Last week we marked the 40th anniversary of the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. It hardly seems possible that 40 years have passed since that terrible year of 1968. A few Sundays ago Tom Brokaw had a special on the History Channel that documented Dr. King’s life and the history of the Civil Rights movement. It was an excellent program, and I recommend you watch it if it is aired again. Also recently was a special on MSNBC called “Meet David Wilson” followed by a discussion about race relations. I recommend that as well if it is ever rerun.
For those of us who lived during that turbulent time of the late 1960s, the program brings back some unpleasant memories. I still remember seeing those images on the nightly news with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley during the late 1950s and early 1960s: The fire hoses knocking down peaceful demonstrators like bowling pins. The police dogs attacking American citizens who were exercising their constitutional rights of free speech and assembly. The police indiscriminately beating people with their night sticks, and hauling them away to jail.
I remember watching all this on TV and thinking that these news reports seemed more like scenes from some foreign country. This couldn’t be happening in the good old US of A, land of the free and home of the brave. Watching Brokaw’s TV special brought to mind other events of 1968, a year in which the country seemed to be coming apart at the seams.
Just think for a minute of all that happened in that one year, 1968:
• Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were both killed by assassins;
• There were widespread riots in many American cities, large and small;
• The intelligence-gathering ship USS Pueblo was captured by N Korea, and its crew was held prisoner for months;
• There were riots and police brutality at the Democratic national convention in Chicago;
• There was the student takeover and shutting down of Columbia University;
• In Vietnam there was the Tet offensive, the My Lai massacre, and continuing bad news;
• The Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia, creating fear of a major war;
• And of course there were the war protests, divisions along many lines, feminist demonstrations, high rates of crime in our cities, the Black Power movement emerging, and a general sense of hopelessness and despair. I know I felt the country was spinning out of control. Moreover, our country had been humiliated by the North Koreans and the Viet Cong, making us look impotent to the whole world.
In 1968 the nation was deeply divided, with an unpopular war and an unpopular president. I vividly remember the evening when Johnson announced he wouldn’t run for re-election – I was thrilled. The unpopular war and president sounds a little like today, but I think a unique combination of events made 1968 one of the worst years in American history. In the midst of all that chaos, something good did happen in 1968 – my wife and I got married.
Let’s hope that we never have another year in the United States like 1968.