If there was one quote that best articulated the sum of the early 60's, I would nominate this one by Barry Goldwater,”...extremism in defense of liberty is no vice...and moderation in pursuit justice is no virtue.”
This week a note with that quote attached to a brick was thrown through the window of a Democratic Headquarters in New York. De ja vue. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
When I moved to the Kansas City Star from the Greensboro Daily News in 1963, a subculture of extremism had swept across the Midwest in quest of various lost “liberties” as seen in the eyes of the beholders.
George Wallace rode the crest of a “segregation forever” landslide into the Governorship of Alabama in January of 1963 using rhetoric that was red meat to prejudiced tendencies across the country. His “stand at the schoolhouse door” of the University of Alabama plus his bigoted bombast crackled across the synapses of those on the border of paranoia—and those ready and willing to exploit that border for personal and political gain.
The reverberations from the Greensboro sit-ins and the path President Kennedy laid out in his civil rights proposals, fed into those circuits.
The reality of equality in education was played out in the confines of institutions that were isolated from the daily give and take of social intercourse. Not many adults spent time in schools before or after the Supreme Court decision that resulted in integration.
However, most all adults exercised their social habits in places of public accommodations from time to time---and when the impending reality of equality of service in restaurants, bars, motels and such loomed large in the national consciousness---suddenly, it was up close and personal.
This was not only an affront to segregationists and others with ethnic prejudices but is was a coalescing force among those with strong anti-government sentiments, particularly those who embraced the outer edges of a libertarian view.
The John Birch Society, an ultra-conservative “Patriot” group, founded in 1958 by candy manufacturer Robert Welch, Jr.–-claimed a membership in 1961 of over 100,000 and (in gross exaggeration) “sympathizers” of upwards to a million.
The Bible of the Society was Welch’s Blue Book, in which he equates the U.S. and Soviet Governments as being controlled by “cabal of internationalists” bent on a “New World Order”. He considered liberals to be “secret communist traitors” .He called President Dwight D. Eisenhower a possible “conscious, dedicated agent of the Communist Conspiracy.”
The John Birch Society opposed the Civil Rights movement because Welch considered it to be rife with Communists.
Also active in this fringe milieu was one Robert Bolivar DePugh, a financially successful entrepreneur in veterinary medicine who founded Biolab Corporation in the small town of Norborne, Missouri in the late 50's.
By the early 60's he had organized and recruited a terror prone militia group called the Minutemen. They believed a Communist invasion was coming and their mission was to amass a cache of weapons and train in guerilla warfare.
Taking a page from the John Birch Society’s book, they were dedicated to eradicating Communist spies they “knew” infested our government.
DePugh published a monthly magazine called “On Target” with a logo image of the circle and cross-hairs of a rifle scope (think Sarah Palin). Its mantra was “Traitors beware, the cross-hairs are on the back of your neck.” My name was superimposed under the cross-hairs for some time.
One October afternoon, I was seated at my drawing board in one corner of the large room that housed the entire editorial staff of the newspaper. As I sat there making some preliminary sketches, I heard a commotion and the loud clatter of a typewriter crashing to the floor. Looking up I saw a uniformed postman wading past reporter’s desks, knocking off typewriters and inboxes.
He had his mail bag over one shoulder and was shoving objects and people out of his path as he headed directly towards me with a fixed glare in his eyes. Chasing several feet behind him was our security guard. About halfway through his charge, the man reached into his mailbag. My first thought was that he had a gun.
The security guard caught the man just as he got a few feet from me. As the guard yanked him by his neck to a stop, the man’s hand pulled a sheaf of papers from his bag and threw them in my direction, yelling “Put these in the paper you son-of-a-bitch!”
They turned out to be copies of white supremacist cartoons. I picked up one to examine it. It depicted a large black man leering as he choked a little white girl.
The Goldwater campaign for President dovetailed nicely with the ugly fanaticism of the time and rallied silk stocking CEOs to the “conservative groundswell” that hijacked the Republican Party.
However, back then there were no 24/7 television talking heads to bring the paranoia into living rooms night after night—and no internet for instant fanning of the flames—and people actually read newspapers.
Goldwater lost to Lyndon Johnson by an historic landslide.
The irony of the note attached to that brick thrown through that New York headquarters, is that Barry Goldwater in later years, reflecting on his presidential campaign in 1964, concluded that the Republican Party had been taken over “by a bunch of kooks!”
De ja vue!