Forty years ago--the last time Democrats met in Los Angeles to
nominate a candidate for president--there was only a small possibility
that front-runner John F. Kennedy would leave without his party's
nomination. This time there is not the slightest chance of uncertainty,
let alone upset, in the official proceedings. The script has been
written, the players rehearsed, the stage set.
But another political drama was played out in Los Angeles in 1960 that
may find a reprise this week. That year, for the first time in American
history, a sizable number of protesters staged demonstrations on the
streets surrounding a political party convention hall. The most
significant of these was a civil rights protest organized by a young
Socialist of Irish Catholic background named Michael Harrington, who
later wrote "The Other America: Poverty in the United States," the book
that sparked the nation's "War on Poverty." Harrington had worked closely
since the mid-1950s with Harlem-based activists like A. Philip Randolph,
president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and his assistant,
Bayard Rustin, in support of the emerging Southern civil rights movement.
Randolph and Rustin decided there should be a strong civil rights
presence at the 1960 convention in Los Angeles, so they planned to stage
a march on July 10, the day before delegates were scheduled to officially
Harrington went to Los Angeles to organize the march. The work went
slowly. There was no precedent for this kind of activity at a convention.
Discord and doubt beset Harrington and the others working with him. At
one point, Harrington called Rustin to confess failure.
"My good friend," Rustin replied, "there is going to be a march. I
know there is going to be at least one person on it. You."
When the eve of the convention arrived, Harrington did not have to
march alone. Five thousand fellow protesters--a huge turnout for that
day--followed Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders to a
rally at the Sports Arena, where the Democratic National Convention was
to open the next day.
Harrington and other organizers followed up the march with a
round-the-clock vigil outside the Sports Arena, hoping to force the
Democrats to adopt a stronger civil rights plank. Day after day during
convention week, hundreds of chanting picketers kept the cause visible to
the delegates and to the nation. Journalists who had come to Los Angles
thinking the only story worth covering was inside the convention hall
were surprised by the size and spirit of the demonstrations. The 1960
picketers thus helped rewrite the script for this and future political
conventions as places where activists could bring issues of importance to
The Democrats did adopt a civil rights plank that year, although not
one that Harrington, Randolph and Rustin felt went far enough.
The convention over, delegates and protesters alike dispersed. Yet the
full effects of the civil rights protest at the Democratic convention
were still to be felt. A month before the November election, a group of
student activists in Atlanta, Ga., persuaded King to join them at a
sit-in at a segregated restaurant. They were arrested for disturbing the
peace, but all were soon released--except King. Georgia authorities
hustled the civil rights leader off to a state penitentiary on a charge
of violating probation from an earlier traffic citation.
When King was jailed, neither Kennedy nor his Republican opponent,
Richard M. Nixon, initially offered any comment. Kennedy had kept the
volatile issue of civil rights at arms-length ever since the Los Angeles
convention; the last thing Kennedy's staff wanted the presidential
nominee to do before election day was anything that might alienate the
party's traditional base among Southern white voters.
Yet a few of Kennedy's maverick advisors urged him to make a gesture
that would, at least, show his concern for King's safety. Finally
deciding to take the risk, Kennedy telephoned King's wife, Coretta Scott
King, to offer his sympathies. Also, his brother, Bobby Kennedy,
successfully pressured a Georgia judge to order King's release.
On election day, black voters rewarded Kennedy, giving him 70% of
their vote, significantly more than given to the Democratic presidential
nominee in 1952 or 1956. Arguably, the black vote made the difference in
Kennedy's extremely narrow margin of victory in 1960.
Given the political risks, however, why did ultra-cautious Kennedy
make the decision in October to help King against the advice of most
seasoned advisors? I believe that memories of the march and picket line
at the Los Angeles Democratic convention prompted him to pay attention to
an issue that, before then, had little engaged him. A consummate
old-school politician, Kennedy was learning to operate in a new political
environment in which movements that were armed with little political
clout but a strong moral claim would have an increasing say in setting
the nation's priorities.
This week, while enjoying the din of predictable acclaim within the
convention hall, Al Gore would be well advised to keep one ear cocked to
the hum of unpredictable discord without. As Kennedy would learn in 1960,
there are times when even the most carefully rehearsed presidential
candidate could do worse than throw away the script.
Maurice Isserman, a Professor of History at Hamilton College in New York, Is the Author of "The Other American: the Life of Michael Harrington" (Publicaffairs, 2000)
Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times