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Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton helped establish the Chicago Panthers as an organization providing community services for the poor and brokered a treaty between the street gangs of the city — all before his twenty-first birthday.

Hampton was murdered by police on this date in 1969, shot down in his bed as he slept with his heavily pregnant girlfriend beside him.

Here’s Hampton, just weeks before he died, responding to the Days of Rage, a Weatherman riot in his hometown of Chicago.

“We believe that the Weatherman action is anarchistic, opportunistic, individualistic. It’s chauvinistic, it’s Custeristic. And that’s the bad part about it. It’s Custeristic in that its leaders take people into situations where the people can be massacred — and they call that a revolution. It’s nothing but child’s play, it’s folly. We think these people may be sincere but they’re misguided. They’re muddleheads and they’re scatterbrains.”


In a blogpost yesterday on the Electoral College, NY Times columnist Ross Douthat reported that “if you believe Sean Trende’s fascinating analysis,” Richard Nixon won the popular vote in the 1960 presidential election. I hadn’t seen this claim before, and I’m a dork, so I popped over to take a look.

Trende’s piece, published over the weekend, notes that in 1960 Alabama voters didn’t vote for presidential candidates, but for individual electors, and that they we allowed to split tickets. There were eleven Democratic electors and eleven Republicans, and voters could choose anywhere from one to eleven candidates from the two columns.

Five of the Democratic electors were “loyal,” or pledged to Kennedy, while six were unpledged and eventually wound up voting for Senator Harry Byrd. Those eleven electors all won, and the Republican electors all lost.

The question Trende asks is how we should count these votes. (Since far more votes were cast than there were voters, we can’t just tally up the scores for each slate and do it that way.) The traditional approach has been to credit Kennedy with the number equal to his highest scoring elector, and Nixon with the corresponding total for his, but as Trende notes, that results in Byrd getting no votes in a state where he obviously had substantial support.

Instead, Trende suggests, it makes more sense to give all the Democratic votes to Byrd instead of Kennedy, or split them on the basis of how many electoral votes each received. In either case, he notes, the result is a Nixon victory in the overall popular vote. Nixon won!

But no, he didn’t. Here’s why:

Nationally, according to the source Trende himself relied on, Nixon received 34,108,157 votes in 1960, and Kennedy received 34,220,984. If we set Alabama aside — take all their votes off the table, and tally up the rest of the country without them, here’s what we’re left with:

Kennedy: 33,902,681

Nixon: 33,870,176

That’s a Kennedy victory of more than 32,000 votes. So in order to claim that Nixon beat Kennedy nationally, we have to argue that Nixon beat Kennedy by nearly 32,000 votes in Alabama. And that’s not what happened — Kennedy’s poorest-performing elector in Alabama received 316,934 votes. Nixon’s best-performing elector received 237,981.

It’s not easy to say how the votes should be carved up, since Kennedy had fewer electors on the ballot than Nixon. But the evidence suggests that the vast majority of those who went to the polls voted for all the electors they could. In a senate race on the same ballot, the two candidates received a total of 554,064 votes. If you divide the total number of votes cast in the presidential race by 11 — the maximum number of electors a single voter could support — you get 555,592.3 people voting, almost exactly the same.

The vast majority of Alabama voters in 1960 voted for a full slate of electors, and the strong majority of those chose the Democratic slate. Perhaps ten thousand or so voted only for Harry Byrd’s electors, and not for Kennedy’s, but the overwhelming number took what they were given from the party they supported.

Still not convinced? Let’s look at it another way. Figure that 600,000 Alabama voters went to the polls in 1960. That’s almost certainly too high, but it’s within the realm of plausibility, and approximates the best-case scenario for the ticket-splitting hypothesis. In that scenario, John Kennedy’s worst-performing elector received the support of 53% of the state’s voters, and Nixon’s best-performing elector received the votes of 40% of them.

Kennedy beat Nixon in Alabama. Kennedy beat Nixon outside of Alabama. Kennedy beat Nixon.

There’s no other way to spin it. Sorry.

“I have no secret plan for peace.  I have a public plan. And as one whose heart has ached for the past ten years over the agony of Vietnam, I will halt the senseless bombing of Indochina on Inaugural Day. There will be no more Asian children running ablaze from bombed-out schools. There will be no more talk of bombing the dikes or the cities of the North. And within 90 days of my inauguration, every American soldier and every American prisoner will be out of the jungle and out of their cells and then home in America where they belong. And then let us resolve that never again will we send the precious young blood of this country to die trying to prop up a corrupt military dictatorship abroad.”

—George McGovern, 1972

The typical Supreme Court oral argument lasts an hour, with the lawyer for the petitioner (whoever brought the suit) taking the first thirty minutes, and the lawyer for the respondent (the other party) taking the second. Each attorney stands at a podium when it’s his or her turn, and gives a presentation on their case to the nine justices. Or tries to.

That half hour isn’t just their time for making arguments, it’s also the justices’ time for questioning, and they can — and do — interrupt at any moment, for any reason. As an attorney arguing in front of the Supremes, you’re trying your best to get through the material you want to get through while also responding to any idea that pops into any justice’s mind. It’s a bit like batting in the World Series, but with every player on the opposite team hurling balls at your head.

It’s kind of awesome.

I’ve attended SCOTUS oral arguments only once, for a zero-profile case that a friend of a friend was arguing. (I took a road trip one other time and slept out all night trying to get in for Lawrence v. Texas, but a local college’s RA had brought her whole floor and we missed the cut.) The case I saw presented was a boring, technical, marginal one ultimately decided in a 9-0 decision, but seeing it argued in person was thrilling, strange, and — because I knew one of the attorneys — nerve-wracking even to watch.

The Supreme Court is, according to the Constitution, the final interpreter of the Constitution itself. If you don’t like what they decide, you’ve got to pass a constitutional amendment overturning them (something that’s ridiculously hard to do and hasn’t happened in four decades) or just sit tight and wait until they change their minds. And because there are only nine justices, and because they have so much discretion, changing one of their minds can change the course of history.

Supreme Court oral arguments are as close as an ordinary American can ever hope to get to watching the actual internal machinery of the federal government in operation. Whatever you think of that government, whatever you think of the institution of the Court itself, it’s impossible to observe it closely and not come away with a staggering sense of historical contingency.

Fisher v. Texas, the college admissions case SCOTUS heard argued last week, is a big deal. A win for the plaintiff, Abigail Fisher, could mean an end to affirmative action in higher education in the United States, a major transformation in the country’s colleges and universities, and an altering of the life opportunities of the next few generations of Americans. In arguing this case, the Supremes were arguing over not just higher education policy but over what kind of country we are, what principles will guide us going forward. They were arguing about the nature of race and the meaning of fairness, and because they’re the Supreme Court of the United States, they get to decide how those concepts operate in American law.

This is a big deal and a big, complicated case, and over the next week or so I’ll be making my way through the oral argument transcript, analyzing the most important (and weirdest) moments.

See you tomorrow for part one.

Earlier this morning, the UberFacts Twitter account posted the following tweet:

I learned about it a little while later because of a weird spike in my traffic — though the story is well documented and has appeared in a number of scholarly works it’s not particularly well known, and a post that I wrote about it earlier this year happens to show up near the top of Google’s searches for various phrases relating to it.

Anyway, like I say, it’s true. The FBI, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover’s top deputy, sent Martin Luther King a blackmail package in November 1964 along with a letter urging him to kill himself to avoid the shame of the public disclosure of “your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self.”

The letter was timed to arrive shortly before King was scheduled to travel to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

About This Blog

n7772graysmall is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

To contact Angus, click here. For more about him, check out
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