How to remember 1968


The coming year will be chock full of 1968 commemorations. Deservedly so, because that was a pivotal year in which the convulsions of a decade converged and the country slouched over the edge of a precipice.

It was, after all, the year of the Tet offensive in Vietnam, Walter Cronkite’s televised farewell to victory in that wretched war, the My Lai massacre (unknown until the next year), Eugene McCarthy’s presidential run, Columbia University’s uprising, President Johnson’s decision not to run for a second full term, Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, scores of subsequent riots, Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, the Chicago Democratic Convention riots, the Miss America protest in Atlantic City, Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” and election, and, for good measure, the first manned voyages in the Apollo program -- not to mention Prague Spring, the French student uprising, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and, in Mexico City, the massacre of protesting students and the black power salutes of Olympic athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith. All this happened and deserves the most sober reflection -- and the repudiation of some commonplace errors.

First, the error of headline entrancement. One wrong way to remember 1968 is to see it as pure spectacle, nothing more than the star-studded sum of bright revolutionary lights and photogenic flames. It’s right to see the year as a sequence of shocks, but wrong to overlook what deserved to shock the nation but didn’t. Among less-heralded events worthy of recall, consider Feb. 8, when, in Orangeburg, S.C., two college students and one high school student protesting outside a segregated bowling alley were shot dead by local police, and another 27 wounded. In the home state of Strom Thurmond, Gov. Robert E. McNair, evidence free, blamed “black power advocates” and worried aloud that the state’s “reputation for racial harmony had been blemished.” The police were acquitted after a federal trial, but in another trial, a local jury sent civil rights organizer Cleveland L. Sellers Jr., who had been present at the bowling alley two days earlier, to prison for “riot.”


Second, the error of overzealous revulsion, with the uprisings, protests, drugs and all-around freakiness of that year seen as so many passages to Gomorrah. In this cultural trope, a splendid, disciplined social order broke down under the pressure of such unbridled indulgences as LSD, unisex hair styles, open cohabitation and pornography. Flat factual errors escort this version. (To take but two examples: Violence in Chicago was said to be the fault of demonstrators, when it was far more the doing of police, including agents provocateurs; and, also contrary to myth, not a single bra was burned outside the pageant on the Atlantic City boardwalk, though under- and other garments were tossed into a “Freedom Trash Can,” and a living sheep was crowned Miss America.)

It is an even bigger distortion to condemn the sex, drugs and all-around weirdness of that year as “the indulgences of an elite few”-- the words were Newt Gingrich’s at his moment of triumph in 1995. That position altogether mistakes the full dimension of a convulsion at work from coast to coast, in the armed forces and the community colleges and high schools as well as in the Ivy League, even on the assembly lines.

But 1968 was also a year of wishful thinking, rife with an error repeated even now in the shrines of the unreconstructed left: worship of the enemy’s enemy. Under the pressure of either/or thinking, the assumption grew that the baddest guys of the left must be the best. Darlings of the left, such as Che Guevara and the Black Panthers’ Huey Newton, were celebrated in blissful ignorance or willful denial of their harsh, authoritarian ways. All manner of drugs were extolled or condoned indiscriminately. Everything that had the look of arid establishment was condemned. When all intellectual standards were rejected as elitism, all professionalism as rank imposition, all institutions as prisons, all laws as oppression, rational thought was battered, and honorable men and women suffered unjustly.

The right way to remember the year 1968 is to give its complications their due. History is the most crooked of timbers. The egalitarianism of the civil rights movement and a spirit of cultural adventure commingled with a whole mélange of joyful and desperate reactions against white supremacy, senseless war, empty materialism and supine obedience. The result was a mutiny against all establishments, usually for good and sufficient reason, although ends were frequently violated by means.

Still, it remains true that many millions then, and in subsequent generations, freed themselves to become what they could and to restore the dignity of the American spirit. To appreciate the immensity of the upheaval is to give credit to the enduring power of the American Revolution, to its appeals for people to take control of their own lives to pursue both happiness and virtue. One may rue the overindulgences while still recognizing that the movements of the time were preludes to a necessary enlargement of democracy, freedom and moral seriousness. The good of this immense effort outweighs the bad, though -- as with so many laudable efforts -- it reminds us of unfulfilled promises.

In the thick of many vast differences, it’s early indeed in 2008 to tell what still reverberates 40 years on. But if nothing else, the caucus results from Iowa suggest that ideals are alive and that America strains to be reborn from the brink of calamity. To amend one of William Blake’s proverbs, the road of excess, having trampled the ground of innocence, might yet lead to the palace of wisdom.


Todd Gitlin’s latest book is “The Bulldozer and the Big Tent: Blind Republicans, Lame Democrats, and the Recovery of American Ideals.” He is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University.