On June 5, 1968, Robert Kennedy won the California Democratic primary 46% to 42% over fellow anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy. That victory, reversing McCarthy’s defeat of Kennedy a week earlier in Oregon, made Kennedy the front-runner for the party’s nomination for a few minutes, until he was assassinated.
June 5, 1968—39 years and 8 months ago—was the last time the California primary was decisive in presidential politics. Yet tomorrow, California could vault Obama past Clinton toward the presidency.
Kennedy was a force in 1968. His appeal across race and class lines offered the promise of unifying a deeply divided nation. Kennedy’s appeal built from the ex-attorney general’s fight against segregation in the Deep South in 1963-64, at the time the battle for civil rights was at its fiercest.
In 1968, the struggle to realize the dream of “black and white together” still continued. Kennedy stood on the right side of that fight. McCarthy? Anti-war, without question. But with no dog in the civil rights struggle, and nothing to match Kennedy’s backing of Cesar Chavez’s effort to organize Hispanic farm workers, McCarthy was one-dimensional. Kennedy lived the battle to bring America together, the dream of crossing class and race lines. Because people could feel Kennedy’s authenticity, they responded highly emotionally to his candidacy. Kennedy’s California victory, fueled by Black and Hispanic support, truly could have changed the course of history.
Obama in his person brings “black and white together.” Americans feel good when they think of a black man running the country. It fulfills our dreams of a post-racial America, a multi-racial nation leading the world toward its better nature. Obama is competent and confident. He can do it.
Too bad for Clinton. Symbolically, it’s nice to have a woman in the top spot. But we never fought a civil war to separate women from their chains, and white women got the vote in 1920, not 1965. Women are too powerful for their struggles to match the deep satisfaction we get from having a black man lead us.
In the end, it’s about race, and about us getting our history right by moving beyond race. If the people of California so believe, Obama will carry their state tomorrow and be on his way to leading the world.