What the Assassin's Bullets Stole from Us

RICHARD REEVES

April 05, 1993|By RICHARD REEVES

New York. -- Twenty-five years ago, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death as he stood on a motel balcony in Memphis. He was 39 years old. What if he had lived?

The first answer that comes to mind is that he probably would have been murdered a few months later. As Robert F. Kennedy was on June 5, 1968. He was 42 years old. And as John F. Kennedy was on November 22, 1963. He was 46 years old.

The three assassinations in five years crippled a generation or more of Americans. I remember Mary McGrory, then of the Washington Star, saying after John Kennedy's murder, ''We'll never laugh again.''

''No, Mary,'' said a young man about the White House in those days, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. ''We'll laugh again, but we'll never be young again.''

And most never were. A great deal of the excitement attending the rise of Bill Clinton is just that he is young. Many people have a sense that we are back where we were before the killing started. Perhaps the Reagan years and the Bush annex were just a detour on the road to a society where justice and equality are as important goals as production and profit.

I doubt that. Anyone who believes that democratic history is told in cycles -- that every action produces an equal and opposite reac tion -- knew there had to be a conservative swing of the pendulum. In his first (and last) campaign strategy meeting for the 1964 election, in mid-November of 1963, John Kennedy said something about using photographs with poor blacks as part of putting together a new anti-poverty program during the last year of his administration.

''I sort of had something different in mind,'' said one of the men at the meeting, Richard Scammon, the director of the census. ''You with some men in blue. Cops. Maybe in the suburbs.''

Then Scammon laid out 1960 census figures, showing the president that two great changes were happening in the U.S. -- and they were related. First, more and more Negroes (the word used then) were moving from the rural South to Northern cities, looking for factory jobs. Second, more and more ''lunch-pail'' whites in those cities were moving into new suburbs along the country's new super-highways.

Scammon's point was that there were big changes in process that were not being pushed by politics. In fact, those movements of people were going to push politics, beginning with the possibility that lunch-pail Democrats might become suburban Republicans.

Many did, of course, which helped produce the phenomenon that Kevin Phillips called ''the emerging Republican majority.'' And that helped produce President Richard Nixon and President Ronald Reagan. So, much of the movement to the right that happened during the last 25 years did not happen just because of the killing off of the three most impressive leaders of what might be called the left (though in John Kennedy's case it was only a marginal left).

nTC The political changes, which involved both upward mobility and racism, were as inevitable as shopping centers. But King and the Kennedys were large figures. If they had lived, some things would certainly be different.

If John Kennedy had lived, Robert Kennedy would not have become the man he was after his brother's assassination. He would have been what he once was, an energetic, hard-edged political bully. And we would not have gone as deeply as we did into the quagmire of Vietnam. I don't mean to say that JFK would not have gone in -- he was in; he's the guy who got us there. But he knew the war was unwinnable -- which made him a pretty cynical fellow -- and sooner or later he would have backed out of the war.

If Robert Kennedy had lived, he would have become president, I think, perhaps not in 1968, and he might have been able to find the American grail, a personal and populist politics that united working-class and middle-class voters of different races and religions.

If Martin Luther King Jr. had lived, he would have had to become more political, trying to forge a left coalition, something like the Rainbow Coalition that one of his disciples, Jesse Jackson, tried to create. That pressure from the left would also have tended to shorten our involvement in Vietnam.

But they were all struck down. We stayed in Vietnam long enough to erode our political credibility everywhere in the world, and to allow Soviet communism to survive long after its military credibility was checked and its economic credibility was zero. The three heroes were gone and the Cold War went on and on for no particular reason, and the United States has been at war with itself these 25 years since Martin Luther King was killed.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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