The Friday before actor and activist Harry Belafonte stepped in for a week to guest host the Tonight show on February 5, 1968, the New York Times front page featured an inadvertent curtain opener to Belafonte’s project—and to the entire year. In the paper’s crucial top right news slot, Eddie Adams’s brutal photo of a South Vietnamese general executing a Vietcong soldier grabbed the reader. It illustrated a grim story with this heraldic headline: street clashes go on in vietnam, foe still holds parts of cities, johnson vows never to yield. Across the page to the left, we learned that Lyndon Johnson sought “Pay-Price Curbs and Rise In Tax,” to pay for his widening Vietnam adventure. From the slot right next to that troubling Johnson story, Richard Nixon beams. “Nixon Announces For Presidency,” the paper reports.
That was early February 1968, in black and white. And it was the whole story of 1968, as it turned out. That Friday front page announced the end of the racial- and political-justice experiment known as the 1960s. But nobody knew it yet. So on Monday night, February 5, Harry Belafonte introduced Senator Bobby Kennedy to his Tonight audience, hoping Kennedy would make news by declaring his presidential candidacy (he did it six weeks later). They talked complicated 1968 politics: black nationalism, Appalachian despair, and outrage that LBJ was already secretly surrendering in the war—the war on poverty, that is. The war in Vietnam, however, was escalating—that weekend had brought the Tet Offensive. Kennedy despaired of bringing the war to a quick close, although he and Belafonte wanted an end to it. “The views that I represent, I don’t think are supported by anything other than a minority of people in the United States,” the senator told the host.
Four days later, Belafonte sat behind Carson’s desk with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the couch to his right. At the other end, Ed McMahon grinned while Paul Newman listened earnestly. They discussed King’s planned Poor People’s Campaign, the need to join issues of race, class, and poverty, and the preacher’s thoughts about the many threats to his life. For a whole week, Belafonte introduced us to his multiracial friends and political collaborators, from Wilt Chamberlain to Zero Mostel, Melina Mercouri and Leon Bibb, Newman and Aretha Franklin, 25 guests in all, most of them African American. They sang, danced, told jokes, argued politics, and introduced the coming multiracial America to itself. For that one week in February, Dr. King’s beloved community came to life. Belafonte—with his talent, charisma, political values, and connections—willed it into being. We seemed to have made it to the mountaintop King talked about—the cultural mountaintop, anyway, and King got to that with us, at least.
Within a few months, King and then Kennedy were assassinated, the Democratic Party came apart, the civil-rights movement splintered; the bloody war all three men opposed went on for five more years. Richard Nixon, the man who smiled from the front page of the February 2 New York Times, became president. In many ways, we still live in Richard Nixon’s America. Donald Trump honed Nixon’s dark themes of “law and order,” his calls to the silent majority, his talent for pitting groups against one another. (He may also have borrowed Nixon’s weakness from cheating in elections as well as obstructing justice, and he may face a similar disgraced end to his presidency.)