Friday, July 29, 2016

Remembering 1968 - A history lesson

Seeing so many young people get excited about politics this year because of Bernie Sanders made me think of another time and another candidate who inspired young people to get involved. That was in 1968 and that candidate was Eugene McCarthy. There are many similarities between Gene and Bernie, but first a little background on the times.

I was 20 years old. The war in Vietnam was raging and so were people at home. The contrasts were incredible. In the ghettoes of our cities Black people were rioting and the police as always were responding with overwhelming force. At the same time Hippies were getting high and discovering a whole new world based on love, beauty, and music. I was somewhere in the middle, awake to the new world we saw being born, but involved in the old world we were trying to save. My biggest role in the anti-war movement was in helping people evade the draft. I gave speeches at the community college I was attending, on the moral obligation we had to evade the draft. I joined demonstrations at some of the navy bases where I was living in San Diego. I played a small role, but a committed one.

We had some great leaders in those days. Many of us had first been inspired by John Kennedy and had never fully recovered from his death. Martin Luther King was our spiritual leader and our moral anchor. Had his cause not been rooted in non-violence it would have been a far bloodier time. No message had a greater impact on my life than that for any change to be lasting and meaningful it must be achieved through non-violent means.

And it was working. Things were looking up. The protests and demonstrations were having an affect. History will show that Lyndon Johnson was one of the greatest presidents of our time for pushing through the civil rights legislation as JFK's legacy, but at the time we hated him. His stubborn commitment to fighting the war was his undoing. When popular opinion rose up against him he did the honorable thing and stepped aside. We were ecstatic. What a victory. If we could bring down a president surely we could end the war, establish justice, and usher in an age of peace and love.

Then the shit hit the fan. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. If you didn't live through it there is no way I can convey the grief that took hold on us at that time. Here was a man who devoted his live to peace and love. A man who's vision for a better world included all people. A man who fought more valiantly with love and non-violence than any soldier could with guns and bombs. And now he was gone. Many held true to his message and continued the non-violent struggle, but others responded differently. If a paragon of love and non-violence could be brought down by violence, then the only way to fight these forces was through more violence. Riots erupted in most of our major cities. Dark times were upon us.

But we still had Gene McCarthy who was leading the charge to bring the Democrats around to the anti-war side. If we could at least end the war surely things would get better. Soon Robert Kennedy threw his hat in the ring. I was very excited about this. Kennedy was also against the war, but he also brought to the table the legacy of fighting for civil rights, equality, and justice. Plus he was much younger than Gene McCarthy. So now we had 2 good candidates in the Democratic presidential race. Both good men that could do much to make the world a better place.

June 6, 1968 Bobby Kennedy is shot dead. We were still numb from having lost Martin. This was unbearable. Bobby Kennedy stood for hope. Now all hope was gone. Surely the world was going to hell and there was nothing we could do about.

The Democratic Convention was held in Chicago starting August 26 and it would not be a pretty sight. 10,000 protestors were met by 23,000 police and national guard. Think about those numbers for a moment. This year we had what, a couple of hundred protestors show up in Philadelphia. The police riot that ensued is well documented and became a pivotal moment in US history. Watching TV and seeing peaceful protestors, kids mostly, being beaten and gassed by the police had an impact on this county. Unfortunately the image has been largely forgotten and police violence is once again at an all time high.

In those days the primaries were just a kind of popularity pole to judge the sentiment of the people and to see how well a person campaigned. The real nominating process happened by the party bosses in the smoke filled rooms. This year people were outraged by the corruption in the nominating process, but it used to be far worse. It was all dirty politics. If you wanted to move up in the ranks you had to do favors and build up political capital. When you had enough people in your debt you could call in the favors and get what you wanted. That is how Lyndon Johnson passed the civil rights legislation. He had been a wheeler and dealer his whole career and had many people that owed him. He was a dirty politician that passed the most progressive legislation of my lifetime.

So as the police riot raged outside, the party bosses ignored the people's candidate Gene McCarthy, and marched out their patsy Hubert Humphrey. Did you feel cheated when Bernie was denied the nomination? Been there, know that feeling. Humphrey was not a bad guy. He was much more liberal than most of today's politicians. But as the VP under Johnson he represented the status quo and made no commitment to ending the war or addressing the grievances of Blacks and other minorities.

I pray with all my heart and soul that the similarities between now and then end here. In that election the people were so dismayed by the spectacle of the Democratic convention and violence in the streets, that they sought refuge in the law and order candidate Richard Nixon, even though most people were well aware that he was a liar and a cheat. And less than 2 years later our worst fears came to pass when 4 students were shot dead at Kent State by an over zealous national guard that thought they were preserving that law and order.

There has been lots of water under the bridge in the 48 years since 1968. In some ways it may seem like nothing has changed and we're still fighting the same battles over and over again. But then a lot has changed. None of our leaders were assassinated this year. The people's candidate, though once again cheated out of the nomination, has had a huge impact on the direction of the Democratic party and future policy. Bernie had opened the door for a whole new generation to step in and start working to make the world a better place. Bernie said it was a revolution. In 1968 we also talked about revolution. But in truth it is evolution. It is slow steady change. The thing about evolution is that you can't stop it. It is inevitable. Yes the pace of change can seem glacial to us mortals who have a hard time seeing before yesterday or after tomorrow. But if you look back it is easy to see how much the world has changed. In 1968 Gays had to stay in the closet or become complete outcasts from society. Today they can marry legally. In 1968 smoking pot would mean jail and in places like Texas, many years of jail. Today marijuana is legal in progressive states and no doubt will soon be legal everywhere. In 1968 women were expected to stay home and be subservient to men. Today they can become president. In 1968 most Blacks would never go to college and could expect to spend their lives working at the lowest rung on the ladder. We still have a long way to go to achieve racial equality but there can be no doubt that the condition of most Black families is far better today than it was in 1968.

So if you're feeling bummed by the outcome of Bernie's campaign, or the continued corruption in politics, or the continued racial injustice, or the ongoing wars, please take heart. If you were inspired by Bernie please stay involved in the process. Support candidates at the local and state levels. Maybe run for office yourself. Our best politicians started on city councils, as mayors, etc. We need a new generation to get involved and take us to a whole other level. Look to the past to see where we came from and avoid the mistakes we made, but look to your dreams to lead us on into a better future.


  1. This is wonderful, Paul. Thank you so much for writing it. It sure brings back memories of the 1960s for me too! I remember thinking clearly that surely everyone would understand that love could save us. But there was so much more to the story. And it does feel a bit like we area having to go through all that all over again. But you're right, there are differences! On with the evolution!

  2. Thank you, Paul, for an insightful and helpful history lesson. I hope that folks pay attention, and learn from the perspective that you have presented here.
    I'm also reminded of that wonderful story about the wolves, the angry, violent one, and the calm. strong one. Which one do we want to feed? Thanks Paul.

  3. Great post Paul, I read in it's entirety. You are so right about the similarities- was just thinking about it the other day. Although I was a bit younger in 1968 (12) I remember it clearly, and I even protested in the streets in Portland, OR when I was 13. And so it goes- I hope this helps to inform and inspire whoever reads this. Thank you.

  4. So, the first time I skimmed through your writing....this time I read it entirely and I THANkYOU for your memory and detailed account of the Viet Nam years and our political history as a nation. I do remember the devastating years as we watched our hope die along with the deaths of students at Kent state and our favorite leaders. No surprises in the current state of politics really.