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The Meaning of Box 722

Rick Perlstein is a national treasure. Buy his Nixonland. Buy it now:

The Meaning of Box 722 | art of the narrative. They'd never really been examined in-depth before, but by my reckoning they were the crucial hinge that formed the ideological alignment we live in now. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson—and, apparently, liberalism—achieved such a gigantic landslide victory that it appeared to pundits the Republican Party would be forever consigned to the outer darkness if they ever entertained a Goldwater-style conservative law-and-order platform again. Two years later, most of the new liberal congressmen swept in on LBJ's coattails—the congressional class that gave us Medicare and Medicaid, the first serious environmental legislation, National Endowments for the Humanities and Arts, Head Start, the Voting Rights Act, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the end of racist immigration quotas, Legal Aid, and more—was swept out on a tide of popular reaction. That reaction, I hope I demonstrate effectively in NIXONLAND, rested on two pillars: terror at the wave of urban rioting that began in the Watts district of Los Angeles; and terror at the prospect of the 1966 civil rights bill passing, which, by imposing an ironclad federal ban on racial discrimination in the sale and rental of housing—known as "open housing"—would be the first legislation to impact the entire nation equally, not just the South. (What that reaction most decidedly did not rest on: fear and loathing of "hippies," which were unknown, except in California, to most of the nation until 1967; or anti-war activists, which were not associated with either party, because Republicans and Democrats had about an equal number of hawks and doves in 1966.)

When I learned that the papers of Senator Paul Douglas were at the Chicago Historical Society (as it was known then; now it's cursed with the decidedly more prosaic name the Chicago History Museum), I decided to make Douglas's 1966 loss to Republican Charles Percy a key case study for my hypothesis. Douglas was a popular liberal lion first elected in 1948 and a civil rights champion, whose wife Emily Taft Douglas (a one-term congresswoman herself) had strode proudly across Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 arm in arm with Martin Luther King. He was also, as an economist, one of the architects of many of the New Deal ideas and programs that created the world's first mass middle class.

In the summer of 1966, as debate over open housing raged in Congress, King marched not in Alabama but in Chicago, to implore the city to enforce its own open housing ordinance, passed in 1963—which, if Chicago did, would be a first. It was the most segregated city in the north. As I put it in NIXONLAND (drawing on this classic study):

You could draw a map of the boundary within which the city's seven hundred thousand Negroes were allowed to live by marking an X wherever a white mob attacked a Negro. Move beyond it, and a family had to face down a mob of one thousand, five thousand, or even (in the Englewood riot of 1949, when the presence of blacks at a union meeting sparked a rumor the house was to be "sold to niggers") ten thousand bloody-minded whites. In the late 1940s, when the postwar housing shortage was at its peak, you could find ten black families living in a basement, sharing a single stove but not a single flush toilet, in "apartments" subdivided by cardboard. One racial bombing or arson happened every three weeks.... It neighborhoods where they were allowed to "buy" houses, they couldn't actually buy them at all: banks would not write them mortgages, so unscrupulous businessmen sold them contracts that gave them no equity or title to the property, from whcih they could be evicted the first time they were late with a payment.

And in 1966, a teenager answering a job ad walked over the border from Chicago into the all-white city of Cicero, and for that sin and no other was beaten to death. That was what Martin Luther King came to fight in Chicago.

At the Chicago History Museum, the Douglas collection covers seven hundred "linear feet".... I stumbled upon Box 722, which contained all the letters Senator Paul Douglas received about open housing and Martin Luther King's presence in Chicago....

Republican Charles Percy had gone into the race a civil rights liberal: "Chuck, do you have to talk so much about open housing?" one suburban Republican official complained to him. But by October, following Jerry Ford's talking points to the letter, he went on ABC's "Face the Nation" and said that while he still supported the "principle" of open housing, he disagreed with Senator Douglas on one thing: including "single-family dwelling" would be "an unpassable and unenforceable" attack on property rights. "Right now, we aren't ready to force people to accept those they don't want as neighbors," he said in tones of rue.

Long story short: Douglas soldiered on, imploring his constituents to remember the favors they had received from the Democratic Party—entree, for one thing, into the world's first mass middle class of factory workers. To no avail. Percy won in an upset. Pundits said it was because Percy's daughter had just been brutally murdered; it was a sympathy vote. But if people voted for Percy because he was a grieving father, the ratio of the sympathetic to the callous was suspiciously high in the Bungalow Belt neighborhoods where Martin Luther King had marched. A ward analysis demonstrated that in Chicago neighborhoods threatened by racial turnover, new Percy voters were enough to account for Douglas's 80 percent decline in the city since 1960. Pundits also pointed to people's unwillingness to vote for such an old man. But in the backlash wards younger Democrats declined almost as significantly.

No, it was voters like this, from 4315 W. Crystal:

A few years ago I had written you a letter stating how I and my family would welcome the opportunityy to vote fyou in to the highest office in the land--The Presidency. Since that time however your support of the open occupancy bill has caused me to change my support of your candidacy for senator of Illinois, and believe me sir there are many more in my category who are changing in their support of you.

Here is the fundamental tragedy of the backlash: voters like this empowered a party that decided they didn't need protection against predatory subprime mortgage fraud. Didn't need affordable, universal health insurance; made it easier for companies to rape their pensions; kept on going back to the well to destroy their social security; worked avidly to shred their union protections. Fought, in fact, every decent and wise social provision that made it possible in the first place for mere factory workers to live in glorious Chicago bungalows, or suburban homes, in the first place.

Now a black man from the city King visited in 1966 and called more hateful than Mississippi is running for president, fighting for all those things that made the midcentury American middle class the glory of world civilization, but which that middle class squandered out of the small-mindedness of backlash.

This post is for Chicago. This post is for America. This post is for our future. This post is for our history—that we may, this November, redeem it. This post is for a man who, had he walked down the wrong street in his own city 42 years ago, might well have been beaten to death.