Oct. 14, 1968 to Feb. 14, 2014 is a span of exactly 45 years four months.
A lot happened in America during that time. That’s why I hope President Obama can carve out a few minutes during his visit here on Friday to stop at the county Courthouse in downtown Fresno’s Courthouse Park.
To be more specific, I hope the President will climb the Courthouse ramp on the M Street side, turn so he’s facing east and say a few words about the promise and glory of the American experiment.
To do so would be a memorable and overdue counterpoint to what happened in that same spot on Oct. 14, 1968.
First, some background. I dropped by Bee Executive Editor Jim Boren’s newsroom office late Monday afternoon. Jim has been covering and following politics for more than 40 years. I wanted to know if any presidents ever visited downtown.
I learned that President George W. Bush spoke at the Convention Center. Ronald Reagan came to downtown all the time when he was governor. President Bill Clinton went jogging by the airport.
Presidential candidates used to make repeated campaign stops in Fresno when California was more of a toss-up state.
Jim and I didn’t have time to dig through the archives. But I got the sense that, when it comes to Presidential and Presidential-campaign politics, downtown Fresno is no longer high on anyone’s “must do” list.
That makes me wonder if the last time Courthouse Park was the scene of anything connected to the most powerful office in the world occurred on Oct. 14, 1968.
That was when George Corley Wallace Jr. personally asked Fresnans to help him become President of the United States.
The nation was three weeks away from a presidential election. President Lyndon B. Johnson had announced on March 31 that he would not seek re-election. Vice President Hubert Humphrey was the Democratic Party nominee. Former Vice President Richard Nixon was the Republican Party nominee.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated six months earlier. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, a strong contender for the Democratic nomination, had been assassinated four months earlier. An average of 325 American military personnel were dying each week in Vietnam.
The 49-year-old Wallace, once a Democrat, was running a third-party campaign as the American Independent Party presidential nominee. He flew to Fresno on the evening of Sunday, Oct. 13, 1968. He was scheduled to speak the next day at a noontime rally on the M Street side of the county Courthouse.
The Bee produced three days of extensive coverage.
There was an A-1 story on Sunday that reviewed polling data. Much of the story focused on the thoughts of local political experts, business and labor leaders, and average folks.
The Bee reported: “In Kern County, W.B. Camp, a longtime Democratic leader and well-know farmer commented: ‘Up until two months ago I would have considered voting for him, had not Nixon been a candidate. However, in the last two months the Wallace picture had changed. He has become cocky, cocky, cocky — very sarcastic — and has driven some of my friends away.’”
The story closed with a quote from an unidentified Los Banos businessman: “It is surprising the amount of people who have expressed an intention to vote for him.”
The Valley that night got nearly an inch of rain. The Bee was an afternoon paper (except on Sunday) in those days. The Monday, Oct. 14 edition carried a brief story about Wallace’s remarks that day (no time to do more) plus coverage of his arrival at the airport the night before.
The Bee reported that about 150 people greeted Wallace at the airport on Sunday. They chanted “We Want Wallace!”
The largest sign in the crowd said: “Sock It To Them, George.” The only anti-Wallace sign said: “Be Proud, George. You’re America’s Most Popular Sickness.”
Wallace spoke briefly to the rain-soaked crowd.
“I appreciate you being here in the rain,” Wallace said. “I hope you’ll be with us tomorrow.”
Wallace spent Sunday night at downtown’s Hotel Californian on Van Ness Avenue.
More than 4,000 people attended Wallace’s Monday rally. They began arriving at 9:30 a.m. A country-and-western band played “God Bless America.” Someone in a nearby car said through a loudspeaker, “Down deep in your heart you know Wallace is right.”
The speaker’s podium was in the Courthouse breezeway, facing east. A man at 12:33 p.m. shouted into the microphone: “All right now, how many of you are ready to stand up for America?”
Wallace spoke for about 45 minutes.
“To those who say you’ll throw your vote away (by voting for him), let me say if you vote for the Republicans or the Democrats, you’ll be throwing your vote away,” Wallace said.
Wallace said he would debate Humphrey. He attacked newspaper editors and liberal college professors. He blasted the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Bee reported: “He received his biggest applause when he promised, if elected, to ask Congress to repeal open-housing legislation and said he would not allow federal money to be spent to bus children to schools outside their own neighborhoods.”
There were some hecklers in the crowd. They shouted “Seig Heil!”
Wallace called them “anarchists.” He said to them: “I was fighting the Nazis before you were born. There is nothing wrong with you that a good a haircut wouldn’t cure.”
Confederate flags were sprinkled throughout the crowd. A Wallace supporter climbed the fire escape on the side of the Hall of Records and waved a large “Stars and Bars” flag for all the crowd to see.
One of the protestors held a sign: “Segregation Is Immoral.”
Wallace ate lunch at the hotel, then left Fresno for campaign stops in San Diego and Los Angeles.
Wallace on Nov. 5, 1968 would received 9.9 million votes, 13.5% of the total. He would get 46 electoral votes; 45 from Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, and one from North Carolina.
Wallace is the last third-party candidate to receive an entire state’s electoral votes.
There’s good reason why Wallace generated such controversy in his Oct. 14, 1968 stop at Fresno County’s Courthouse.
In his Jan. 14, 1963 inaugural address following his election as Alabama governor, Wallace said, “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
Five months later, on June 11, 1963, Wallace made an attempt to keep his vow when he stood in front of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama to halt the enrollment of African-American students Vivian Malone and James Hood.
President John F. Kennedy put the Second Infantry Division on alert. He federalized the Alabama National Guard. He sent Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and federal marshals to the university.
Wallace stepped aside.
And now, 45 years four months after Wallace spoke in Fresno, America’s first African-American president will come to town.
My point in this blog isn’t to suggest that people in Fresno and the Valley in 1968 were bigots. Nor do I suggest that Wallace’s political views of 1968 are less than legitimate issues for democratic debate. I went to neighborhood schools. So did my children.
I was a college freshman in Visalia that year. I know the Valley. There are prejudiced people here, as there are in any town or city. But the vast majority of people in our region are good and proud Americans who cherish fairness. President Obama will relish Valley hospitality on Friday.
My point is to suggest that history never sleeps in our democracy. The events of Oct. 14, 1968 on the M Street side of Courthouse Park still resonate as part of our legacy. Wallace had his say and we listened. It’s a free country.
How fitting if President Barack Obama found a few seconds on Friday to stand on the same spot as George Corley Wallace Jr. all those years ago and balanced the local historical record.