1968, when America truly was in chaos
"The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do."
James Baldwin, American writer
There is an upcoming television program that I'm eagerly awaiting, and I'd encourage everyone the least bit interested in history to watch it. It's a CNN documentary called "1968." Watch it. Record it. Talk about it.
Sure, a good many people, for political reasons, won't watch CNN ever, no matter the program. If that's you, consider breaking that pledge and watching this documentary. Learn what a real chaotic time it was, or if old enough, remind yourself of what took place. Sure, we are currently living in a crazy time today, but compared to 1968, our current national climate is calm, almost comical.
Boiling point. That might be the best description. That year, a most tumultuous decade finally erupted. We all know the 1960s was a decade when the Cold War came its closest to turning hot. The assassination of JFK was nothing less than a fissure in history, one world before it, a different one after. Civil rights and its struggles, both private and public, ripped at our nation, at our hearts and souls, our conscience. A new youth culture driven by Baby Boomers coming of age, complete with a fresh soundtrack born from the British Invasion and becoming ever more psychedelic, was reshaping society.
1968. It started with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, when the enemy long figured to eventually buckle under the U.S. might carried out guerrilla attacks throughout the country. It led to a ratcheting up of American war efforts, but also let the nation know that the enemy was motivated and capable. That summer, a massacre committed by American soldiers in a village called My Lai would help galvanize public opinion against the war.
While 1967 was deemed the Summer of Love, 1968 was full of rage. The world, especially its youth, took to the streets. Anti-Vietnam war protest, which often turned violent, and civil rights riots were taking place everywhere, turning generations against each other, breaking families apart.
On March 31, President Lyndon Johnson, exasperated by Vietnam, exhausted by the general situation, as old-looking as a 59-year-old could look, gave a televised speech on the war. Before it was over, he dropped this bomb: He would not seek the office again, and wouldn't accept his party's nomination if offered. He was done.
Just days later, on April 4, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights icon, was assassinated in Memphis..
That night, a young senator from New York was in Indianapolis, campaigning to become president. Just as the world had changed, many of his stances had evolved since he'd served as attorney general in his brother's administration just five years before — stances on the Vietnam War, civil rights, and the government's role in addressing poverty. While in Indianapolis, against advice from local police, he spoke in an open location at night, in a black ghetto, breaking the news to many that MLK had been killed. He calmed the crowd by reminding them that his brother had been killed by a white man as well. His bravery, and capability, in the face of potential civil unrest was remarkable. Indianapolis was one of the few major cities in the U.S. that had no significant rioting the night of MLK's death.
It was seemingly one of the few moments when peace and calmness prevailed in 1968.
Two months later, that candidate who spoke so movingly in Indianapolis was himself shot, moments after a speech celebrating winning the California primary. On June 5, Robert F. Kennedy died.
Weeks later was the chaotic Democratic convention in Chicago, complete with televised violent confrontations between police and protestors outside, and journalists getting manhandled inside. The scene helped the more "law and order" Republican Party take a stronger hold on a public tired of the anarchic chaos in the nation.
In August, black American Olympians flashed the black power sign on the platform at the Olympics.
That fall, Richard Nixon rolled to victory over Hubert Humphrey and American Independent candidate George Wallace, who campaign on the wisdom and morality of an apartheid South. Wallace would win five Southern states.
We've had tumultuous years in America, and yes, we are living through such times now. But unless you were alive in 1941-42, you haven't lived through a more tumultuous year than 1968.
Watch the documentary, have your kids over 12 watch it, and learn what we have survived as a nation, to realize just what we can overcome. Today, we too often wonder what might happen, what tweet might ignite this specific news cycle, making us race to our specific tribal television cable networks to learn how to feel about it. Instead, take a moment to learn, or remember, what actually did happen, what chaotic times actually look like.
The program "1968" debuts Sunday, May 27 at 6 p.m. No matter your political leaning, watch it.
By Tony Ahern, publisher