Where were you?
There are certain events in U.S. history which are so dramatic that citizens have a shared memory --- enabling them to answer the question: Where were you when . . . ? For my parents it was Pearl Harbor and then V-E & V-J Days. For my generation it was the JFK assassination. For younger generations it was the Challenger explosion and, of course, 9/11.
On the Smithsonian Institute’s website 1968 is referred to as “The Year that Shattered America.” The sub-head reads: “The nation is still reckoning with the changes that came in that fateful year.” Fifty-five years ago. About 75% of the U.S. population was born after 1965 so 1968 is history --- and, in many cases, distant (“ancient?”) history.
Let me briefly summarize some of the major events of that year.
The War in Vietnam dominated the news. In February, the Tet Offensive hit the headlines and accelerated the protests against the war. Throughout the year marches, draft-card burning, campus unrest & building takeovers (Columbia University in NYC, most famously) began to move public opinion against the war. The Kerner Commission Report about race-relations was released (declaring “we are moving toward two societies --- one white, one black --- separate and unequal”) and civil rights protests --- with its attendant violence (particularly against the Black Panther Party) --- increased as the year went on. Other highlights included Richard Nixon’s nomination for the presidency by the Republican Party and the “police riot” at the Democratic Convention in Chicago as well as the Mexico City Olympics where Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists from the winner’s podium as the national anthem played. We also had Shirley Chisholm elected to Congress as the first Black woman in U.S. history. 1968 was also the year Yale University announced that it would begin admitting women. All memorable events, indeed, and all still resonating --- in good ways and bad --- in today’s society.
There were three specific events which resonate for me, particularly regarding the “Where were you?” question: Lyndon Johnson’s announcement he would not seek re-election (March 31), Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination (April 4), and Robert Kennedy’s assassination (June 5). All three events are inextricably related in my memory and, in retrospect, combined to shape my life going forward. I’m not sure that’s necessarily true for my peers but I’m guessing at the very least, most 73/74 year old’s can tell you where they were when they heard the news about at least one of those events. I know exactly where I was in all three cases.
For two of the events --- the LBJ announcement and the news of MLK’s assassination --- I was where I had spent an inordinate amount of time: 68 Vanderbilt Hall on Yale’s Old Campus in New Haven. It was spring of freshman year, and I lived in 69 Vanderbilt Hall but spent a great deal of time next door, where Steve Dillon had a “portable’ black-and-white television --- rabbit ears and all. Ten of us lived on the 4th floor of Vanderbilt, overlooking the semi-circular driveway courtyard and Chapel Street (where ambulances seemed to blare 24/7 headed up to St. Raphael’s hospital). Steve’s roommate, the late Bruce “Boat” Macmurdo and I had become particularly close, having played “A-League” intramural and New Haven City League basketball together that winter (we also learned to juggle, too). We spent a lot of time playing gin rummy and watching the news on Steve’s tv that spring and were camped in front of the tube when LBJ came on and announced: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president." Johnson declared he would dedicate himself to ending the war in Vietnam and opened the door for Richard Nixon and his Silent Majority/Southern Strategy (the direct ancestor to Donald Trump and his aggrieved white supremacist/conspiracy addicted followers). I remember being dumbfounded --- with all of us looking at one another and asking, “Did we just really hear that?” By the spring of 1968 most of us were opposed to the war, happy to have student deferments, and hoping the war would be over by the time we graduated (it wasn’t). But the image of LBJ on that little black-and-white screen making that announcement is still vividly clear in my memory (caveat: it may be entirely different in the memories of Dillon, Moyer, Hazard, Cech, Deutsch and any others who may have been there!).
The MLK assassination was more shocking, of course, but the setting was the same. We were watching the tv in 68 Vanderbilt when a “News Flash” interrupted the 7:00 p.m. news and announced King had been shot. Within the hour, he was dead. He was there in Memphis in support of the sanitation workers strike (which started in February and was yet another case of discriminatory practices & violent action by government agencies against Black people) and had delivered his “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech the night before, prophetically (and eerily):
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!
The clip of that speech was run time and again over the next few days --- and I’m sure it was shown that night, too. Having already lived through JFK’s assassination, this seemed more than a cruel joke --- and it was within a week of LBJ’s announcement. The words from Yeats’s “The Second Coming” reverberated:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Those words ring all too true today.
Finally, there was RFK’s assassination on June 5th. Having completed my freshman year, I was home working my summer job as an apprentice carpenter, framing houses on Long Island. Before leaving New Haven, I had already become a volunteer in Bobby Kennedy’s campaign (he announced on March 16th . . . . which may have contributed to LBJ’s backing out --- particularly after Eugene McCarthy had garnered 42% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary on March 12th). RFK was gaining momentum and a victory in California’s primary could propel him to the nomination. He edged out McCarthy in California and, immediately after his victory speech was shot by Sirhan Sirhan, sending the Democratic party into disarray and all but guaranteeing Nixon’s ultimate victory in November. It was a shattering moment for the nation, and for me. Even though Kennedy’s assassination occurred around midnight, West Coast time, I was in my parent’s house in Bay Shore (N.Y.) --- wide awake and watching Walter Cronkite’s coverage on CBS, excited about RFK’s chances. In one moment, all my hopes were dashed and the deep cynicism I hold for U.S. politics to this day can be traced to the spring of 1968.
“The nation is still reckoning with the changes that came in that fateful year.”
There is no doubt that we are “still reckoning” with the events that occurred 55 years ago. As we watch the first former president be criminally charged, those who are a certain age remember what led to the ascendence of a president who should have been criminally charged. As we watch the continued violence against Black citizens, we remember the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. Living in the wake of senseless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan we can see, clearly, that “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” (Winston Churchill). Politicians in this country, more interested in maintaining their privileged positions of power, consistently ignore history and the will of the people (witness: the pro-choice/abortion polls and the actions of state legislatures). Who knows when the “Where were you . . . “question will emerge next (Trump’s first conviction?). Let’s only hope that we can, somehow, learn something as we move forward and begin to see that arc of history bend more toward justice and equality.