Richard NixonPhoto: Bil Browning
On the first night of the Democratic National Committee Convention, comedian and actor, Sarah Silverman, in an unscripted moment on stage, said told some rambunctious members of the audience, “‘Bernie-or-Bust’ people: You’re being ridiculous!”
After thinking about this for a short time, her words brought me back to the 1968 DNCC in Chicago. I became very angry as I imagined how I would have responded if she had said something similar to those of us who were fully committed to Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota even after it was apparent he wouldn’t become the Democratic Party’s standard bearer that year. So I wonder now how Silverman resonated with Bernie’s supporters around the country.
I turned 21 in May 1968, and, therefore, I was authorized to vote for the first time since back then, the legal voting age was 21. However, at the age of 18, I, my friends, and classmates were old enough to be eligible to fight and die in Vietnam: a war I actively protested and worked vigorously to bring to an end. I viewed the war as a blatantly criminal, illegal, and unjustified invasion and occupation that brought misery and death to our military and to the people of Vietnam in the north and the south.
As an undergraduate student at San José State University until 1969, I joined the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) to oppose the war. I helped organize demonstrations, attended and led study groups and sit-ins, while I also worked to improve conditions in student off-campus housing and to challenge racism on our campus.
Though I became involved in my Young Democrats group in high school in the early to mid-60s, and even ran and was elected as secretary of our group named after then-Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, my deep political education took off in college. Looking back, I remember much more what I learned outside the classroom than in my courses, for those were truly exciting and terrifying times of war, riots, and political assassinations.
While we lauded President Lyndon B. Johnson for his courageous leadership in the realm of his domestic policies, especially his active and enthusiastic support for the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, we saw how his military ventures had torn apart the country.
Stepping into the political void left in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party after what we saw as Humphrey’s capitulation to his administration’s disastrous hawkish military policies, a fresh and dynamic voice articulated the feelings and visions of a younger generation of concerned activists. Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota courageously challenged a sitting President of his own party, and along the way, he captured our imagination, our hearts, and our minds.
Running in the first state primary in New Hampshire that year, he garnered 42% to Johnson’s 49% of the vote. Four days later, seeing that Johnson could possibly lose his small lead in the primaries, New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy threw his hat in the ring. Though I and many of my peers liked Kennedy’s politics, the timing of his entry into the primary process smelled of pure opportunism rather than courage.
And then we were all completely thunderstruck with surprise watching Johnson give a televised address on March 31, 1968, when he suddenly uttered from the Oval Office that “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.” Less than one month later, on April 27, Humphrey announced his candidacy.
Though I have seen instances of the Democratic Party placing its metaphoric thumb on the scales in favor of Hillary Clinton this year, this pales in comparison to the heavy hand that Party officials deposited on the scales to assure Hubert Humphrey’s nomination in 1968.