50 Years Later, It Feels Familiar: How America Fractured in 1968 – New York Times







It was freezing on New Year’s Eve in Manhattan.














A fresh layer of snow blanketed the ground on the night of Dec. 31, 1967, and revelers in Times Square and Central Park seemed to look to the future with some hope. “World Bids Adieu to a Violent Year” was the Jan. 1 headline in The New York Times.














But 1968 would be tumultuous, too.














Even from the distance of a half-century, the moment feels familiar. From January to December, people demonstrated against racial injustice and economic inequality. Abroad, the United States military slogged through a seemingly interminable war. And after two terms with a Democrat in the White House, a Republican presidential candidate campaigned on a promise of law and order, and won.














It was the year between the Summer of Love and the summer of Woodstock, and some men grew their hair long while others were drafted to fight in Vietnam. “The country was bitterly divided: hawks and doves,” said Marc Leepson, an author, historian and Vietnam veteran.












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    April 4


    The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was slain in Memphis by a white gunman


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    March 31


    President Johnson will not run for re-election: “I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party”


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    March 16


    Senator Robert F. Kennedy said he would seek the Democratic presidential nomination, denouncing “disastrous, divisive policies” in Vietnam


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    March 12


    President Johnson narrowly defeated Eugene McCarthy, the antiwar candidate, in the New Hampshire primary


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    Feb. 8


    Police gunfire killed two black college students and wounded more than 40 in a fourth straight night of violence in Orangeburg, S.C.


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    Feb. 7


    Armed with Soviet-made tanks, North Vietnam overtook an American camp near the Marine stronghold at Khe Sanh


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    Feb. 2


    The Vietnamese national police chief calmly executed a prisoner in the middle of a Saigon street as President Johnson vowed, “We Americans will never yield”


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    Jan. 30


    The Viet Cong launched major attacks on seven cities on Tet, the Vietnamese new year


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    Jan. 23


    North Korea seized an American surveillance ship, the Pueblo, in a move Congress called an “act of war”


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    Jan. 14


    Green Bay beat Oakland, 33-14, to win Super Bowl II


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Photo: Associated Press






It was also the year of the Tet offensive, an enormous attack by North Vietnamese forces, and of more than 16,000 American deaths in the Vietnam War, more than in any other year. Domestic support for the war effort faltered as antiwar protests exploded, most notably the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, to which the police responded with tear gas. Demonstrators, journalists and even some delegates were beaten and arrested.














Mr. Leepson spent almost all of 1968 serving at a base near the coastal city of Qui Nhon, Vietnam, and he returned home that December to a country that seemed vastly different from the one he had left.














“The enormity of everything, individually and cumulatively, didn’t hit me until I was in my parents’ living room in Hillside, N.J., watching year-end roundups on the news,” he said in a phone interview. (He eventually joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War and grew his hair past his shoulders.)














While Mr. Leepson was overseas, a different sort of battle had been brewing in the United States. The civil rights movement had been underway for years, achieving landmark federal laws and Supreme Court decisions that struck down legalized segregation and discrimination.













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    May 14


    Hundreds of thousands of French students and workers joined extraordinary protests against “police repression” and President Charles de Gaulle


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    April 29


    A thousand police officers stormed the Columbia University campus in the middle of the night to oust student protesters from five buildings


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    April 24


    Columbia University closed its campus after student demonstrators seized the president’s office and three buildings


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    April 11


    American troops in Vietnam will be capped at 549,500, Defense Secretary Clark M. Clifford said, signaling a larger role for Saigon


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    April 11


    President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, pleading for calm after a week of unrest


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    April 10


    “In the Heat of the Night” won best film at the Academy Awards. The top acting honors went to Rod Steiger and Katharine Hepburn.


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    April 6


    16 were killed and more than 100 wounded in an explosion that tore through two blocks of Richmond, Ind.


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    April 5


    North Vietnam’s 76-day siege of the Marine base at Khe Sanh has been lifted


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    April 5


    Riots exploded in Washington, Chicago and elsewhere after the killing of Dr. King. The National Guard was called out in seven cities.


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    April 4


    In a television address, President Johnson urged Americans to “reject the blind violence that has struck Dr. King”


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Photo: Associated Press





But vast inequality persisted, and on April 4, the movement lost a leader: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis.














In the following days, protests and riots erupted in major cities across the country. Properties were destroyed, and dozens of people lost their lives.














“His death unleashed this feeling that we were suppressed,” Sharlene Sinegal-DeCuir, a civil rights historian and an assistant professor at Xavier University of Louisiana, said of Dr. King. “Minority groups in America felt that they could now release all that and show the majority: This is our pain, and we have been telling you this for years and years.”














That message seemed to fall on deaf ears, she added, and demonstrations calling for racial justice have never stopped. “Adults need to really have an open mind and listen to the younger generation, and to their grievances,” she said. “I think that was not done in 1968.”














Instead, political opinion seemed to swing the other way. It was a presidential election year, and in March, Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat, said he would not run for president again, adding that there was “division in the American house.”














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    Aug. 28


    The Democratic Party nominated Hubert H. Humphrey for president. Outside the convention hall, the police and National Guard battled thousands of protesters with tear gas.


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    Aug. 21


    The Russians have invaded Czechoslovakia. Tanks are on the streets of Prague, firing on crowds, as the Soviet Union overthrows a reformist government


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    Aug. 8


    The Republican Party nominated Richard M. Nixon for president at its convention in Miami Beach


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    July 29


    Pope Paul VI upheld the Roman Catholic Church’s prohibition on all artificial means of contraception, including birth control pills and condoms


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    July 23


    Eight people are dead, including three officers, after a gunfight between the police and black snipers in Cleveland


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    June 8


    James Earl Ray, the suspect in the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was arrested in London


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    June 6


    Senator Kennedy has died from his wounds. A suspect, Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, is in custody.


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    June 5


    Senator Robert F. Kennedy was critically wounded by a gunman after winning the California primary


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    May 17


    Nine antiwar activists, including the Catholic priests Philip and Daniel Berrigan, raided a draft board office in Maryland and burned hundreds of files


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    May 16


    Tornadoes ripped through Arkansas, Iowa and Illinois, killing 72 and wounding 1,000


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Photo: Associated Press




As the year went on, candidates found that appeals to “law and order” were polling particularly well. Richard M. Nixon did it best, eking out a Republican victory in November against Hubert H. Humphrey, a Democrat. (George Wallace, a third-party candidate who supported segregation, won millions of votes and five states.)














That election brought the end of the Johnson administration and the so-called Warren Court — the period when the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Earl Warren, presided over a series of liberal rulings, most notably the 1954 decision striking down segregation in public schools. (Earlier in 1968, Chief Justice Warren told Johnson that he would retire, wrongly hoping the president could appoint a replacement before the winner of the election, whom Chief Justice Warren thought might be Nixon, took office.)














“It’s just a tremendously important moment in Supreme Court history,” Mary L. Dudziak, an author, historian and professor of law at Emory University, said of 1968. “It’s the beginning of that turn away from this era of expansive liberalism.”















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    Dec. 24


    Three men flew around the moon, completing Apollo 8’s mission


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    Dec. 23


    The 82 surviving crew members of the Pueblo surveillance ship are free after 11 months of captivity


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    Nov. 24


    A Pan American jet carrying 103 people from New York to Puerto Rico was commandeered to Cuba, the second such hijacking in 18 hours


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    Nov. 5


    By a thin margin, Richard Milhous Nixon was elected the 37th president of the United States


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    Oct. 31


    President Johnson ordered a complete halt to American air, naval and artillery bombardment of North Vietnam


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    Oct. 10


    Detroit won the World Series in Game 7 with a 4-1 victory over St. Louis, completing an unlikely comeback


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    Oct. 7


    Londonderry erupted in the worst violence in decades between Northern Ireland’s Protestants and Roman Catholics


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    Oct. 2


    With rifles and machine guns, government troops opened fire on student protesters in Mexico City just days before the Summer Olympics


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    Sept. 7


    100 women picketed the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, throwing girdles, bras, hair curlers and false eyelashes into a “freedom trash can”


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    Aug. 29


    More than 150 people, including nine delegates, were arrested in Chicago after the National Guard halted a 3,000-person march to the Democratic convention


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Photo: Associated Press



But the big-picture changes were hard to recognize at the time; all year, major events made headlines at a breakneck pace. In April, a gas leak caused a huge explosion in Richmond, Ind., killing dozens of people and destroying numerous buildings. In June, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, a presidential hopeful, was fatally shot at a campaign event in California. Abroad, France was shaken by widespread protests and general strikes. A brutal civil war was unfolding in Nigeria. Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia. And the death toll kept rising in Vietnam.














When 1968 came to a close, Time magazine highlighted some good news. For its Men of the Year, it chose three who had just returned from very far away: the Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, James A. Lovell Jr. and William A. Anders, the first people to travel around the moon and back. The journey of half a million miles went smoothly, and the men splashed down in the Pacific Ocean before returning to Houston in December. “We had a wonderful trip,” Mr. Lovell said.














New Year’s Eve was two days later. It was drizzling when the ball dropped in Manhattan and 1969 began.









50 Years Later, It Feels Familiar: How America Fractured in 1968 – New York Times

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