Memories of 1968: An Historic Year of Upheaval Stirs Deep Reflection

Photo of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968.

JERRY HICKS, Chapman University journalism lecturer and former Los Angeles Times columnist:

It was the year, as a college journalist, I made my way by bus from Indiana University to Indianapolis to hear Robert F. Kennedy – just three months before his death – give the most inspiring speech of his career, in the dark of night and in a light rain. (You can YouTube it.)

It was the year, as editor-in- chief at the IU paper, I got sued by the campus police for printing something a political pundit said about the department. (They lost; whew!)

It was the year my shocked but supportive father made arrangements for my bus trip from my Hoosier hometown to Atlanta to attend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s funeral and memorial. (“I don’t know why,” was the best I could give his arguments against making the trip, “I just have to be there.”)

It was the year my girlfriend dumped me when she spotted me on TV at that memorial service. (She said she needed someone less impulsive.)

It was the year I interviewed Indiana’s grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, whose vicious, blind, hateful ignorance of anything from the mind/heart/soul was the most frightening thing I’d ever come across.

It was the year I was interviewed by the FBI, which wanted to know what the grand dragon had to say.

It was the year the grand dragon’s followers, or their peers, made good on his veiled threat to burn down the off-campus Black Student Union bookstore – the saddest day of my four college years.

1968 was the year of protest, and I was a lost soul just trying to find my way through it.

But what I remember most about 1968: It was the first time my father ever told me he loved me. No, he didn’t use those words; he said something more precious. When he took me to the bus station for my trip to the King funeral, he parted with: “I’ll make your mother understand.”

Alicia Kozameh shares a tranquil moment with 1968 classmates, but even then
at her boarding school in Argentina, winds of revolution were blowing.

ALICIA KOZAMEH, author, poet and professor of English. Her latest work, a collection of poems, is “Sal de sangres en guerra” (“Salt from Bloods in War”):

I was 15 years old and attending an all-female boarding high school run by nuns in my natal city of Rosario, Argentina. It may sound as if a pacific and quiet environment surrounded me in 1968, but winds of revolution, liberation struggles and change were blowing across the American Continent, and Argentina was not going to be left behind. Mostly everyone was taking part in some form of activism, and from my boarding school we also took action, paralyzing it for several hours to offer solidarity to an enormous protest movement happening outside of our walls, people on the streets demonstrating against hunger and unemployment, and fighting to survive. Those same blowing winds brought me to Los Angeles about 12 years later, after a long period as a political prisoner. Meanwhile thousands and thousands of students, workers, professionals, bankers, everyday people were kidnapped and put in concentration camps, tortured to death or simply executed. One of them, Eduardo Kozameh, my father’s brother, a beloved medical doctor and university professor at the Rosario School of Medicine, was fatally shot by paramilitary forces after one of several meetings in support of rights for students and young doctors. He was 64 years old. My tío Eduardo. So many times, a father.

I have now been at Chapman for more than 20 spring and fall semesters combined. Chapman, for me, is this very moment, but it is also yesterday if I remind myself that the revolutionary winds departed from the North, its youth clamoring for peace and justice, it’s hippies interpreting life according to their dreams, an its fabulous music, all phenomena of that era that took the world, and South America, by storm.

Chapman University Black Student Union, circa 1971.

JOHN H. SANDERS ’70, founding president of the Black Student Union at Chapman in September 1968 and now an attorney specializing in civil and business litigation:

1968 was like a precious stone being made hard by fire. Going through this volatile time in our history made us stronger. It made us intellectually more curious. It made us question authority.
It made us ask why, instead of just going along. I always talk about 1968 as a crack in time. Politically and emotionally, nothing was ever the same again.

For me, personally, it was my toughest year. I was a 19-year-old junior, there were threats on some of our lives, and I was trying to keep my grades up so I could qualify for law school. I am so grateful that I had a wonderful mentor. I could go to Dr. Don Booth (now professor emeritus at Chapman) to talk about anything, and he would help me through any situation. We are still friends today.

EMMA (GRAY) SALAHUDDIN ’71, a child of the Jim Crow South who helped found the Black Student Union at Chapman and is now a retired educator:

In 1968, the Chapman Black Student Union was faced with quite a daunting task. We needed to present our grievances concerning racist experiences in the community while trying to create a forum for constructive dialogue. Chapman’s president, Dr. John L. Davis, agreed to meet with us. We explained
that the BSU would provide an opportunity for students of all races to learn more about black culture and history. We also stated that our ultimate goal was to enrich the lives of all students, faculty, staff and the surrounding community through communication and cooperation.

Ultimately the goal of the Chapman BSU in 2018 is the same as that of the BSU in 1968, which is a very good and positive thing. The sad thing, however, is that while much has changed, much has stayed the same, and some of the same grievances we had in 1968 still persist today.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medalists in the 200-meter run at the 1968 Olympic Games, engage in a victory stand protest against unfair treatment of blacks in the United States.

VERNON SMITH, Nobel laureate in economics and George L. Argyros Endowed Chair in Finance and Economics at Chapman:

I will speak to 1968 as a transitional year in U.S. race relations; a year of personal insight in what had been wrong with earlier protest movements.

At the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, American medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos (joined by Australian Peter Norman) staged a protest against U.S. racial discrimination. They were booed by spectators. Smith succinctly summarized that 1968 world: “If I win I am an American, not a black American. But if I did something bad then they would say ‘a Negro.’ We are black, and we are proud of being black.”

This open protest, by the victims of discrimination, championed “proud black” as the new in-your- face stance of young blacks and became a pivotal point in U.S. race relations. Starting in 1944 (when
I was 17 years old in Wichita) I had been active in a local chapter of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality). Founded on the principle of nonviolent civil disobedience, we formed mixed groups to
buy theatre tickets to challenge theatre-imposed separate seating of “Negroes.”

Our biggest problem in CORE was to get blacks to join in these efforts. There was a silent keep-a- low-profile acceptance of the status quo by blacks we knew. Of course, then it was “Negroes”– the polite but degrading term of the day. Why degrading? Because we were whites – not Caucasians – while they were Negroes – not blacks. It was a double-speak veneer that had become a reality cover-up, and Tommie Smith was among the young U.S. blacks determined to express a new pride in black accomplishments in the face of widespread unequal treatment.

The tide had turned, black determinism was in ascendance; it was no longer just a bunch of well-meaning whites pushing on a string.

Drawing of Peter McLaren in 1968 by Karen Richardson.

PETER McLAREN, distinguished professor in critical studies and co-director of the Paulo Freire Democratic Project, Donna Ford Attallah College of Educational Studies:

1968 was an historical conjuncture of world-historical significance. I spent much of that year traveling from my native Canada to San Francisco and Los Angeles, primarily motivated by my opposition to the Vietnam War, and my eagerness to be part of the growing peace and civil rights movements and to show my support for both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and also the Black Panthers and the Young Lords.  In the flop houses where I lived with groups of hippies garbed in Renaissance doublets,   medieval jerkins,  and embroidered Afghan vests, and festooned with love beads and “make love-not war” paraphernalia and smelling of patchouli oil, I was shaken awake almost every night by granite-jawed FBI agents who checked my identification papers to see if I were a draft resister. 1968 was a period of psychedelic revolution, where I spent an unforgettable kaleidoscopic  evening with Timothy Leary, and received sage advice on my poetry from Allen Ginsberg. It was a time of political and spiritual introspection and an experimentation with ways of living and associating with others of different religious faiths and ethnicities, and sexual orientation. It was a year that was placed on the butcher board of history when fate raised its blood hatchet and separated it from what was familiar and what was strange.

It was the time of The Tet Offensive, Apollo 8 orbiting the moon, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the burgeoning peace movement — and only a year later we would be witnesses to the Stonewall Riots. Many of us were emboldened by what was occurring in Europe, especially France, with the proliferation of general strikes, student strikes and the occupation of universities and factories. In 1968 student movements were breaking out all over the world — including in France, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Argentina  and Japan. 1968 marked the heroics of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Mexico City Olympics, but we would be historically and morally remiss if we forgot the Tlatelolco massacre that occurred that year, only 10 days before Smith and Carlos stood proudly on the victory podium and raised their gloved fists in the air. Students and civilians were gunned down by military and police in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the Tlatelolco area of Mexico City.  Some estimates put the death toll in the hundreds, and some in the thousands.  A friend of mine escaped the police bullets by jumping in the bathtub when shots flew through the walls of his apartment. Recent information has uncovered evidence that the Presidential Guard had posted snipers in the buildings surrounding Tlatelolco Plaza where they shot at the troops posted around the square to trick the troops into thinking there were student snipers and provoke them to retaliate with deadly force.  

Meanwhile, the hippie counterculture began, as some writers have pointed out, in the Laurel Canyon area of Los Angeles, followed by developments in Haight Ashbury, San Francisco. As far as the Laurel Canyon bands were concerned — The Doors, Mamas and the Papas, Frank Zappa, Crosby, Stills and Nash, the Byrds, and others — many of the musicians came from families that were part of military intelligence communities, or at least were ranking members of the U.S. military. Jim Morrison’s father was commander of U.S. naval forces in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, and helped give Lyndon Johnson an excuse  to enter the Vietnam War.  And a surprising number of the managers of rock groups had connections to the intelligence communities. It’s not common knowledge that there was an Air Force presence on Lookout Mountain in Laurel Canyon (operating from 1947 to 1969), used mostly for classified photographic assignments. These included tracking ballistic missiles, developing training films for civil defense and other government organizations, producing  propaganda films and recruiting advertisements, and documenting nuclear bomb detonations and rocket launches. Other missions emerging from the base included coverage of counterinsurgency operations in Southeast Asia and filming military exercises such as a simulated attack on a Cuban missile site. Some writers have suggested that the counterculture of which I was a part was, to some extent at least, covertly designed to keep young people drugged and passive, so as not to become politically involved in the anti-war movement of the times. Shades of Aldous Huxley’s soma? Or Julian Huxley’s eugenics dream of altering human nature? The obsessive fables  of conspiracy theorists?  Perhaps all of these. There wasn’t simply one homogeneous hippie counterculture; there were different trajectories, some that “tuned in, turned on and dropped out” and others, like the group to which I was affiliated, that tried to remain aligned with the civil rights leaders, who supported both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and who fought against what we viewed as U.S. imperialist wars and, in my case, the complicity of Canada with U.S. imperialist interests, as well as Canada’s treatment of First Nations peoples. When you take away the right to protest and enforce patriotism, freedom dehydrates into a limp husk and crumples into dust.

I can only contrast 1968 and its spirit of optimistic defiance with today, with our so-called post-truth nation guided by an authoritarian populism that appears to be on a fast track towards fascism. Fifty years later, as the sentinels of the capitalist class water their lawns with the tears of the poor, our social justice warriors are ridiculed by the rightwing media, put in the prisoner’s dock and hectored and berated by alt-right demagogues acting as if they were lifetime appointees of a “Make America Great Again” show trial, figures from a Blood Tribunal resplendent in scarlet judicial robes right out of the Volksgerichtshof, their bloviating and spittle-flecked tirades condemning and mocking our heroic feminists, class war activists, gay rights activists, peace activists and multiculturalists. 1968 can remind us why we must continue our fight for justice today, and why, today, it has never been more urgent.

MARK AXELROD, author, professor of comparative literature and director of the John Fowles Center for Creative Writing at Chapman:

I cannot remember the exact date, though I seem to recall it happening right before my birthday in March ’68. I got my notice to appear before the draft board to take my Army physical. Needless to say, it was somewhat disconcerting since most every able-bodied male was being shipped to Vietnam. As I recall, the first thing we undertook was a written multiple-choice exam, and the sergeant in charge used an army of expletives to let us all know not to try to fail it. Of course, to fail that test would have beenan exercise in stark stupidity, but I could not see myself getting 100 percent so I missed one intentionally. I think to the question: What is 2+2? I answered: 6. As he handed me my graded exam he said, “Congratulations, you’re officer material.” Knowing quite well what that meant, I was not comforted.

A barefoot James Blaylock leans on his VW bug and poses with his cousin after a solo road trip to Colorado in summer 1968 – “a season of becoming.”

JAMES BLAYLOCK, professor of English, author of numerous novels and short stories, and pioneer of steampunk:

1968 was a kaleidoscopic year. I was born in 1950, and so it was the year I graduated from high school (desperate to get out) and the year I started college (a place to be just who I was) and so both an end and a beginning. The assassinations of King and Kennedy politicized me, as did the advent of the Vietnam War draft lottery, which meant that I was particularly keen to stay in school.  (Never left, obviously.) I let my hair grow, realized I never had to wear shoes again if I didn’t want to, and started spending a lot of time at the beach surfing, diving, and tide-pooling, determined to become a marine biologist until I figured out that it meant taking math classes.  

I realized that what I really wanted to be was a beach bum, and so I migrated to a degree program in literature where I was rewarded, essentially, for making things up.  (Just kidding. Sort of.)

One memory from early that year: There was an alley behind Magnolia High School in Anaheim where after-school fights took place. One day I was cutting down the alley, headed home, and a particularly ugly fight was ensuing – two guys beating each other bloody, surrounded by a cheering audience. Behind them, on the cinder block wall of the alley, a graffitied message read, “Love-in, Sunday the 18th, Irvine Park.”  

One summer memory – my first solo road trip, back to Grand Junction, Colo., in my VW Bug to visit my cousin Tom and his family. Tom and I camped here and there around the Western Slope of the Rockies, fixed the hammered shock absorbers on my car, and I waved goodbye and drove home in 14 hours, music on the stereo, a long, open summer ahead of me, and (happily) no idea what was coming toward us down the pike – the friends we would lose to the war and to drugs: “all the bloody changes,” as Joni Mitchell put it in a song just two strange years later. There’s no way to sum it up except to say that for me it was a season of becoming.

Protesters picket the White House in a demonstration against the Vietnam War.

THE WAR COMES HOME

Even in the years following the 1968 Tet Offensive, at least some senior military leaders failed to appreciate why so many of America’s youth were protesting the war’s moral ambiguity.

And that ambiguity only heightened. 1968 would lead to a new president promising “peace with honor” in Vietnam and “law and order” at home. Yet the conflict would drag on for four more bloody years, culminating in America’s withdrawal from a war that had not been won.

It would be an outcome that seared a generation for decades to come. But it also was an outcome that illustrated the enduring links between war and society.

For a nation that had gone to Vietnam years earlier with aspirations of promoting democracy abroad,
the war that came home to America in 1968 no longer seemed worth fighting.

Excerpt from “Withdrawal: Reassessing America’s Final Years in Vietnam” by Gregory Daddis, retired Army colonel, historian and director of Chapman’s War and Society master’s program.

This story appeared in the spring 2018 issue of Chapman Magazine.

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