Cover Story

The summer of our discontent

A civil rights hero gunned down, an Ivy League campus shut down, another Kennedy shot, and 1968 turned surreal

Issue: "Summer of '68," Aug. 9, 2008

On an evening in 1968 I leaned over my dad's olive-green armchair, coming into our den at the sound of a special news bulletin, and asked: "What's an assassination?"

With two of my uncles serving in Vietnam, it was normal in our house to center dinner conversation around the television and the evening news. Reports of death and a steady, low-boil anxiety about events in Southeast Asia also were normal. But the bulletin that drew me into the room that cool spring evening was about an event closer to home. In Memphis Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot. The sight on our black-and-white television set of the cordoned balcony at the Lorraine Motel persists in my mind as the first time I remember hearing the word spoken, "assassination," and seeing an ashen shock register across my parents' faces.

The nonviolent movement King had long championed had turned violent as he feared. ("The nation won't listen to our voice. Maybe it will heed the voice of violence," he had said earlier in the year.) He was among its first victims-cut down after a hot shower and shave during daylight hours in a hotel where any one of us could have stayed. The next day violence spread through the black sections of over 60 U.S. cities. There were no cell phones to call and check on friends, business associates, or relatives, and so we waited again for the evening news. In Chicago Mayor Richard Daley issued his infamous "shoot to kill" order for rioters. On April 4 a civil-rights hero died, and the year 1968 turned surreal.

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I was too young to remember President John F. Kennedy's death, but assassination became the word that hung over 1968. National mourning over MLK's death had not ended when Sirhan Sirhan gunned down presidential contender Robert F. Kennedy exactly two months later. Destruction was in the air; in fact, Bobby Kennedy had predicted an attempt on his life sooner or later, "not so much for political reasons, but through contagion, through emulation."

Poet Robert Lowell wrote of RFK, "Doom was woven into your nerves." San Francisco poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote after his assassination, "There is no God but death." Such elegies captured not only the nation's mourning but also the unraveling that described 1968 America before the year was half done. Ground-level anger over civil rights, the war in Vietnam, and Cold War policies made a potent mix for unrest and upheaval as restive baby boomers challenged the status quo, turning campuses into battlegrounds and city streets into militant zones.

"The issue is not the issue," said Mark Rudd, student organizer of the Columbia University sit-ins that began in the spring and continued through the fall. At Columbia black and white student rioters, losing their way, parted ways, as at the Democratic convention in Chicago later that summer liberals and the New Left would have a brutal breakup. Triumph in a prevailing cause, it seemed, actually mattered less than using a cause to smash the prevailing authority structure. And challenging authority ran up the chain of command to God. "We live in a post-Christian world," is how theologian Francis Schaeffer began a series of lectures at Wheaton College in 1968 that would later become the aptly named book, Death in the City.

America was conceived in rebellion. But the abiding motif of the 18th-century revolution consisted of landowners, merchants, and inventors painstakingly building consensus over words on parchment that would become core documents to the founding of a nation. The 1968 rebellion could be summed up in how it could not be summed up. Its emblems were posters-diverse, divisive, multilingual, silk-screened, homemade, or mass distributed:

On campuses in the United States: "U.S. out of SE Asia" and "Cops out of ghetto," or "F*** the draft"

In Mexico: "Venceremos!" ("We shall win!")

In Cuba: "Como Che" (be like Che [Guevara])

In Paris: "Sois Jeune et Tais Tois" ("Be Young and Shut Up")

In Prague: "Democracy at All Costs," "Make Love, Not War"

As spring gave way to summer, MLK's death postponed the Academy Awards ceremony but it was the protesters who closed the Cannes film festival, disrupted the Frankfurt Book Fair, and cut into the Miss America pageant. For a year that began on a Monday and had an extra day in it, there seemed not enough time to get through all the shut-downs, sit-ins, turning on and tuning in and dropping out.

Schaeffer, then dividing time between L'Abri in Switzerland and lectures in the United States, had by 1968 spent over a decade listening to student angst: "In about the first three years of L'Abri all our wedding presents were wiped out. Our sheets were torn. Holes were burned in our rugs . . . drugs came into our place. People vomited in our rooms." Schaeffer had seen enough up close to know that the Now Generation was acting out its loss of meaning in an age too readily defined by plastic and machines. He blamed the church, too, for holding onto formalities while letting go of truth, or running with the world: "Modern man gave up on his rationality in order to hold onto his rationalism."

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