Political turmoil. A nation divided. Protests of historic size. These descriptives resonate in 2018, but I am describing 1968, the year when progressive leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. To celebrate and reflect on that transformative year, the University of St. Thomas recently hosted a conference titled “1968 and the War for America’s Future,” and I was invited to participate as a student panelist.
In preparation for the conference, I had the privilege of conducting a phone interview with an individual who was intimately involved with the political events of 1968: Georgetown Professor Peter Edelman. Edelman served as the legislative assistant for Robert Kennedy as well as staff on his presidential campaign. He was present during some of the most pivotal moments of Kennedy’s bid for the presidency, including the moment he privately announced his decision to run.
Most of Edelman’s work surrounds the issue of poverty. Naturally, I asked him about Kennedy’s own focus on poverty and what role his assassination played in policymaking. Edelman’s response surprised me. To him, Kennedy’s game-changing conversations were not about poverty, but race. While they were “obviously interlinked,” the conversation on white poverty was already prevalent. For instance, Edelman stated that “[Nixon] proposed a guaranteed annual income,” but “his Southern strategy was essentially racist.” Nixon wanted to make white southerners into Republicans by proposing radical solutions to their own poverty, while avoiding significant racial disparities across the country. To emphasize the contrast, Edelman described Kennedy’s friendship with Cesar Chavez, including the detail that they broke bread together right before the campaign began.
The interview then shifted to parallels with today’s politics. I asked Edelman how the political landscape might differ, and his response addressed race, poverty, trust in government and President Donald Trump. He said that if George Wallace, a candidate sometimes compared to Trump, had actually been nominated or elected, “people would have laughed at that.” He would have been considered a “regional” character with no potential of becoming a national leader. Yet, he understands reasons why people have been drawn to Trump. He explained that the war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal brought public trust “way, way down” and that it never rebounded. In addition, the trend of stagnant wages and deindustrialization coupled with persistent race problems has had “an enormous effect on politics.” But, it was clear that Edelman was even more concerned with the way forward.
Edelman believes that the way forward is not so much learning lessons from the past, but embracing the qualities of the leaders we admire. According to Edelman, Kennedy’s politics were “a different sort of politics, ‘cause politics’ if you will… ‘do the right thing’ regardless of the political calculus. People truly loved Kennedy’s moral character, principled leadership and “the kind of honesty you could really respect.” Additionally, Kennedy created a truly diverse coalition that included both marginalized identity groups and traditional power brokers. Edelman believes these are important lessons for today’s young leaders. But, more importantly, the odds are “demographically on [young people’s] side.” There are more young people, people of color and Latinos, and there is still “capacity, and opportunity” for change. He hopes that with these acknowledgements, there will be a new sense of optimism in the modern progressive movement.
After giving his final inspiring words, he ended with an apology. “It’s really up to your generation. Sorry we left this for you.” If you are curious, I did forgive him before thanking him for his time.