The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For presidents, playing white backlash politics like Donald Trump is a choice

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson — and Barry Goldwater — consciously chose to avoid Trump’s tactics in the wake of similar uprisings

President Trump speaks to the media before boarding Air Force One on July 3. (Alex Brandon/AP)

In two furious speeches over the Fourth of July weekend, President Trump answered the question he had previously fumbled about his reason for seeking reelection. Six months after his first briefing about the coronavirus pandemic, six weeks after the killing of George Floyd, the president has found his platform: white backlash. In his words, he is running to defend “our values” against “anarchists,” “agitators” and “looters.”

This is not the first time Americans have stood at this crossroads, choosing between the paths of racial reckoning and racial reaction. In the summer of 1964, American cities were convulsed by protests triggered by the police killing of a 15-year-old black student named James Powell. With fires still raging, President Lyndon Johnson and his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, met privately in the White House to discuss what to do — and what not to do. In the conversation, unimaginable in today’s political climate, the two ideological adversaries agreed on the perils of the course that Trump now chooses.

The summer of 1964 was a pivotal moment in the history of the African American freedom movement. On July 2, Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, tolling the end of three and a half centuries of legal discrimination. Yet even as he did so, a chorus of pollsters and pundits warned of a “white backlash” — a newly coined term, referring to a growing legion of white voters convinced that civil rights had come “too fast,” that African Americans demanded too much, that the extension of equal rights to black people somehow threatened the rights of white people.

Evidence of a racial realignment in American politics was everywhere in 1964. Perhaps the best example was Goldwater’s decision to oppose the Civil Rights Act. The vote was a departure for the Arizonan, a longtime member of the NAACP, who insisted his objection was not to integration but to what he saw as government infringement of property rights. But the fact of his vote was enough to endear him to Southern white voters. In the November election, the Republicans swept all five states of the Deep South for the first time ever.

The unlikely electoral success of Alabama Gov. George Wallace provided another barometer of backlash. Wallace is remembered today for his third-party presidential bid in 1968, but he also contested a handful of northern Democratic primaries in 1964. “If I ran outside the South and got 10%, it would be a victory,” he told a reporter. “It would shake their eyeteeth in Washington.”

He did far better than that. Just nine months removed from his defiant “stand in the schoolhouse door” at the University of Alabama, Wallace garnered a third of the Democratic primary vote in Wisconsin. In Maryland a month later, he won a whopping 43 percent.

The decade’s first ghetto uprisings erupted at this moment of political change. On July 16, a white building superintendent on New York’s Upper East Side hosed down a group of black students sitting on his stoop. He may or may not have threatened to, “wash you clean,” — using a slur to describe the group — as he did so. The soaked students responded by pelting him with bottles and trash. An off-duty white policeman rushed to the scene and fatally shot 15-year-old James Powell, who may or may not have brandished a knife.

By the time the smoke cleared a week later, broad swaths of Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant had been reduced to ash. Over the next four weeks, similar clashes between police and protesters erupted in Rochester, N.Y; Paterson and Jersey City, N.J.; Philadelphia, and Chicago.

Like the protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, the uprisings of 1964 provoked extensive commentary, much of it eerily similar to President Trump’s recent remarks. Discounting black people’s capacity for concerted action, many white observers blamed outside agitators, insisting “the outbursts were not spontaneous but carefully planned and organized.” In the absence of “Antifa,” a slate of candidates was proposed, including Communists, street gangs, Black Muslims, African delegates at the United Nations, even a mysterious “Italian from Brooklyn” spotted in Jersey City the day before the uprising there.

A few commentators highlighted police misconduct, but in the climate of the time — and in the absence of body cameras and ubiquitous camera phones — their voices were drowned out by those demanding a forceful restoration of “law and order.” The problem, a businessman in Rochester opined, was that police were not “using their nightsticks soon enough.” The Mayor of Paterson earned plaudits after ordering police to “shoot to kill.”

Given the circumstances, what is perhaps most surprising about Johnson’s response to the uprisings is how statesmanlike it was. Though he privately acknowledged the backlash’s political potency — “[I’m] talking about ‘justice for the Negro,’ and everybody thinks they’ve got too much justice now,” he complained to an aide — he refused to pander to it publicly. “Those who would hold back progress toward equality and, at the same time, promise racial peace are deluding themselves and deluding the people,” he insisted.

Johnson summarily rejected calls to use U.S. military units to crush protests, arguing the resources of the federal government were better used to attack “the evil social conditions that breed despair and disorder.” He condemned “violence and lawlessness,” but in a studiously evenhanded way. “American citizens have a right to protection of life and limb, whether along, a highway in Georgia, a road in Mississippi, or a street in New York,” he declared in his initial statement on Harlem, linking the violence there with the recent murder of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss., as well as the less publicized lynching of Lemuel Penn, a decorated black Army officer killed by Klansmen in Georgia.

In the polarized context of the time, few credited Johnson’s efforts. Among those who did, oddly enough, was Goldwater. Surely the most remarkable recording in the Johnson White House tapes from 1964 is of a private, 20-minute meeting between the rival candidates on July 23, a meeting convened at Goldwater’s behest.

Goldwater began by commending Johnson’s statement about Harlem before confessing his own concerns. “I’ve never been as worried [in] my life as I am about this situation,” he said; “[it is] something I don’t have an answer for.” The problem, he continued, was not simply with the rioters, most of whom were “just a bunch of kids,” but also with those who sought to capitalize politically on the violence.

Johnson, who had initially dismissed the meeting as a stunt by Goldwater to wash “the extremism off him,” agreed. The real tragedy, he added, with an empathetic awareness little in evidence today, was that the black people battling police and white people flocking to buy guns both believed they were defending their own freedom.

Goldwater ended the meeting with a prophecy. “We have the nuts just like you have,” he warned, and inciting them “can really hurt the country.” And with that he took his leave, exiting through a side door, away from the eyes of staffers and press.

Nothing ultimately came of the encounter, save for a short joint statement condemning attempts to incite racial tensions. The backlash Goldwater abjured would be eagerly embraced by his successors: by Richard Nixon, with his coded appeals to the “Silent Majority”; by Ronald Reagan, who chose the symbolically charged site of Philadelphia, Miss., to open his 1980 fall campaign; by George H.W. Bush, with his execrable Willie Horton ad. Though shocking in their directness, the fulminations of Trump fit snugly within this tradition.

As the targets of backlash politics, Democrats have less to answer for, but they too have developed their racial codes — “middle class families,” “working Americans” — to assure white voters that they are not overly solicitous of black welfare. The perennial debate about “electability” is itself testament to how thoroughly they remain captive to the backlash’s zero-sum calculus, in which black gain equals white loss.

That calculus may now be changing. Poll respondents in 1964 universally deplored the “riots,” which they believed “hurt the Negro cause”; polls today suggest a substantial majority of Americans view recent protests with approval and guarded hope. The protesters themselves are a vastly larger and far more motley group than their predecessors, still predominantly African American yet also white, Latinx, Asian American and Native American. Attempts by Trump to stoke a racist backlash seem thus far to have gained little traction outside the already persuaded.

Perhaps this time will be different. But we have stood at this crossroads before.

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