MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — “Things have really changed,” one man lamented in a letter from Crossville.
There are protests and riots in the cities, he said. The government is telling businesses whom they must serve, and intruding into health care. There is an open door to large numbers of new immigrants, people are trying to regulate the guns of law-abiding citizens, and the “forgotten man” who earns an honest wage has been abandoned.
Another letter writer insisted that it was time to heed the call of the “long suffering, put upon, silent, unorganized white majority.” Time, as yet another wrote, to put “Americans first above all things.”
From the sound of them, the letters might have been written yesterday — but they are a half-century old. They were sent by constituents in the mid- to late-1960s to Senator Albert Gore Sr., Democrat of Tennessee and father of the former vice president. The letters, a catalog of alarm and urgency, are now arranged on the quiet library shelves of a research center named for Mr. Gore at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro.
Kent Syler, a professor of political science, had his students read the old letters to understand how a congressional office works. As they looked through them, though, he was struck by how familiar they seemed — how their language often exactly matched the ones he was reading when he was chief of staff for Bart Gordon, a Democrat who represented a largely rural swath of Tennessee in Congress for 26 years.
“I would look at a letter and say, ‘Wow, I’ve heard this argument,’ ” Professor Syler said.
It makes sense that fears of American decline would echo across the decades, but what Professor Syler found surprising was how precise the echoes were, down to using identical phrases.
The subjects that prompted many of the letters were the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the 1965 law that ended national origin quotas for immigration; the creation of the Medicare program in 1965; the 1968 Gun Control Act; the Poor People’s March on Washington in 1968, a six-week demonstration on the National Mall organized by civil rights leaders; and the riots that erupted in cities across the country in 1967 and 1968.
With the current political atmosphere coming to resemble the hothouse of the 1960s, the letters’ echoes seem even more striking. On the one hand, Professor Syler said, this is reassuring. What might seem to be exceptional rancor and division now is hardly worse than it was in the 1960s, and the country made it through.
On the other hand, he noted, some of the issues contested in the letters had their roots a century before, when the country was torn apart by civil war — and yet they are still very much unresolved today.
“You sit down and read something that’s 50 years old, and the light comes on,” Professor Syler said. “I don’t know that unless you read it, you can believe it.”
Here are some examples drawn from the archive, grouped by subject, with notable passages highlighted.