In late February 1968, the REPORT OF THE NATIONAL ADVISORY COMMISSION ON CIVIL DISORDERS indicted structural racism as the underlying cause of the terrible riots that had stretched from Watts in 1965 to Newark in 1967. “What white Americans have never fully understood — but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto,” the commission, led by the Illinois governor Otto Kerner and the New York City mayor John V. Lindsay, said. “White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it and white society condones it.”
As Lesher indicated, Wallace and the Kerner report forced Richard Nixon to the right. “In what was to be a major turning point in Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign,” Lesher wrote, “the former vice president used the Kerner Commission report as a springboard for embracing as his own the pith of George Wallace’s powerful appeal. … As the campaign wore on, Nixon espoused more and more of Wallace’s core campaign; in addition to the Wallace positions on crime, Nixon spoke out against school busing, federal enforcement of school desegregation, antiwar activists and the federal judiciary.”
In Washington, D.C., meanwhile, Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy and others were mounting a Poor People’s Campaign to bring attention to many of the same issues the Kerner Commission had highlighted. As the photographer Jill Freedman quoted in her moving collection RESURRECTION CITY, 1968 — a series of images of the encampment of the dispossessed built on the Mall — King was clear about what must be done. “Now we are tired of being on the bottom,” King had said. “We are tired of being exploited. We are tired of not being able to get adequate jobs. We are tired of not getting promotions after we get those jobs. And as a result of our being tired, we are going to Washington, D.C., to the seat of government, and engage in direct action for days and days, weeks and weeks, and months and months if necessary, in order to say to this nation that you must provide us with jobs or income.” King’s focus on economic justice — including a guaranteed basic income — was evident in his 1967 book WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE: CHAOS OR COMMUNITY?
King’s murder in Memphis in the first week of April was one of the inflection points that led the British journalists Lewis Chester, Godfrey Hodgson and Bruce Page to title their book AN AMERICAN MELODRAMA: THE PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN OF 1968. To them, the Wallace campaign was like an iceberg — you could see only a part of it. A vote for Wallace, the Democrat Lawrence O’Brien told Chester, Hodgson and Page, was “the vote a guy doesn’t tell the pollsters about — the mean vote a guy keeps in his gut, until he goes in that booth, and sees red and pulls that lever.” With keen eyes, they saw, too, that Ronald Reagan, the actor-G.E. spokesman turned California governor, was “no ordinary political phenomenon. He is, as Goldwater was, a symbol of the old values of God, Home and Country. His appeal is visceral.” Reagan fell short in a challenge to Nixon for the Republican nomination that year, but he would be back. “He is for lean government, low taxes and flag-waving patriotism,” Chester, Hodgson and Page wrote. “He is against civil-rights legislation, university radicals and expenditure of government funds in the ghetto.”