This post appeared previously in The Finger Lakes Times(NY): http://www.fltimes.com/opinion/denim-spirit-remembering-today/article_00633092-13d8-5990-967c-1a8fe815d800.html
The year was 1968. For those not alive or who do not remember, here are only a few of the momentous events rocking that year.
- January 5: Dr. Benjamin Spock (the baby doctor) and William Sloan Coffin (Chaplain at Yale) are indicted for conspiracy to encourage violation of draft laws.
- January 23: U.S. spy boat, The Pueblo and its crew of 83, are captured off the coast of North Korea.
- January 31: The North Vietnamese surprise American and South Vietnamese forces with the Tet Offensive, marking the turning point in how Americans view the war.
- February 18: The U.S. announces the highest weekly casualty count of the war – 543 Americans killed and 2,547 wounded.
- March 12: Eugene McCarthy comes within two hundred votes of defeating Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire Primary.
- March 16: Bobby Kennedy announces his Presidential campaign the same day (though not revealed for another year) that Charlie Company rampages through the Vietnamese village of My Lai for three hours, massacring more than five hundred infants, children, women and men.
- April 4: Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated at a Memphis motel while planning the Poor People’s March on Washington. Riots break out across the country, claiming at least forty-six lives.
- April 23: Students occupy five buildings on the campus of Columbia University. At the behest of the university, police storm the buildings and violently remove them.
- May 11: 2500 people led by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, occupy “Resurrection City” on the Mall in Washington.
- June 5: Bobby Kennedy is assassinated the night he wins the California Primary.
- August 28: In Chicago, at the Democratic National Convention, police charge demonstrators without provocation, beating many unconscious, sending one hundred to emergency rooms, and arresting 175.
- October 18: At the Olympics in Mexico City, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, medalists in the 200-yard dash, raise the Black Power salute during the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
- November 5: On Election Day, Richard Nixon defeats Hubert Humphrey by .7% of the votes cast, with White Segregationist candidate George Wallace, receiving 13.5%.
- December 12: Ethel Kennedy gives birth to hers (and Bobby’s) eleventh child.
I was fourteen years old. My dad was the Precinct Committee Chairmen for Richard Nixon. My mom liked Nelson Rockefeller. All three of my older sisters volunteered for Eugene McCarthy. I volunteered for Robert Kennedy. My mom said Eugene McCarthy was “at least a gentleman,” so she picked up my sisters after school and took them to McCarthy headquarters. The fact I would tarnish the family name by volunteering for “a Kennedy,” meant I had to take the bus.
For those coming of age from the mid-sixties, conflict and social strife is a baseline memory. Families were rent asunder by cultural and economic changes sweeping the nation and institutions everywhere seemed to be crumbling.
What I learned from my family during that time, was to keep talking.
We never stopped discussing our ideas and opinions, and our parents allowed vigorous disagreement so long as it was expressed “appropriately” – which meant without meanness, a polite willingness to listen to each other, and at least some amount of coherence. Anger and violence shaped those days, and yet, there were always harbors of blessed people and places where goodwill and differing values could engage one another. The little church we attended was one of those places, and my family some of those people.
These days as lines are drawn, facts morph into malleable speculation, and people get trolled and hounded for their opinions, I remember 1968 and try to draw upon what I learned back then that could help us now.