August 31, 2020 – A strange parallel exists for the years 1968 and 2020. Much was written two years ago for the 50th anniversary of that seminal year, marked by assassinations, upheaval in the streets, and a contentious presidential election.
Our grandparents bought us a new RCA Victor color television set for Christmas 1967. The set had four legs and a 26-inch screen. Television programs on the three networks began broadcasting in 1965. How excited we were to watch The Flintstones and The Jetsons in living color!
The excitement was short-lived. In January, the North Vietnamese began escalating the war in Vietnam with what would later be known as the Tet Offensive. In just two days at the end of the month, 232 American GIs were killed as the Communists took over Saigon.
Our family watched Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on the NBC news each night. For the first time, we saw the brutality and blood of this unpopular war, all in “living color,” as proclaimed by the NBC peacock.
Anti-war protestors marched in the streets in many cities and college campuses, especially after the “My Lai ma
ssacre,” where ground troops from Charlie Company killed about 500 Vietnamese villagers, on a tip that Viet Cong was in the area.
Several weeks later, Lyndon Baines Johnson announced on a nationally-televised evening speech, “I shall not seek nor will I accept your nomination for President.”
Four days after this speech, Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis. He was visiting the city to support a sanitation worker’s strike and shot and killed by James Earl Ray. Rage rose throughout the country. In Indianapolis, the capital city of my state, Robert Kennedy spoke to the crowds who came into the streets after the assassination of King. Kennedy’s healing words likely kept the protests from becoming riots.
RFK made several trips to Indiana for the May primary. On one trip, his motorcade traveled up to Indiana 9 from Indianapolis. For reasons unknown, the motorcade pulled over near Duck-Creek Boone Elementary School in rural Madison County. My husband, a fifth-grader, and his classmates shook hands with Robert Kennedy. Kennedy was shot the night of his victory in the California primary, in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel. He died the next morning, June 6.
With Kennedy out of the race, Hubert Humphrey, the current vice president for LBJ, moved forward as a candidate. According to a reporter from New York Magazine, Humphrey was approached personally by Anatoly Dobrygin, the Soviet ambassador to the United States, with an offer of support in his campaign.
From the magazine, “In 1968, Moscow feared that the staunchly anti-communist Richard M. Nixon would be elected. To forestall that, the Kremlin decided to reach out to Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Hubert H. Humphrey. As Anatoly Dobrygin, the Soviet ambassador to the United States from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan, revealed in his memoir, “In Confidence,” two decades ago: “The top Soviet leaders took an extraordinary step, unprecedented in the history of Soviet-American relations, by secretly offering Humphrey any conceivable help in his election campaign — including financial aid.”
The Republican in the race, former Vice President to Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s, was Richard M. Nixon, who ran on the “law and order” ticket. With Nixon’s election came a new breed of Republicans, those elected through the “southern strategy,” a successful attempt to wean southerners away from traditional Democratic leanings. Many southerners were unhappy with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and began to vote Republican. During his campaign, Nixon refused a query about how he would handle the war, stating that any comments on his part might undermine the current president.
The Democratic convention in Chicago was upstaged by violence outside its doors. Thousand of college students and anti-war protestors came to the Windy City, only to be met by Mayor Richard Dailey’s violent police response. The TV screen was filled each night with bloody scenes, as groups like the yippies, the Black Panthers, and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) marched in the streets against the war.
I remember the convention clearly as if it happened yesterday. Because it was in Chicago, only a few hours from home and a place we frequently visited, it felt close. Humphrey was ultimately chosen, only to be defeated by a jubilant Nixon, likely because of the war in Vietnam. (History tells us that Nixon didn’t cut back on the war and that his “Vietnamization plans” and peace talks were ineffective. Many more young men would lose their lives before the fight ultimately ended years later.)
Two young medal winners at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Tommy Smith, and John Carlos, were thrown off the U.S. Olympic team after bowing their heads and raising a black-gloved fist (the Black Power symbol). Their silent October protest, which today might be seen differently, made them heroes in the black community and shunned by everyone else.
If Americans watched evening television in the 1960s, most were limited to three network channels. My family lived in a rural area served by the UHF band and three network channels. No PBS channels existed yet. And our service depended on a functioning antenna, stuck high on the roof of our home. So, we watched political speeches, the conventions, and the Olympics, and we would watch the election night coverage when Nixon beat Humphrey.
Finally, though many people don’t even remember it, there was a pandemic. The “Hong Kong” flu was derived from the Type the flu that still sickens many people each winter. More than 100,000 Americans died.
Fifty-two years later, cable and streaming offer watchers multiple options. Americans don’t view the same three voices I heard as a child., ABC, NBC, and CBS. Though the year 1968 may offer parallels to our current year, we perceive our current year through entirely different lenses and many more voices.
So many terrible things happened in 1968, and many naive American eyes were opened by witnessing violent activities and their aftermath. Yet, for many Americans of color, this did not represent a change. Persons of color had experienced Jim Crow, the burning of Tulsa, and the Colfax riots, and lynchings, and horrendous injustice. Just this week, the New York Times featured the Colfax events in Louisiana. In 1873, 150 men were murdered by a militia, ignoring the 13th and 14th Amendments and the Civil Rights law of 1866.
The years offer parallels, but what lessons can we learn? Does violence accomplish anything but beget more violence? I must admit I’m terrified as we move into the last third of the year, as our discourse and actions become more unhinged. I was 11 years old, a fifth-grader in 1968, and now I’m a near-senior, retired, and white-headed, still watching “in living color.”
I can’t look into a crystal ball and predict what the future will hold. But, by looking at the past, we can gauge some clues. Today we look at the Vietnam War period as a blemish on our history, an unnecessary war where 55,000 primarily middle class and poor Americans lost their lives. The “law and order” president ended up resigning, and many of his aides and assistants went to prison.
I remember one more moment about 1968, another television program where the world came together. But, this time, it wasn’t to watch bloody American carnage. On Christmas Eve 1968, Apollo 8 astronaut read from the Bible, the Book of Genesis, as he looked back toward the earth, on a trip around the moon.
To see the earth as Borman and his crew, William Anders and Jim Lovell must have been a fantastic, life-changing scene. And due to technology, we who are earth-bound shared in the glorious moment. Years later, in Florida at a hospital fundraising event, I heard Lovell speak of his gratitude that he was on that trip. He describe the emotions and the colors of seeing earth from where no man had seen our blue planet, frp, 180,000 miles away.
For the 11-year-old viewer, watching on the RCA color television, the view of earth from above was mesmerizing. Do you remember? Did you watch it live? Did you feel the smallness of our blue orb and the largeness of the universe? Did you feel more connected to fellow earth-riders? I did, and I never looked at the world the same again. Today we have the Hubble telescope, and we can see universes beyond universes, but in 1968 Borman’s “Earth Rising” meant for the first time, the world saw itself as it is. In our living room, we have a poster made from a Hubble picture, of endless stars stretching into an endless universe and universes beyond.
Can we see ourselves today as we are? Can we honestly look at our planet and know that we’ve done our best? Think about these things as you cast your vote in the presidential election. What will you leave for your children and grandchildren?
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I wish you all peace and comfort. And if you aren’t a frontline worker, you can support them or others. Send a note, send an email, call an old friend, and donate to your local food bank.