrior described how one police officer, “took the sign which the young man had been carrying and broke it over his head.” Warrior photographer Paul McDonald was actually harassed by the police who beat him and broke his camera for simply trying to document the event. He described how when he approached an officer after the incident in search of answers, “My two questions were answered with a singular gruff, ‘I’ll fix your camera,’ he grabbed the bellows and ripped the camera apart.” Upon the election of Donald Trump people once again took to the streets, with large crowds in New York City around Trump Tower. Many gathered peacefully yet others burned flags and grew violent to chants of “Not my President!” Many more have bravely taken to social media to exclaim Donald Trump is #NotmyPresident. The point is that come election year half the voters supports one candidate and half support the other, naturally there are winners and losers and not everyone is happy with the outcome. Thankfully, as citizens of this country we have the right to gather and protest and the founding fathers would not have afforded us that if they did not intend for people to use it.

No matter how you feel about the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election and the state of the U.S. there is certainly cause for concern surrounding the deep divisions among the American people. The bright side is certainly that we have been divided before and in some cases the divisions were much deeper than they seem now. Yet the United States persists. We are still here despite our differences, despite the rhetoric, and despite the Civil War the United States has survived. No matter how dark some days may seem the United States has been here before and we know how to move forward from dark days. I believe this resilience is still a characteristic of the American people and it will persist through the future no matter what it holds.

Works Cited

Burns, Brian. “Nixon Elected As Boston Dissents Police Clash With S.D.S.” The Warrior. N.p.,

8 Nov. 1968. Web.

Franz, Bill. “Anti-Intellectualism Assaults Boston.” The Warrior. N.p., 11 Oct. 1968. Web.

“Robert F. Kennedy Speeches.” Robert F. Kennedy Speeches – John F. Kennedy Presidential 

Library & Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2016.

 

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