Column: Will we see a shift like the summer of ’68?

  • FILE - In this Aug. 28, 1968, file photo, a demonstrator with his hands on his head is led by Chicago Police down Michigan Avenue during a confrontation with police and National Guardsmen who battled demonstrators near the Conrad Hilton Hotel, headquarters for the Democratic National Convention. During the convention, hundreds of demonstrators waged war with police and National Guardsmen on the streets of Chicago. (AP Photo/File)

For the Valley News
Published: 6/10/2020 10:10:21 PM
Modified: 6/10/2020 10:10:11 PM

I was 11 during the summer of 1968, a rising seventh grader in Toledo, Ohio. I remember that summer more clearly than any other, and I thought I would never see another like it, until now.

The year began badly. The Vietnam War had deeply divided the country. Our president then, like our president now, had lost credibility after years of lies and misinformation. Unlike today’s Republicans, Democrats in 1968 were willing to question the president’s policies. The Democratic Party primaries exposed Lyndon Johnson’s credibility gap and in March, Sen. Robert Kennedy announced his candidacy, saying it was “now unmistakably clear that we can change these disastrous, divisive policies only by changing the men who make them.”

Meanwhile, racial tensions and police violence were growing. In February, police opened fire on an anti-segregation protest on the South Carolina State College campus. Three protesters were killed and nearly 30 were wounded, but no police officers were convicted. Later that month, the Kerner Commission, which had been formed by Johnson to investigate the origins of the 1967 riots in Detroit and Newark, released its report, concluding that “the atmosphere of hostility and cynicism is reinforced by a widespread belief among Negroes in the existence of police brutality and the double standard of justice and protection — one for Negroes and one for whites.”

A month after the report was released, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by a white supremacist and, then as now, cities erupted in protests and marches. Riots in Toledo prompted the mayor to impose a 10-day curfew as neighborhoods burned. High school students led many of the marches and even our mostly white suburban schools held rallies in support.

Within a month, riots had broken out in Paris and demonstrations echoed throughout European capitals. Then, like now, racial injustice was a pandemic without borders. In June, more than 50,000 demonstrators rallied in Washington, D.C., for the Poor People’s Campaign and Solidarity Day.

Our electoral politics in 1968 were as unsettled and divided as they are today. Republicans nominated Richard Nixon, who vowed to crack down on rioters and largely ignored the African American community, choosing to court conservative white Americans with a “law-and-order” platform. In early August, demonstrators who had been excluded from the Republican National Convention in Miami started fires and riots a few blocks away. Meanwhile, the Democrats were in disarray. Robert Kennedy had been assassinated in June, after winning the California primary, and the party was deeply divided between those who wanted to end the war in Vietnam and those who supported the status quo. The combination of racial tensions, anti-war emotions and political turmoil led to massive demonstrations and police brutality at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Back in Toledo, demonstrations and marches extended throughout the summer. Most were peaceful, but the protests that followed brutality at the Chicago convention led to another curfew in Toledo, which extended from September until after the election in November. Racial tensions and demonstrations erupted again in October during the Mexico City Olympics, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a salute to black power and human rights on the medal stand. Both were stripped of their medals and called “disrespectful” in a controversy that presaged Colin Kaepernick’s “taking a knee,” which has become a symbol of today’s protests.

Some call 1968 seminal, a year of change in American politics. Public trust in the federal government fell from 74% in 1964 to 56% in 1968, according to the Pew Research Center, and has continued to fall since the 1960s. Today, fewer than 20% of Americans say they can regularly trust their government in Washington.

The summer of 1968 triggered a new sensibility in the country and brought to the fore issues that had long been dormant. The women’s liberation movement and the environmental movement, both unremarkable before 1968, blossomed in the early ’70s as Americans lost faith in dominant social conventions and authority.

Perhaps today’s protests and election year debates will trigger a similar shift in our culture and politics. Perhaps our protests against unresponsive authority, police brutality and a dissembling president will extend through the summer, as they did in 1968.

In the election that year, voters turned out the incumbent party. Let’s hope the election this November will mark a similar change.

Scott Brown, of Hanover, is the chief executive officer of New Energy Capital Partners and the former dean of the Tucker Foundation at Dartmouth College.

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