Read about the pivotal election of 1968, which pitted Richard Nixon against Hubert Humphrey in a race shaped by backlash against the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. 

Overview

  • Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968, a tumultuous year that witnessed the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, as well as the splintering of the Democratic Party.
  • Nixon’s presidential campaign sought to appeal to what it deemed the “silent majority,” those middle-class white Americans who defended the status quo against radical social change.
  • Nixon’s campaign successfully employed the “Southern strategy,” an attempt to appeal to Southern racists resentful of civil rights activism and federal antipoverty programs.

1968: A momentous year

1968 was in many ways a watershed year. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee by James Earl Ray, an ex-convict and avowed white supremacist. The news of King’s assassination sparked a conflagration of urban riots and protests.1^1 A mere two months later, Robert F. Kennedy, the younger brother of President John F. Kennedy who was campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination in California, was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian incensed by Kennedy’s pro-Israel stance.2^2
The assassinations contributed to the perception among many Americans that the social fabric of the nation was ripping apart.3^3

The Democratic Party in disarray

The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago was a stark demonstration of just how divided the Democratic party had become. Students and members of the counterculture, known collectively as the “New Left” made up one faction, while the older generation of New Deal Democrats, which became known as the “Old Left,” constituted another. The convention descended into utter chaos as thousands of antiwar activists converged on the streets of Chicago, where law enforcement officers clubbed them with nightsticks and doused them in tear gas.
Dismayed with the lack of progress in the Vietnam War and disturbed by the factionalism rupturing the Democratic Party, Lyndon Johnson chose not to run for reelection. The Democratic National Convention nominated Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey. He ran in a three-way race against Republican Richard Nixon and Alabama Governor George Wallace, a Southern segregationist who ran as an independent and sought to capitalize on white backlash against the gains of the Civil Rights Movement.

Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign

Into the chaos of 1968 stepped Richard Nixon with a pledge to restore law and order, end the war in Vietnam, and restore traditional American values. Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign was notable for a number of reasons. He emphasized the theme of “law and order,” which he understood would appeal to the “silent majority,” those white middle-class Americans anxious and fearful of radical social change. Nixon used “law and order” rhetoric to signal his intention to crack down on student protesters, activists, and virtually anyone who sought to challenge the status quo of American society.4^4
Nixon also embraced the “Southern strategy,” which sought to appeal to Southern racists resentful of civil rights gains and President Johnson’s federal antipoverty programs.5^5
Photograph of Richard Nixon holding up his arms and making "V for Victory" symbols with his hands amidst a large crowd of people.
Campaign rally for Richard Nixon in 1968. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Nixon won the presidency in a close race, garnering 43.4 percent of the popular vote compared to Humphrey’s 42.7 percent. For an independent candidate, George Wallace made a strong showing, securing 13.5 percent of the popular vote.6^6
The 1968 election inaugurated a conservative shift in American politics.7^7 Apart from the one-term presidency of Jimmy Carter, Republicans would dominate the White House until the election of Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992.

What do you think?

Why do you think Richard Nixon’s campaign appealed to voters?
To what do you attribute Nixon’s victory in the 1968 election?
What were the long-term consequences of the 1968 election?
Article written by Dr. Michelle Getchell. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
Notes
  1. For more on King, see David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1999); and Tavis Smiley, Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2014).
  2. See Thurston Clarke, The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days that Inspired America (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2008).
  3. See Allen Matusow, The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009); and Michael W. Flamm, Law and Order: Street Crime, Civil Unrest, and the Crisis of Liberalism in the 1960s (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).
  4. Paul S. Boyer, Promises to Keep: The United States since World War II (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), 311
  5. See Michael A. Cohen, American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).
  6. Boyer, Promises to Keep, 312.
  7. See Lewis L. Gould, 1968: The Election That Changed America (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1993).
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