Early April, 1968, was a very busy time for the conservative Republican governor of California, Ronald Reagan. He was almost a year-and-a-half into his first campaign for the presidency, but by early March his campaign was floundering. In the New Hampshire primary, Eugene McCarthy's strong plurality was a political tidal wave. Reagan's arch political enemy of the 1960s, Senator Robert Kennedy, officially declared his candidacy on March 16.
At the time, Reagan was hosting a series of private meetings throughout California with the leaders of various minorities to learn firsthand what issues were of most importance to each community and to offer help.
On March 31, at the end of a nationally-televised address on Vietnam, President Lyndon Johnson had stunned the world by revealing that he would not seek reelection.
Reagan sprang into action. He resolved that he never wanted to see Kennedy in the Oval Office and re-energized his campaign. Reagan brought in a new speechwriter, and started drafting five white paper speeches attacking the foreign policy and defense failures of the Kennedy-Johnson administrations and tying Robert Kennedy, who first had been for the war in Vietnam before he was against it, to those very same failed policies which he now was against.
On April 2, in the Wisconsin Republican primary, Reagan received more than 50,000 votes. His 10.4 percent showing proved that he had become a viable national candidate beyond just California and was the rising conservative alternative to Richard Nixon.
For Reagan, April 4, 1968, began with his first official act in the arena of world affairs: in a little-remembered signing ceremony with Croatian freedom fighters, that morning Reagan signed a proclamation marking Croatian Independence Day. He had begun on the official road to bringing freedom for the millions trapped behind the Iron Curtain.
He then flew east for a planned speech at the Women's National Press Club and for a meeting with congressional Republicans. On the jet's descent, the pilot came back to Reagan with the somber news that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated. For the remainder of the flight, his staff saw thunderstruck Reagan looking down with his lips moving in silent prayer.
When Reagan landed in Baltimore, he was met by the executive director of Students for Reagan, who had planned a massive rally to greet the presidential hopeful from California. In the wake of the terrible tragedy, the rally was cancelled but Reagan vowed to deliver his speech. During that era, Reagan hand-wrote almost all of his speeches, and he did modify his original themes.
Reagan had been a lifelong believer in equal rights. When he was a football player at Eureka College and a hotel had refused to host black players from another team, Reagan had invited the black players to stay over at his own home.
But Reagan also was a lifelong anti-Communist. Others had claimed King was a communist; Reagan was never sure if those rumors were true. But Reagan had a problem with Americans who purposefully broke the law. Reagan's strongest feelings about law and order arose in the aftermath of the verbal exchange between Kennedy and former President Dwight Eisenhower after the August 1965 Los Angeles Watts riots.
Eisenhower had decried the lawlessness of the riots. Kennedy answered, "There is no point in telling Negroes to obey the law. To many Negroes, the law is the enemy." Eisenhower was shocked that the former attorney general — the prime law enforcement officer of the land — had made such a proclamation.
This was the same time period when Eisenhower had begun quietly to mentor Reagan on domestic politics and world affairs. Reagan then began to speak out on the very issue of breaking the law and at many campaign press conferences, he said that no individual had the right to determine which laws he would or would not obey. Without respect for the law, which always had been paramount to Eisenhower, Reagan said that society would fall apart.
In his speech about the assassination, Reagan did not condemn King's prior protests. First Reagan tied King's death to the lawlessness of an assassin's bullet. But Reagan then stirred his listeners to strive for racial equality:
"Our nation died a little too. It started dying and his murder began with our first acceptance of compromise with the laws of the land. That compromise ranges from our indifference when some would apply the law unequally to those today, black or white...We know there are those today who spread the poison of bigotry. And we can't ignore them any more than we should overlook those others who are determined that no American should ever again have to tell his child he is denied some of the blessings of this land because he is in some way different...We can make the difference. We can insure equal rights and equal opportunity and equal treatment for all our citizens."
Reagan ended by proclaiming that America was not to provide equal outcomes but rather to provide equal opportunities:
"The American dream that we have nursed so long is not that every man be level with every other man, but that every man may be free to become whatever God intended."
Later that summer, candidate Reagan was not able to stop a first-ballot Nixon nomination. Years later as president, Ronald Reagan in 1983 would sign the proclamation making King's birthday a national holiday. On Dec. 22, 1988, shortly before leaving office, President Reagan would issue his final proclamation about King, saying, "We must reaffirm in every generation the lessons of justice and charity that Dr. King taught."
Gene Kopelson is the author of "Reagan’s 1968 Dress Rehearsal: Ike, RFK, and Reagan’s Emergence as a World Statesman" (Figueroa Press, 2016) and has published about Reagan’s 1966 successful gubernatorial campaign with Americans of Mexican descent. To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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