Yesterday was the observance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. I caught a PBS special on TV last night about the life of the civil rights leader. It made me think of the tumultuous year that was 1968. I was not even a thought in my parents’ head. My parents did not even meet until 1973. But the 60’s have always intrigued me from a historical perspective, particularly the year of 1968.
At the dawn of the year, the country found itself engulfed in the Vietnam War. There were those who were fighting the war in Vietnam, those who were fighting the fighting of the war in Vietnam, and those who were too old to be called up and too old to protest. However, it was obvious. The war had divided the country.
On January 5th, Dr. Benjamin Spock; William Sloan Coffin the chaplain of Yale University; novelist Mitchell Goodman; Michael Ferber, a graduate student at Harvard; and Marcus Raskin, a peace activist were indicted on charges of conspiracy to encourage violations of the draft laws by a grand jury in Boston. The charges were the result of actions taken at a protest rally the previous October at the Lincoln Memorial. The four were convicted and Raskin acquitted on June 14th. The division over the war went deep. Both intellectuals and the workingman were convinced of each side.
Five days later, the war reached a landmark. The 10,000th plane was lost over Vietnam. Seven days after this, President Johnson delivered his State of the Union address, just like President Bush will do tonight. He said in that speech, “There is no mystery about the questions which must be answered before the bombing is stopped.” At the end of the first month of 1968, the Tet Offensive begins. Nearly 70,000 North Vietnamese troops took part in this broad action, taking the battle from the jungles to the cities. The offensive carried on for weeks and was seen as a major turning point for the American attitude toward the war. At 2:45 that morning the US embassy in Saigon was invaded and held until 9:15AM.
The first day of February found a South Vietnamese security official captured on film executing a Viet Cong prisoner by American photographer Eddie Adams. The Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph became yet another rallying point for anti-war protestors. Despite later claims that the prisoner had been accused of murdering a Saigon police officer and his family, the image seems to call into question everything claimed and assumed about the American allies, the South Vietnamese. The next day, Richard Nixon entered the New Hampshire Primary declaring his candidacy for President.
Two days later, Martin Luther King delivered a sermon that sounded a great deal like his eulogy. He said, “I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody… that I tried to love and serve humanity,.. Yes, if you want to, say that I was a drum major for peace… for righteousness.”
Three days later, on February 7th, international reporters arrived at the embattled city of Ben Tre in South Vietnam. Peter Arnett, then of the Associated Press, wrote a dispatch quoting an unnamed US major as saying, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” The quote ran nationwide the next day in Arnett’s report. Eleven days later, The US State Department announced the highest US casualty toll of the Vietnam War. The previous week saw 543 Americans killed in action, and 2547 wounded. This was followed on the 27th by a Walter Cronkite report on the Tet Offensive that was highly critical of US officials and directly contradicts official statements on the progress of the war. After listing Tet and several other current military operations as “draw[s]” and chastising American leaders for their optimism, Cronkite advises negotiation “…not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”
The month of March saw the headlines shift from the war to politics. The Eugene McCarthy campaign, benefiting from the work of 2,000 full-time student volunteers and up to 5,000 on the weekends immediately preceding the vote comes within 230 votes of defeating the sitting president Lyndon Johnson during the New Hampshire Primary. These students, participants in what McCarthy referred to as his “children’s crusade” had cut their hair, modified their wardrobes, and become “clean for Gene” to contact the conservative voters in the state. Four days later, Senator Robert Kennedy, former Attorney General and brother of former president John F. Kennedy, ends months of debate by announcing that he will enter the 1968 Presidential race. On the same day, U.S. ground troops from Charlie Company rampage through the hamlet of My Lai killing more than 500 Vietnamese civilians from infants to the elderly. The massacre continued for three hours until three American fliers intervened, positioning their helicopter between the troops and the fleeing Vietnamese and eventually carrying a handful of wounded to safety. Five days later, Antonin Novotny resigns the Czech presidency setting off alarm bells in Moscow. The next day leaders of five Warsaw Pact countries met in Dresden, East Germany to discuss the crisis. Six days later, Martin Luther King Jr. lead a march in Memphis that turned violent. After King himself had been led from the scene one 16 year old black boy was killed, 60 people were injured, and over 150 arrested.
But huge news came at the very end of March on the 31st, when President Johnson made a startling announcement: “So, tonight, in the hope that this action will lead to early talks, I am taking the first step to deescalate the conflict. We are reducing–substantially reducing–the present level of hostilities. And we are doing so unilaterally, and at once.” And: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”
Five days later, on April 4th, Martin Luther King Jr. spent the day at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis working and meeting with local leaders on plans for his Poor People’s March on Washington to take place late in the month. At 6pm, as he greeted the car and friends in the courtyard, King was shot with one round from a 30.06 rifle. He was declared dead just an hour later at St. Joseph’s hospital. After an international manhunt James Earl Ray was arrested on June 27 in England, and convicted of the murder. Ray died in prison in 1998. Robert Kennedy, hearing of the murder just before he is to give a speech in Indianapolis, IN, delivers a powerful extemporaneous eulogy in which he pleads with the audience “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”
The King assassination sparks rioting in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, Newark, Washington, D.C., and many others. Across the country 46 deaths will be blamed on the riots.
One week later, the war again takes the headlines. United States Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford called 24,500 military reserves to action for 2-year commitments, and announced a new troop ceiling of 549,500 American soldiers in Vietnam. The total number of Americans “in country” would peak at some 541,000 in August this year, and declined to 334,000 by 1970. Twelve days later, a rally and occupation of the Low administrative office building at Columbia University, planned to protest the university’s participation in the Institute for Defense Analysis is scuttled by conservative students and university security officers. The demonstrators marched to the site of a proposed new gymnasium at Morningside Heights to stage a protest in support of neighbors who use the site for recreation. The action eventually resulted in the occupation of five buildings – Hamilton, Low, Fairweather and Mathematics halls, and the Architecture building. It culminated seven days later when police stormed the buildings and violently removed the students and their supporters at the Columbia administration’s request.
On May 3rd, The US and North Vietnamese delegations agreed to begin peace talks in Paris later that month. The formal talks began on May 10th, but not before “Bloody Monday” marks one of the most violent days of the Parisian student revolt on May 6th. Five thousand students marched through the Latin Quarter with support from the student union and the instructors’ union. Reports of the ensuing riot conflict, either the police charge unprovoked, or demonstrators harassed them with thrown stones. The fighting was intense with rioters setting up barricades and the police attacking with gas grenades. Over-night the battles subsided, but only after the sympathies of large numbers of French unionists were engaged. One week later, the actions taken by the students and instructors at the Sorbonne inspired sympathetic strikes throughout France. As many as nine million workers went on strike by May 22. President de Gaulle took action to shore up governmental power, making strident radio addresses and authorizing large movements of military troops within the country. These shows of force eventually dissipated the French revolutionary furor.
Two days earlier, Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King Jr.’s designated successor, and the Southern Christian Leadership Corps were granted a permit for an encampment on the Mall in Washington, DC. Eventually, despite nearly a solid month of rain, over 2,500 people will eventually occupy Resurrection City. On June 24th the site is raided by police, 124 occupants arrested, and the encampment demolished.
The headlines of June were that of assassination attempts. Valerie Solanis, a struggling actress, and writer, shot Andy Warhol in his New York City loft on June 3rd but Warhol survived. The next day, on the night of the California Primary, Robert Kennedy addressed a large crowd of supporters at the Ambassador Hotel in San Francisco. He had won victories in California and South Dakota and was confident that his campaign would go on to unite the many factions stressing the country. As he left the stage, at 12:13AM on the morning of the 5th, Kennedy was shot by Sirhan Sirhan, a 24-year-old Jordanian living in Los Angeles. The motive for the shooting is apparently anger at several pro-Israeli speeches Kennedy had made during the campaign. The forty-two year old Kennedy died in the early morning of June 6th. Two days later, Robert Kennedy’s funeral was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. Senator Edward Kennedy, the youngest brother of John and Robert delivered the eulogy. After the service, the body and 700 guests departed on a special train for the burial at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
Almost three weeks later, Ludvik Vaculik released his manifesto “Two Thousand Words”. This essay, criticizing Communist rule in Czechoslovakia and concluded with an overt threat to “foreign forces” trying to control the government of the country was seen as a direct challenge to the Soviet Administration who extended ongoing military exercises in the country, and began planning for their invasion later in the summer. The next day, President Johnson signs a bill adding a 10 percent surcharge to income taxes and reducing U.S. government spending. The president effectively admits it has been impossible to provide both “guns and butter.”
The month of July was relatively quiet, but August erupts on the 8th with the nomination of Richard Nixon to be the presidential candidate at the Republican Party convention in Miami Beach. The next day Nixon appointed Spiro Agnew of Maryland as his running mate. Nelson Rockefeller of New York, and Ronald Reagan of California had challenged Nixon in his campaign. Twelve days later, the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia with over 200,000 Warsaw pact troops, putting an end to the “Prague Spring,” and beginning a period of enforced and oppressive “normalization.” Six days later, Mayor Richard Daley opens the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. While the convention moves haltingly toward nominating Hubert Humphrey for president, the city’s police attempted to enforce an 11 o’clock curfew. On that Monday night demonstrations were widespread, but generally peaceful. The next two days, however, brought increasing tension and violence to the situation. By most accounts, on Wednesday evening Chicago police took action against crowds of demonstrators without provocation. The police beat some marchers unconscious and send at least 100 to emergency rooms while arresting 175. Mayor Daley tried the next day to explain the police action at a press conference. He famously explained: “The policeman isn’t there to create disorder, the policeman is there to preserve disorder.” Twenty-eight years later, when the Democrats next held a convention in Chicago, some police officers still on the force wore t-shirts proclaiming, “We kicked their father’s butt in ’68 and now it’s your turn.”
Humphrey kicked off his campaign on September 1st at New York City’s Labor Day parade. Six days later, Women’s Liberation groups, joined by members of New York NOW, targeted the Miss America Beauty Contest in Atlantic City. The protest included theatrical demonstrations including ritual disposal of traditional female roles into the “freedom ashcan.” While nothing was actually set on fire, one organizer’s comment – quoted in the New York Times the next day – that the protesters “wouldn’t do anything dangerous, just a symbolic bra-burning,” lives on in the derogatory term “bra-burning feminist.”
On October 2nd, Police and military troops in Mexico City reacted violently to yet another student – led protest in Tlatelolco Square. Hundreds of the demonstrators are killed or injured. The next day, George Wallace, who had been running an independent campaign for the presidency which has met significant support in the South and the Midwest, names retired Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis E. LeMay to be his running mate. At the press conference, the general is asked about his position on the use of nuclear weapons, and responds: “I think most military men think it’s just another weapon in the arsenal… I think there are many times when it would be most efficient to use nuclear weapons. … I don’t believe the world would end if we exploded a nuclear weapon.” Just over a week later, Apollo 7 was launched from Florida for an eleven-day journey, which will orbit the Earth 163 times. The next day, The Summer Olympic Games opened in Mexico City. The games had been boycotted by 32 African nations in protest of South Africa’s participation. On the 18th, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, US athletes and medallists in the 200-meter dash further disrupted the games by performing the black power salute during the “Star-Spangled Banner” at their medal ceremony. Two days after that fiasco, Jacqueline Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis, a Greek shipping magnate on the private island of Skorpios. On Halloween, President Johnson announced a total halt to US bombing in North Vietnam.
Election day finally arrived on November 5th and the winner by a nose was Richard Nixon capturing 43.4% of the total vote. Nixon’s administration inherited a nation still torn by war, but closer to peace that it was a year ago. As a matter of fact, just three weeks later, after stalling for months, the South Vietnamese government agrees to join in the Paris peace talks. As bleak as it seemed though, there was some good news. The nation’s unemployment rate was the lowest it had been in fifteen years and Apollo 8 launched to begin the first U.S. mission to orbit the moon. The books closed on 1968, but not before a great civil rights leader had died, a Presidential candidate had died; an artist had been shot, war had continued, had been protested, and virtually halted. A new President had been elected and had inherited a divided but healing nation. 1969 dawned and the 70’s were yet to come.
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