Fifty Years Ago, Whiting Mourned

It was fifty years ago, in June 1968, when New York Senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Barely a month earlier, Whiting-Robertsdale residents played a role in launching Kennedy’s bid to become the Democratic nominee for president. So, when he died, the loss was felt by many local residents who believed that he was the best hope for the future of the United States.

Bobby Kennedy didn’t plan to run for president in 1968. Just five years earlier his brother, President John Kennedy, was assassinated. Vice-President Lyndon Johnson took over the presidency, and he planned to run for re-election in 1968. But the war in Vietnam was making Johnson unpopular, and many in the anti-war movement encouraged Kennedy to run against Johnson. Kennedy declined, so the anti-war group turned to Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy. He accepted the challenge of running against the president for the Democratic nomination.

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McCarthy was not well-known before his challenge to Johnson, so when he managed to win 42-percent of the vote in New Hampshire, the first primary election of 1968, the political world was stunned. Even though he won in New Hampshire with 49-percent of the vote, the closeness of the race meant Johnson was vulnerable. Kennedy knew it. Four days after the New Hampshire primary, he announced that he would run for president after all. Johnson also knew it. Two weeks after Kennedy entered the race, Johnson suprised the nation by declaring that he would not run for re-election.

Those who supported Johnson had to look elsewhere, and that candidate was Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, who announced he was going to run for president in late April, just four weeks after Johnson dropped out.

In 1968, primary campaigns for president were the exception. Only 14 states had presidential primaries that year. But primaries were still important, and after New Hampshire, and after the entry of Kennedy and Humphrey into the race, the next big primary on the schedule was Indiana in early May.

Humphrey was not on the ballot, but Indiana’s popular Democratic governor Roger Branigin was. As a loyal backer of President Johnson, Branigin was widely seen as a stand-in for Humphrey in the Indiana primary. But the big showdown was between Kennedy and McCarthy. This was the first time they would directly compete against one another. The large anti-Vietnam War movement needed to pull together behind one candidate if they were to be successful in defeating Humphrey, who many believed would continue the policies of the Johnson administration. The Indiana primary was shaping up to be a key indicator of who that person would be.

Kennedy won that race, McCarthy finished third behind Branigin. Kennedy’s victory propelled him forward to the next big primary, to be held in California. He won there, as well. But minutes after his victory speech, he was murdered. Whiting-Robertsdale residents were as stunned as any Americans at Kennedy’s death. He was popular here. In the three-way race in the 1968 primary, Kennedy received 43-percent of the vote in Whiting-Robertsdale, compared to 38-percent for McCarthy, and 19-percent for Governor Branigin. Kennedy won in seven of ten precincts in Whiting, and seven of the twelve precincts of Robertsdale and North Hammond.

Humphrey went on to win the Democratic nomination after Kennedy’s death, but lost the general election to Republican Richard Nixon.