From 1966 to 2020 | Opinion

As millions have taken the streets to protest the brutal death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, many comparisons have been made to the racial unrest that convulsed America in 1968. Yet that indelible year of urban riots in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination and Richard Nixon's "law and order" candidacy was not the moment when the course of U.S. race relations veered suddenly for the worse after a decade of hard-won progress. That turning point came two years earlier, in 1966.

How do we know? By looking back at polling commissioned by Newsweek magazine, the publication that was the precursor to the news site you are reading now. Comparing that data to the situation today offers a depressing reminder of how persistent racism remains in America—but also more reason for optimism than the dire 1960s analogies suggest.

​In those days, Newsweek was led by Editor Osborn Elliott, a Harvard-educated blueblood with a strong streak of noblesse oblige. With the help of a group of idealistic young white staffers with a keen interest in the black struggle—including writer Peter Goldman and reporters Joseph Cummings, Karl Fleming and Marshall Frady—Elliott helped turn Newsweek into a "hot book" on Madison Avenue, in part, by covering the civil rights struggle more aggressively and sympathetically than its larger, older and (at the time) stodgier rival, Time.

A month before the March on Washington in 1963, Elliott commissioned Louis Harris, the former in-house pollster for President John F. Kennedy, to conduct a comprehensive national survey on racial attitudes. Published in a cover story entitled "The Negro in America," that first Harris poll showed that three years of lunch counter sit-ins, Freedom Rides and TV images of police dogs and firehoses being turned on the black children of Birmingham, Alabama had shaken the conscience of white America, and created a supportive climate for racial reform that would lead to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Then, in the summer of 1966, a series of dramatic and unexpected turns in the civil rights saga led Elliott to commission a second Harris poll. The young firebrand Stokely Carmichael ousted moderate John Lewis as the head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and popularized the slogan "Black Power"—a term that to blacks stood for seeking greater political clout and manifesting more cultural pride, but to whites sounded like a cry of anti-white separatism and violent menace. Dr. King took his Southern tactics of passive resistance to fight housing and job discrimination in Chicago, only to be met with a surly, violent reception from the city's working-class whites and two-faced obstructionism from the political machine of Mayor Richard Daley. After isolated riots in Harlem in 1964 and in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1965, a contagion of "long hot summer" unrest spread in 1966 to cities as distant as Cleveland, Atlanta and Omaha.

For another Newsweek cover story on race in August of 1966, entitled "Black and White: A Major Survey of U.S. Racial Attitudes Today," Harris dispatched more than a hundred black pollsters to conduct in-depth interviews with 1,059 black Americans, while a similar number of white interviewers quizzed 1,088 white Americans. Asked about the overall state of racial relations, two-thirds of blacks thought things had improved since 1963, but half said the pace of progress wasn't swift enough. Meanwhile, a full 70 percent of the whites thought blacks were "trying to move too fast." As a 71-year-old Dayton woman separately told a Newsweek reporter: "They're so forward! If you give them a finger, they'll take a hand."

The disparity over black protest was even more stark. While an overwhelming majority of blacks favored non-violent demonstrations, a third thought the riots had been "useful" in calling attention to the degree of anger and distress in urban black neighborhoods. Meanwhile, three-quarters of whites condemned the riots, and two-thirds said they now saw any form of black protest—even Dr. King's peaceful marches—as "harmful."

Comparing the 1966 data to the more optimistic findings in 1963, writer Peter Goldman offered a sober and prescient prediction. "For all the omens of hope," he summed up, "the statistics yield danger signs that America's crisis of color may get worse before it gets better." Sure enough, concrete evidence of a white political backlash came that fall, in the 1966 midterms—with the election of Ronald Reagan and Lester Maddox to the governorships of California and Georgia, after brief race riots in both of those states, and a loss of 47 seats in the House of Representatives for Lyndon Johnson's pro-civil rights Democrats.

Building boarded up in Minneapolis
Building boarded up in Minneapolis Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Today, despite the looped footage of isolated violence on TV and the macho, Nixon-esque language coming from the White House, the data tell a different story. A vast majority of the protests that have taken place in reaction to George Floyd's killing in every state in America—and across the world—have been non-violent. Millions of blacks and whites have marched together, demonstrating a degree of interracial support for racial justice and police reform that never existed at any time in the 1960s, and was completely evaporating by 1966.

A Reuters-Ipsos poll conducted last Monday and Tuesday, even amidst the worst incidents of looting and clashes with police, found 64 percent of American adults saying they were "sympathetic to people who are out protesting right now," compared to only 27 percent who were not. Meanwhile, 55 percent disapproved of President Trump's handling of the protests, compared to only one-third who approved—hardly a "silent majority" ready to be persuaded to look away from a mishandled pandemic and near Depression-level unemployment by a cynical campaign pivot to "law and order."

While the events in Minneapolis have served as yet another wake-up call to how much more needs to be done to address police misconduct and racial injustice in America, there is also ample non-statistical evidence to suggest that this is hardly the 1960s revisited. The outpouring of racial solidarity on social media. Police chiefs marching and taking knees with protesters from Houston to Denver. The election in the midst of the uprising of a black female mayor of Ferguson, Missouri, where the #BlackLivesMatter movement burst into the national consciousness after the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014.

So no, this is not 1968, or 1966. And this time, there's also polling data to suggest that what's happening in the streets may contribute to election year 2020 being remembered very differently in the annals of American political history.

Mark Whitaker is the former editor of Newsweek and author of Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.