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April 5, 1968: When the ‘good’ Sen. Eugene McCarthy spent the day in Pasadena

By Marvin Schachter 12/29/2005

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The death of Eugene McCarthy brought back memories of the remarkable day the former US senator and presidential candidate spent in Pasadena, during one of the watershed years in American history; a year like no other.

In March ’68, a president who had been swept into office by one of the biggest majorities ever, withdrew his candidacy for a second elected term … in April, Martin Luther King was murdered … in June, here in Los Angeles, Robert Kennedy was assassinated … the Democratic National Convention erupted into a police riot while “the whole world was watching”

… in November, Richard Nixon was elected president by less than 1 percent, and the virulently racist segregationist George Wallace received nearly 10 million votes.

All this while the United States was engaged in a bloody, exhausting war; a war where the generals kept saying they saw “light at the end of the tunnel” and the country had stopped believing them.

Poetry-writing Gene McCarthy of Minnesota was the most unpoliticking politician in Washington who had the audacity to challenge the incumbent president of his own party in the first primary of the election year. With no political organization, little money and a host of untrained student volunteers, he ran in New Hampshire on one issue: getting out of Vietnam and bringing the American troops home.

President Johnson beat McCarthy 49 percent to 42 percent, but those figures shocked the country, and Johnson withdrew from the race. McCarthy’s candidacy changed from a joke to a possibility.

All over the country opponents of the war rallied to his anti-war cry, and that was true here in Pasadena. This city was a Republican stronghold in 1968 and a far different city than today, but it had a burgeoning anti-war movement, based on students at Caltech, Pasadena City College and the high schools — remember, there was a draft in ’68; on church people — not only All Saints but of course, All Saints; on political activists of varying views; on totally unconnected individuals who were horrified by what seemed to be an endless, needless military adventure in Southeast Asia.
There was tremendous enthusiasm. I remember early meeting in my home, where we expected perhaps a dozen to show up, and 80 people overflowed onto the patio.

The California primary was in June. Robert Kennedy entered the race, saying he was running, not against McCarthy but against Johnson. Democratic Attorney-General Thomas Lynch launched an ‘uncommitted’ slate that was believed to be pro-war.

In the four congressional districts then in the San Gabriel Valley, pro-McCarthy candidates filed. They included the very respected incumbent US Rep. George Brown of Monterey Park. Two campaign offices, staffed entirely by volunteers, were opened; one on Lincoln Avenue, across the street from Muir High School and the other on Garfield Avenue, downtown.

As the campaign developed, we invited Sen. McCarthy to Pasadena and he agreed to come on April 5.
Three events were scheduled:

A street corner rally in the African-American community, on Orange Grove Boulevard and and Fair Oaks Avenue; an outdoor meeting on the Caltech campus, sponsored by the Caltech Y and a committee of faculty and student supporters; a fund-raising garden party at a Green and Green mansion on Hillcrest.

Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis the day before Sen. McCarthy arrived in California. Pasadena reacted as most of the nation did — with horror and with services and meetings, rededicating ourselves to the struggle for equality and peace that Rev. King had led.

All of the planned events for the McCarthy visit took place. The rally at Fair Oaks and Orange Grove was perhaps the largest meeting the senator had in any African-American community during his presidential campaign, with over 4,000 people there.

The Star-News reported 2,000, virtually the entire school, attended the Caltech meeting. The garden party was packed and raised what in those days was a huge sum.

The presidential candidate spoke well and effectively, except, on that day when everyone of us was mourning Martin Luther King, he did not speak of the loss we all felt. I did, and others at the three events did.

I questioned Sen. McCarthy as we drove from Orange Grove to Caltech, and he said that he believed it would be wrong to “demagogue the tragedy,” to use it for political advantage. I argued, but I could not convince him otherwise.
He was not a perfect candidate.

In the California Primary on June 5, Robert Kennedy won 46 percent of the vote, McCarthy had 42 percent, the “unaligned slate” received 12 percent. The “peace vote” totaled an amazing 86 percent.

Shot by Sirhan Sirhan, a resident of Pasadena, Robert Kennedy died the night of his victory.

One wonders what would have happened if Kennedy had lived, if the peace forces had united at the Democratic convention, if a Kennedy-McCarthy ticket had defeated Richard Nixon.

If, if, if. 

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