THE BLOG
09/26/2013 05:59 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2013

A Look Back at Three Heroes From the 1960s: JFK, MLK and RFK

It's 2013; we should definitely live for today and look ahead to what we hope will be a prosperous future. However, it should never be forgotten why some things are the way they are today - good or bad.

Everything has a point of origin.

John F. Kennedy

By Alfred Eisenstaedt - White House Press Office (WHPO) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

November 22, 1963; the world stood still as it watched the leader of the free world gunned down in a heinous act of violence. The 35th president of the United States, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. This cold act claiming the life of one of the greatest symbols for progressivism in the 20th century was only to become a norm in what has been called the decade of "Promise and Heartbreak."

Martin Luther King, Jr.

By Nobel Foundation (http://nobelprize.org/) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

April 4, 1968; civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. He championed equality for black people - it was his goal that we judged by the content of our character and not by the color of our skin. Sadly, judgment is still influenced by one's ethnicity to this day.

Robert F. Kennedy 1964

By LBJ Library photo by Yoichi R. Okamoto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

June 5, 1968; Democratic presidential candidate Senator Robert F. Kennedy was shot by Sirhan Sirhan in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He had just won California - this made him a force to be reckoned with in the presidential race in 1968. He was viewed as the last hope for that generation.

Three great men, each with visions of how this country and its citizens should conduct itself and all cut down in their prime.

We're coming up on 50 years since JFK was assassinated, and it's been just over 45 years since Dr. King and Bobby have been assassinated.

How different would things have unfolded in what became a very violent decade in our history? How might things have been today had these men survived?

Everyone will have a different answer to this question. We are fortunate to have Dr. Lawrence Rosenthal to weigh in with his opinion based on the facts.

Dr. Rosenthal is a published author and the Executive Director and Lead Researcher for the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies.

Dr. Rosenthal, thank you for taking the time to speak with me today.

My pleasure, Bryan.

I'm quite curious to converse with you about the historic 1960s decade, three of the fallen heroes from the time and share with our readers how things might have differed today if they were with us for a bit longer.

It seems to me that the pressures that got expressed in the assassinations of Kennedy, Dr. King, and Robert Kennedy were not going to go away. They might have expressed themselves in other ways, to the extent that they herald the coming of the '60s, the kinds of violence and violent politics that have come in its wake. I think that stuff is about social forces and that those social forces were not going to go away.

They weren't going to go away, if they hadn't been expressed this way, then they might have been expressed in another way.

The signature year of the '60s is of course 1968. That was the year when the Democratic National Convention turned into a police riot - lots of things like that happened at that time, plus you had the assassinations of Dr. King and Robert Kennedy. 1968 is also a year that saw different kinds of violent political actions all over the world. There were the situations in Czechoslovakia, Paris, and Vietnam. My point is that if we're distinguishing the social forces bubbling up, they were going to get expressed. The idea that something was getting expressed internationally also suggests that it was about the social forces that were irresistible in that sense rather than these one offs that took history onto attract that it would have otherwise not have gone on. That would be my general observation about that.

I did a paper in college on a rare speech that was made by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. The speech was extremely controversial at the time; the implications of it are still controversial to this day. In so many words, it addresses the dismantling of secret societies and the formation of a government that takes responsibility for its mistakes, encourages feedback from the American public, and doesn't keep secrets from the citizens. I've always been of the mind that there is reason to suggest that other political interests in the country, as well as the world could have been threatened by a government that is on a full disclosure basis with the people.

An example would be the CIA.

The CIA would be a primary example.

I think there's truth to that. On the other hand, have you noticed a gap between the most principled speech of Barack Obama and what he was able to accomplish? You may in fact have found a speech in which President Kennedy had this lofty rhetoric about transparency. Whether a president who then had more power in some ways, and less in others than say President Obama. It's one thing to say those things in a speech; it's another thing to make them realized in the political realm.

The 1960s decade would have unfolded differently, this much we know to be true. President Kennedy was planning to bring the troops back from Vietnam in 1964. In your opinion, how different would things be from a sociological and socioeconomic standpoint if JFK had survived?

If JFK had sent home the troops in 1964, things would have been different. Again, we're already at one very weighty hypothetical. One thing that was attributed to Lyndon Johnson is that he was saying to Richard Russell, that if he pulled the troops home then he would face an insurrection on the right including the military. That hints at what I was suggesting of social forces beneath the surface that were not about to go away. The turn to the right begins in American politics and that started with the election of Richard Nixon. The rise of the candidacy of George Wallace in 1968 speaks to those social forces that were turning against liberalism, turning against civil rights, turning sex, drugs, and rock and roll of the '60s. That stuff was going to happen.

The tea kettle was going to come to a loud whistle no matter what happened.

Exactly. So, if JFK had survived and he had brought home the troops it would have been expressed in another way. It would have been perceived that Kennedy and the democrats had sold out to the communists. That would have been a widespread provocative of mobilization, which mobilized otherwise in what we know as reality.

Let's talk about what the domino effect would've been onto today. JFK wanted a full disclosure government, he wanted to put an end to the fighting in Vietnam which would've ended what many people perceive as war profiteering. Would we see that at all today?

That's a very good question. The persistence of what's often called the National Security State, Dwight Eisenhower's warnings notwithstanding. I don't see the circumstances under which that would have gone away in the context of the Cold War. I don't think there constituency for that.

Many people believe that if JFK or Bobby had survived then we would have become a country more rooted in socialism as opposed to capitalism.

Well, think about what President Obama has encountered just with Obamacare which is a private insurance scheme that will allow private insurers to take on 40 million new customers. That compared to a public option or a single payer thing, he's unable to do these greater aspirations because of the enormous push-back. That same enormous push-back would have confronted both John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. In the same way that John Kennedy was maybe unable to get the civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965 passed and Johnson was able to do so, in that same way the things that Johnson was able to do under this heading of "Great Society;" I'm not sure Kennedy would have even been able to do that.

There seems to be a belief out there that the civil rights acts were passed in exchange for keeping the troops in Vietnam. What's your opinion on that?

The civil rights acts seem to have large components that are connected to what we think of as foreign policy. If you look at the dates in congress, even right-wingers were saying that we were being clobbered by the communist world because of how we treat black people in this country. We are never going to win the Cold War or the debates of the Cold War when black people in Alabama can't even vote without getting dogs sicked on them or being shot with fire hoses. So, there was a component of the success of the civil right legislation which depended on the perceptions of the Cold War. That being said, I think talking about an exchange is a bit more mechanical than how these things actually function.

I'm not sure if you concur, but if the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was looked upon as an inspiration for people to come together and fight harder for some of the freedoms that blacks had towards the end of the decade. It seems that it took the tragic loss of a leader in civil rights in order to push further for equality to be an everyday part of our life - in many ways that fight is still necessary.

I think that the change in the racial atmosphere in life that you seem to be hinting at didn't come until a lot later. In the 1970's in what you would think of as the liberal northeast. The coming together between black and white doesn't fall on the assassination. I think the assassination polarized and it's only 20 or 25 years later that Dr. King that came to be regarded as a figure whose tragic death could lead to greater racial peace. Society had changed a lot in those 25 years, black people were able to vote, they had political representation, and Flip Wilson was an excellent example of black people becoming prominent on TV. Still, you have enormous fights over things like affirmative action. The integration of black people into everyday life was unfortunately a very slow moving process.

How different might have things have been in that year, that decade, and today had Dr. King lived?

He was getting fought from all sides; he was getting push-back from black nationals and the Black Panthers on one side and racism on the other side. What Dr. King had was this extraordinary tool of non-violence and whether he could have brought non-violence to bear on the things that he was now addressing like war or sanitation workers not getting a good deal - whether that could have been brought to bear in the way that it was with the question of voting rights. That's an open question in my view. The backlash against the Great Society and against the social programs of the Great Society and the welfare state began to pick up a lot of steam in 1968. I'm not sure what Dr. King at the head of such a movement would have been able to accomplish under those circumstances because there was a different kind of opposition than the opposition against civil rights.

Less than two months after Dr. King's assassination, Democratic presidential candidate Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. He was very popular amongst the younger generation; he was viewed as the last hope in that decade by many. By others, he was viewed as the devil. Bobby, unlike Dr. King or JFK, tended to be a lot more emotional, a lot less composed because he was passionate and tended to break down a lot. When he toured an impoverished area where the residents had lost a major source of jobs - everyone was living in complete squalor. Bobby questioned the superpower known as the United States. His belief was that if we could help our allies, why can't we help our own?

Robert Kennedy may have created a longer tale on the Great Society than it would have otherwise had.

Bobby Kennedy also wanted to put an end to the fighting in Vietnam. He shared the sentiments with much of the country in the belief that there was no reason to be there. However, with Bobby it seemed that there was going to be a special focus on what was the beginning of the socioeconomically challenged class in the United States that really starting to form.

Another thing that formed at the time was the origins of heavily mobilized and re-energized right-wing. George Wallace's campaign is almost a complete, in its details as it were, foreshadowing of the strategies of Richard Nixon and what later became known as Reganism over a fairly short period of time. Bobby Kennedy may very well have embodied a sentiment of equality and social democracy that our people should be treated well. At the same time, the forces were saying enough of this - this is a country of individuals and we're not going to take on whole populations and make them dependant on the government. That was taking form very much at the same time. Kennedy, in so far as he embodied that progressive notion, was at the end of progressivism's time. It was the right's time coming up.

So, same question with respect to Bobby Kennedy. He had just won California; he was going all the way for the election and likely would've won the presidency. What would things have been like had he lived and been elected?

The best I can tell you is that the eras of the Great Society and progressivism would have had a brief second wind, but it would not have turned back the tide of the right that was coming. That's my opinion.

Overall, the 1960s decade - in your opinion, how much of it socially and politically is a foreshadowing of how we're doing things and how we're living our lives today?

It created the political polarity that we live today, that became mature in the '60s. The right wing and left wing divide. Conservatism was new back then; liberalism had been in power since the 30's. One of them was old and tired; the other was new and growing. That dichotomy has defined us ever since.

What do you think? Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts and opinions.

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