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.
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."
Campus unrest at Columbia University in New York City came to epitomize the irrationality coursing beneath the year. It began with six students and six Harlem residents protesting the school's move to annex land in Harlem to build a gymnasium. It evolved into defiance of administration, and grew to hundreds of students who took over the library and eventually "held hostage" five buildings on campus, forcing the school to close.
As Columbia's protest crowds grew so did its causes-the war in Vietnam, discrimination against not only blacks but also farm workers, the need for co-ed dorms and a new college president. Blacks became disenchanted and broke ranks. Class warfare broke out, noted author Mark Kurlansky in his book 1968: "The police, working-class people, resented these privileged youth who would not support the war that working-class children were fighting."
The fallout: 720 students arrested and 120 charges of police brutality in the spring alone, with more as sit-ins continued into the next school year. Protest organizer Tom Hayden, then 29, claimed the students at Columbia represented the "torment of their campus generation." Barriers to integration were coming down-in 1968 Congress passed the Housing Act to integrate neighborhoods-but not fast enough. The Tet Offensive, begun as surprise attacks in January by North Vietnamese troops, by summer had turned into a rout. Yet media and demonstrators portrayed the United States as losing the war even as the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam reached by summer an all-time high of 549,500. It rankled that their ranks were largely draftees too young to vote (in many states voting rights would not be extended to 18-year-olds until 1971).
As sparks fly upward, the troubles born in 1968 did not have their beginnings or endings in that year alone. The 1965 Supreme Court decision in Griswold v. Connecticut created a right to privacy that tested the borders of sexual freedom in 1968 but culminated in 1972's Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. Tom Hayden went from student uprisings at Columbia to become one of the Chicago Seven, infamously tried (and acquitted) for conspiracy in organizing violent demonstrations at the Democratic convention held in August. By 1972 Hayden had taken his war protests to Hanoi, where he met with North Vietnamese leaders. There a prisoner of war named John McCain refused to appear with Hayden and his camera crew. As a result, the North Vietnamese beat the Navy pilot, who at 31 spent 1968 in solitary confinement, the second of his five-and-a-half years' captivity, and lost 50 pounds.
Decades later the legacy of Vietnam lives on, as every president since has stood accused of blundering the United States into war, no matter how just or measurably successful. Likewise, cultural upheaval extends into the 21st century, with French president Nicolas Sarkozy as recently as 2007 running on a platform to liquidate the legacy of '68.
Back home as the summer drew to its close, Sen. Eugene McCarthy ran on a "winds of change" slogan and went into the August convention the favored anti-war candidate. But the Democratic party turned sour on the protests outside, where the National Guard stepped in to restore order. Delegates inserted support for the war in the party platform and nominated pro-war, anti-protest Hubert Humphrey as their candidate. (Humphrey had not won a primary; thereafter, party rules changed in ways felt through the 2008 primary season.) Even The Beatles seemed to turn against demonstrators, who interpreted the song "Revolution" on the 1968 White Album as a rebuff.
Later the organizers of the Chicago protests admitted that the unrest surrounding the Democratic convention probably most helped the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon. Nixon won the 1968 elections by 0.7 percent of the popular vote, and turnout was a feeble 60 percent. The summer was over. But America would never be the same.
Jan. 15: 5,000 women calling themselves the Jeannette Rankin Brigade and claiming "Sisterhood is Powerful" march on Washington to demand an end to the Vietnam War.
Jan. 16: Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin formally found the Youth International Party-better known as the Yippies. The New Left group organizes demonstrations all year, culminating at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Jan. 23: Students wanting to distribute a revised Lord's Prayer denouncing capitalism disrupt the sermon and assault Nazi survivor and Lutheran pastor Helmut Thielicke after he calls for support from West German police in Hamburg.
Jan. 31: Televised coverage of the Tet Offensive in South Vietnam begins to shift public opinion against the war.
Feb. 1: American photographer Eddie Adams captures on film South Viet-namese Police Chief Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan in Saigon shooting a Viet Cong prisoner in the head.
Feb. 8: Police officers fire into a crowd protesting the segregation of a bowling alley in Orangeburg, S.C., killing three and injuring 27.
Feb. 27: CBS News correspondent Walter Cronkite's pessimistic report on the Vietnam War spawns increased media criticism of U.S. policy in Southeast Asia.
Feb. 29: After studying the widespread 1967 race riots, the Kerner Commission releases its report, concluding that the United States "is moving toward two societies, one black, one white-separate and unequal."
March 8: Protesting unequal conditions in the Los Angeles Unified School District, an estimated 15,000 students stage the Chicano Blowouts-the largest high-school protest in U.S. history.
March 16: U.S. troops slaughter 500 unarmed Vietnam civilians-mostly women and children-in the My Lai Massacre, prompting worldwide outrage.
March 19-23: Students at Howard University stage rallies and a five-day sit-in, shutting down the school in protest over its program and demanding a more Afrocentric curriculum.
March 24: Yippies take over New York's Grand Central Station, turning a "be-in" into a militant anti-war demonstration.
March 31: President Lyndon Johnson appears on television to announce: "I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party as your president."
April 4: James Earl Ray assassinates Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, sparking riots in major cities across the country.
April 6: A shootout between Oakland, Calif., police and Black Panther leaders leaves several dead, including 16-year-old Panther Bobby Hutton.
April 11: Johnson signs the Fair Housing Act, also known as the "Civil Rights Act of 1968," outlawing racial and gender discrimination in public facilities and prohibiting discrimination based on race, religion, or national origin when selling, renting, or financing a home.
April 23: Students at Columbia University begin a weeklong occupation of administration buildings. It concludes violently with New York police arresting more than 700 students and the school closing. Demonstrations began again in May when the school suspended five student organizers, and again in the fall.
April 29: Anti-war musical Hair opens on Broadway.
May 17: The Catonsville Nine take dozens of draft records from the Selective Service Office in Catonsville, Md., and burn them with napalm to protest the draft and Vietnam War.
June 5: Sirhan Sirhan shoots Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, the expected Democratic candidate for president, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles; Kennedy dies the next day.
July 23: In what was called the Glenville Shootout, Fred (Ahmed) Evans and his militant group engage in a fierce gunfight with police in Cleveland, Ohio.
Aug. 5-8: The Republican National Convention nominates Richard Nixon for president in Miami Beach, Fla.
Aug. 7: Singer James Brown records "Say It Loud-I'm Black and I'm Proud," which becomes the unofficial anthem of the Black Power movement.
Aug. 20: Soviet tanks invade Czechoslovakia and occupy the Eastern Bloc country following months of pro-democracy street demonstrations. By September 72 Czechs are killed and over 700 wounded.
Aug. 26-29: In the midst of anti-war protests and rioting, the Democratic National Convention nominates Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the former senator from Minnesota.
Oct. 16: As the national anthem plays, U.S. track team medal winners and world record holders Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise black-gloved hands in a symbol of Black Power, a planned gesture at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City that gets them expelled from the remainder of the Games.
Dec. 21: Liftoff of Apollo 8, whose three-man crew circled the moon 70 miles above its surface on Christmas Day. The mission also sent back the first photographic images of Earth.
Dec. 23: The surviving 82 crew members of the USS Pueblo are released 11 months after North Koreans seized the ship in international waters and accused its crew of spying. Crew members were held in POW camps and the ship continues to be held by North Korea.
Dec. 25: President Johnson approves an airlift of aid to Biafra, a breakaway republic in Nigeria where persistent fighting and humanitarian disaster eventually lead to the starvation deaths of about 1 million Nigerians and birthed the French relief group Doctors Without Borders.
-compiled by Kristin Chapman and Mindy Belz