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A Brief History Of Violence Before Elections In The U.S.


On April 4, 1968, the day Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, presidential candidate Robert Kennedy spoke to a mostly African-American crowd in Indianapolis. He talked about unity, but he also sounded a warning.


ROBERT KENNEDY: It is not the end of violence. It is not the end of lawlessness. And it's not the end of disorder.

KING: Kennedy himself was killed two months later. Many of you had questions about political violence. And David Greene put them to Cokie Roberts in our Ask Cokie segment.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: All right. So our first question is coming from Dave Imbriaco, and he says this. He is not convinced that the political violence we're seeing today is any worse than what we've seen in the past in America. Am I wrong? he asks. But then he also includes in parentheses, let's exclude the Civil War because that would be unfair.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: (Laughter) Well, it's hard for me to exclude the Civil War. It was the ultimate act of political violence. More than 600,000 Americans were killed after the southern states refused to honor the results of an election. But Dave is right that we've had many, many violent times in our history. We can start with the Burr-Hamilton duel where the sitting vice president of the United States killed his political enemy.


ROBERTS: But that was just one of many duels, David. The term of art in the House of Representatives was to call someone out. And then they would go out to Bladensburg outside of Washington where there was a dueling ground and shoot each other.

GREENE: Well, less dueling more recently, but there - I mean, there's been violence. And we've seen riots. We - and obviously, assassinations.

ROBERTS: Right. During the civil rights struggles, we had riots in Newark, Los Angeles, Detroit that shocked the country. But you can't forget the context of those riots. Not only were African-Americans denied their basic rights, but violent lynchings were still happening. The NAACP says that more than 3,000 black people were lynched between 1882 and 1968.


ROBERTS: So don't forget the attacks on voting rights activists like the one in Selma in 1965, plus many election-related violent incidents over our history.

GREENE: So our next listener wants to know about the response of politicians to these kinds of acts of violence.

MELISSA SOTO SCHWARTZ: This is Melissa Soto Schwartz from Cleveland Heights, Ohio. In the course of American history, how has presidential rhetoric from the bully pulpit both responded to or possibly even provoked acts of political violence?

GREENE: Cokie.

ROBERTS: Obviously, different politicians use different rhetoric. That Bobby Kennedy speech that we heard in the introduction in 1968 was considered one of the finest. He went before an angry crowd. And without any notes, he talked quietly and eloquently, reminding the would-be rioters that his own brother had been shot by a white man. And then Lyndon Johnson invoked the violence at Selma when he went before Congress the next week to make a stirring call for the voting rights bill. But there have also been plenty of politicians who've used violence to stir up crowds.

GREENE: OK. Our last question comes from Norman Ferrel. He asks, quote, "do violent acts change after midterms more or after presidential elections?"

ROBERTS: It really depends, David, more on the time than on the election. So there was a lot of violence, for instance, during the lead-up to the Civil War, and then again during Reconstruction, which, of course, started with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the near killing of his secretary of state. Keep in mind four American presidents have been killed, and lots of others have had attempts on their lives. And those are, of course, acts of political violence.

GREENE: Commentator Cokie Roberts - you can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work if you email us. The address is askcokie@npr.org or just tweet us. Use the #AskCokie. Thanks, Cokie.

ROBERTS: Nice to talk to you, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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