1968. The year I grew up.
The November 19, 2007 edition of Newsweek commemorates the year 1968: “The Year that Changed Everything.” In one piece, Evan Thomas narrates “the worst week” of that lacerating year. It began on Sunday, March 31, when Martin Luther King told a packed crowd at the National Cathedral that building gigantic buildings kissing the skies was not enough. The God of history required more: “I was hungry and ye fed me not. I was naked and ye clothed me not…”
That evening, President Johnson made his startling announcement, “I shall not seek and will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.” The following Wednesday, King, now in Memphis to support a sanitation workers’ strike, gave his heart-cracking speech at the Masonic Temple as a thunderstorm crescendoed. “I have been to the mountaintop,” he intoned, “and I have seen the Promised Land…I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that as a people we will get to the Promised Land…I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
I have a tape of that peroration and events the following day, and I cannot watch it without tears—tears for what might have been.
On the evening of Thursday, April 4, I was studying on the first floor of the University of Minnesota’s West Bank Classroom Building, its cafeteria-style tables littered with smoking and snacking students, when a runner came flashing down the side arcade, shouting, “Martin Luther King has been killed!” Silence hung over the long room for a dozen heartbeats before a babble erupted as we hustled on coats and headed for the nearest T.V. For me, as for many others in that lunchroom, the news shot us back five years to high school. Then the announcement had arrived via the school’s P.A. system: “President Kennedy has been shot.” I remember exactly where I was standing, as do most others who can remember back to 1963. For me it was in art class at St. Margaret’s Academy; I was standing at a work table sculpting a papier mache shepherd for a Christmas display. We knelt down and prayed for the dying president.
My King videotape records the aftermath of the shooting and Bobby Kennedy’s choked announcement to an Indianapolis inner-city crowd, “I have bad news for you…Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight…I had a member of my family killed…but we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.” Bobby quoted Aeschylus, ‘In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes the awful wisdom of God.”
Two months later he too was gone: Abraham, Martin, and John…and Bobby.
I couldn’t make sense of it.
That spring I graduated from the university and prepared for graduate school—at Northwestern University. In August, I watched in horror as the Grant Park war protesters were clubbed in the city that was to be my new home. It was those T.V. images of young people, just like me, fleeing nightsticks and tear gas, that turned me into an activist. I arrived in Chicago that September with my typewriter and marching shoes. With thousands of other war protesters, I paraded down State Street, incredulous at our numbers; I found myself in the front rows at campus events featuring the Chicago Seven’s Tom Hayden and Jerry Rubin, and the prescient Senator Eugene McCarthy. On election night, I sat up until 3 a.m., until it became clear that Dicky had tricked the voters. I went to bed in tears. A photo of me in my black cap and gown standing in the Northwestern University stadium that spring, with a white rag tied around my upper arm, is a treasured memento. Right before graduation, I turned down a chance to pursue a doctoral degree with a specialization in Yeats’s early years–far better to go out and teach poetry to inner-city kids.
I was formed by the events of 1968 and was proud of it. Proud to be one of the 60s generation. But it was more than navigating these crises in the American psyche that formed us. We were the first in so many ways. We were huge in numbers—the first wave of the baby boomers. We were the first generation to grow up amid the general middle class affluence—that of the post-World War II boom. We were the first to have our consciousness molded by TV; we went from watching Howdy Doody and white-hatted Hop-along Cassidy to watching body bags return home from Vietnam. No wonder we were so very different from those who preceded us.
Nowadays, I smart when succeeding generations contend that we failed them—that we are the cause of today’s ills. How so? The nation we inherited from the so-called “Greatest Generation” was imperialistic, greedy, and obsessed with getting ahead and fitting in. The 60s generation didn’t carve up the Middle East into zones of influence, we didn’t start the nuclear arms race, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, or institutionalize racism. The world we found ourselves in was deeply flawed long before we arrived. But for a short time, we truly believed that our numbers and our idealism was enough to change that world for the better. That it didn’t happen is our regret.
It didn’t happen because way too many of us opted for individual profit at the expense of the naked, the hungry, the environment and the well-being of our communities. Although the U.S. is a vastly richer nation in terms of GDP and average income than when we started out our adult lives, in fact, there are just a lot more very rich people, most of whom don’t notice or care that the ice caps are melting, cities are decaying and the young are disillusioned. That Promised Land that King saw—it’s more distant now than ever. And that is our tragedy.
Has anybody here, seen my old friend John –
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed a lot of people, but it seems the good die young
But I just looked around and he’s gone.
—written by Dick Holler and first recorded by Dion, 1968