68 Days in ’68 That Changed the World
When people woke up on March 31, 1968, none of them knew they were about to enter a 68-day period that would change the world and the trajectory of history. That night, the president would announce he was not going to run for re-election; four days later, the most important African-American civil rights leader in American history would be assassinated, and then, 63 days after that, the brother of an assassinated president, perhaps the next president of the United States, would also be assassinated.
Any of these events would be the “story of the year” in normal times.
On the night of March 31, at the end of a speech to the nation, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who had been elected almost four years earlier with 61 percent of the vote, the largest landslide to that time, said he “would not seek nor would (he) accept the nomination of (his) party for another term as president.” He is one of only two presidents in the 20th century not to seek re-election.
Johnson became president when John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963. The nation mourned, and LBJ provided strong leadership and a steady hand at the wheel after JFK’s death.
Although much of Kennedy’s staff disliked the Texan president, they stayed working with him for a while, including JFK’s brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
Bobby Kennedy and Johnson did not like each other. RFK wanted to establish an independent position of power for himself, so he looked at running for the U.S. Senate. There was no opportunity in his home state of Massachusetts because the only race in 1964 was the one in which his brother Ted was running for re-election.
So, RFK established residency in New York, and ran for the U.S. Senate there instead. Good looking, charismatic, young at 39, Kennedy won. There is no doubt he also benefited from LBJ’s long coattails and the sympathy voters felt for him because of the loss of his brother. RFK now had his own “bully pulpit” and was ready to restore the Kennedy dynasty to the White House after LBJ.
Johnson did more to give all Americans equal rights under the law than anyone since Lincoln, a century earlier. A Southerner, LBJ was able to push through Congress the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
It is unlikely that any of these landmark bills could have been passed by Kennedy.
One of Johnson’s key allies was a dynamic, eloquent preacher, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., With his leadership in the 1950s and ’60s, King was the major African-American civil rights leader of his time. In October 1964, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his accomplishments using non-violent demonstrations.
However, as good as he was on civil rights, LBJ also made the decision to seriously escalate the Vietnam War, which would ultimately cost him his presidency.
In 1966, because of opposition to the war, Democrats lost 47 seats in the House and three seats in the Senate. Although they retained control of both houses, the losses were a wake-up call to the party, and they emboldened some Democrats to challenge LBJ in the 1968 Democratic presidential primaries.
Despite being encouraged to run, RFK said he would not. Instead, U.S. Sen. Gene McCarthy decided he would take on Johnson. McCarthy campaigned vigorously in New Hampshire, the first primary state, and lost by a narrow 49-42 percent margin to Johnson on March 12. Four days later, Bobby changed his mind and decided to run for the Democratic nomination.
Two weeks after Kennedy’s announcement, Johnson withdrew from the race and Bobby Kennedy became the favorite to win the Democratic nomination.
He was on the way to restoring “Camelot,” the term used to describe his brother’s 1,000-day presidency.
Then, on April 4, four days after Johnson’s withdrawal, 39-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis by a white racist named James Earl Ray. The civil rights movement’s greatest voice had been silenced.
After grieving the death of King, the campaign for the Democratic nomination continued, with both McCarthy and RFK doing well in primary states. They were joined by Vice President Hubert Humphrey on April 27, and he began to work the non-primary states to get his delegates. By late May, it became clear that the California primary was becoming a must-win state for both McCarthy and Kennedy.
On June 4, Kennedy defeated McCarthy in California 46 percent to 42 percent, and he won South Dakota as well. With those victories, he was on his way to the nomination.
Leaving through the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after giving his victory speech early in the morning of June 5, Bobby was shot by Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, a Palestinian opposed to Kennedy’s support of Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Kennedy died 26 hours later.
For the second time in two months, and the third time in four and a half years, America had lost another leader to assassination.
At the moment of his death, Kennedy trailed Humphrey 561 delegates to 393. McCarthy had 258. No one had a majority and the convention would have to decide who would get the nomination. It is very likely that with his charisma and his victories over McCarthy that Kennedy, as the strongest anti-war candidate, would have beaten Humphrey for the nomination.
As we look back, there are always “what ifs.” But had Johnson run, I believe he would have won. The convention battle and the general election campaign would have been brutal, but I believe in the end he would have prevailed.
Or, if James Earl Ray had not shot King, Sirhan may not have shot Kennedy. If Kennedy had become the nominee, he likely would have defeated Richard Nixon, especially given how close the general election was, with Nixon barely beating Humphrey. Had Kennedy been elected, the country and the world would have been a much different place in 1968. A liberal Democrat would have made much different decisions than a conservative Republican. Kennedy, running as an anti-war candidate, would have ended the war much sooner than Nixon.
As a two-time loser, Nixon’s career would have been over. There would have been no Watergate and no President Ford. With brother Ted on the horizon, it is unlikely Jimmy Carter would have been president.
Had Ted Kennedy not been reeling from the death of a second brother, he may not have been at the party at Chappaquiddick where a passenger in his car, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned when he drove off a bridge.
It is likely that Teddy may well have been elected president himself later.
Reagan may have run, but might not have been elected. With history going in a completely different direction after 1968, we probably would have never have seen the Presidents Bush or Presidents Clinton, Obama or Trump.
Of course, where history might have gone is not clear. But what is clear is that in the 68 days between Johnson’s withdrawal and the deaths of King and Kennedy, the world and the trajectory of history changed forever.
Steve Mitchell is CEO of Mitchell Research & Communications.