40 years ago
by Bruce Rodgers
On April 3 King returned to Memphis to try again and was greeted by a sarcastic and ridiculing press corps. On the evening of April 4 he was resting in his hotel, preparing his next week’s sermon titled “America May Go to Hell,” when he was shot in the right side of the face. He died minutes later.
Other descriptions of the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968 may recount the tragedy differently than Mark Kurlansky’s 2004 book, 1968 The Year That Rocked the World. But what is known is America lost a great leader, that the hatred America displays against those seeking justice easily finds its expression in violence.
A well-worn cliché goes “If you remember the sixties, you weren’t there.” As clichés go, it’s pretty much passé after 40 years, especially considering that Kurlansky was there (along with this writer) as 1968 so proves. What he remembers and writes about is a year filled with anger, shock, bewilderment, bloodshed and change — some permanent, some fleeting. At the time, to those engulfed by moment, the oneness shared was not serendipitous but visceral. As Kurlansky writes in the Introduction:
What was unique about 1968 was that people were rebelling over disparate issues and had in common only that desire to rebel, ideas about how to do it, a sense of alienation from the established order, and a profound distaste for authoritarianism in any form.
Appropriately, Kurlansky begins the book in January 1968. A short ceasefire takes effect in Vietnam, announced by the Viet Cong. Charles de Gaulle still governs France. Liberal Republican John Lindsay is mayor of New York City. As the year opens, Kurlansky writes that 1968 would be the year in which “Negroes” became “blacks.”
Thirteen-year-old Bruce Brennan, involved in the peace movement, is charged with truancy. A Gallup poll released Jan. 2, 1968 revealed that 45 percent believed it was a mistake to have gotten involved in Vietnam. Ronald Reagan is governor of California. Nigeria remained mired in a civil war as Biafrans sought their own territory and identity.
Legend has it that Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin formed the Youth International Party while smoking pot in an apartment in Greenwich Village in early January 1968. Generalissimo Francisco Franco still ruled Spain. Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban calls on Arabs of the Middle East to negotiate peace with Israel. Like the words black and Yippie!, Palestinian first entered the popular vocabulary in 1968, writes Kurlansky.
As the early months cascade onward, Bob Dylan reemerges after a year and a half to release John Wesley Harding. The British government bemoans a loss of sales taxes based on the length of skirts because of the popularity of miniskirts. Muriel Siebert becomes the first woman to hold a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. The Cuban Revolution under Fidel Castro marks its ninth anniversary. In Czechoslovakia, Alexander Dubcek elevates to first secretary of the Party.
In 1968, Kurlansky reminds those of us there then that America was not the center of the world. He takes the reader through Dubcek’s stumbles in guiding the “Velvet Revolution” in Czechoslovakia, and the hapless American and European response to Soviet tanks entering Prague. A brutal crackdown is also applied to Poland where protesting students were labeled Zionists and police opened their interrogations by declaring, “You are Jew.”
By the Spring of 1968, Kurlansky writes, college demonstrations had become such a commonplace event in the United States, with some thirty schools a month erupting, that even high schools and junior highs were joining in.
At Columbia University in New York City, SDS (Students for Democratic Society) radical, 20-year-old Mark Rudd, becomes the face of student protest, beamed by television across the world. Leftist students and trade unionists in France, Germany and Spain organize and take to the streets. The names Daniel Cohen-Bendit and "Rudi the Red" join with Rudd, Tom Hayden, Stokely Carmichael and others in denouncing The Establishment.
On the evening of June 4, 1968, beaming to supporters in a hotel after winning the California Democratic Primary, Bobby Kennedy said, “And now it’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there.”
Minutes later he was shot in the head, strangely while taking an unplanned shortcut through the kitchen because admirers had blocked the planned exit path, writes Kurlansky.
With King’s faith in nonviolence and brotherhood, and Kennedy’s embrace of justice and love, and both men’s pursue of peace, idealism vaporized among those still clinging to the hope that the system was worth saving.
In August, those seeking revolution descend upon Chicago, site of the 1968 Democratic Convention. Facing the young hordes was Mayor Richard Daley, and as Kurlansky writes, There was absolutely no circumstance, no deal, no arrangement, by which Daley was going to allow a bunch of hippies to march through "his" neighborhood.
The next month, on Sept. 7, the New York Radical Women, led by Robin Morgan, gathered on the sidewalk in front of where the Miss America pageant was being held and crowned a sheep. Morgan and other protesters insisted that they would only talk to women reporters, which in 1968 were not commonplace. Relates Kurlansky, September 7, 1968 is often given as the date that modern feminism was launched.
In his book, Kurlansky doesn’t attempt to bring a scholarly interpretation to the events of 1968. But he has an historian’s feel for the time, helped along by the fact he was there. His organization and introduction of events in the book roughly follow the months of the year; the personalities involved feed the dramatic effortlessly and Kurlansky doesn’t let his narrative overly embellish the extraordinary happenings of that year.
For those alive and mindful of 1968, reading 1968 The Year That Rocked the World doesn’t bring on a rush of remembrances, of knowing precisely “where I was at…” when this or that event happened. Instead, it reinforces the feeling of what was gained and lost in the 40 years hence. And it seems in many ways, more was lost than gained.
His book also instinctively draws comparisons to today, particularly how the young feel about their lives in the midst of corporatism and overreaching technology.
Kurlansky credits four historic factors for making 1968 the year it was: the civil rights movement, a generation that rejected authority, a war and television — the new ability to transport images around the world.
In 2008, the civil rights movement, one could argue, remains in the hands of the generation that established it. Not unexpectedly, America has fooled itself into another quagmire of a war. Television has evolved into the Internet and the speed and ubiquitous nature of communication has expanded tremendously.
And to me, the youth are again waiting to rebel…hopefully.
But as Kurlansky reminds the reader: Of course, one of the great lessons of 1968 was that when people try to change the world, other people who feel a vested interest in keeping the world the way it is will stop at nothing to silence them.
Bruce Rodgers can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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