MAXWELL: It was the worst and best of times

4/27/2008 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Articles in the May/June issue of the AARP Magazine, the April 24 issue of the Christian Science Monitor and the April 25 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education reminded me that 40 years ago – 1968 – America was experiencing one of its most tumultuous decades in modern times.
While history is more than dates and events, 1968 is a special year because of its events. It was a good year and a bad year for me. I was 23 years old. It was a presidential election year, when the John F. Kennedy-Lyndon Johnson presidencies ended.
The nation accomplished so much during this decade, and yet it lost so much at the same time. In some ways, the zeitgeist of 1968 reminds me of the zeitgeist of 2008. In 1968, as now, we were witnessing the emergence of young voters who had adopted a new hero-candidate – Robert Kennedy then, Barack Obama now. We were disillusioned by a war that lacked discernible purpose. We applauded breakthroughs in space flight. Issues related to race made headlines.
I was discharged from Marine Corps three days before Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. I had been eagerly looking forward to returning to college to complete my bachelor’s degree. I had quit college to volunteer for military service.
King’s murder sent me into a long depression, but I began summer school at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach. Days later, Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles after celebrating his victory in the California primary.
I threw myself into my studies, bivouacking in the library and pretty much blocking out the rest of the world.
Meanwhile, the Vietnam War raged, and body bags holding the remains of our troops flowed by the hundreds into Dover, Del. The siege of Khe Sanh and the Tet Offensive had humiliated us. Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace were vying for the White House. Nixon was destined to win because the nation had grown tired of race riots that left entire city blocks in flames, tired of massive antiwar protests, tired of student demonstrations and tired of takeovers of campus buildings at schools such as Columbia and Berkeley.
I was watching television on Aug. 28, when 12,000 Chicago police, 7,500 Army troops and 6,000 National Guardsmen descended on war protesters at the Democratic National Convention. When the melee ended, few people believed that the battered Democrats had any chance of keeping the White House.
In October, during the Olympic Games medal ceremony in Mexico City, sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith bowed their heads and raised black-gloved fists during the playing of the U.S. national anthem in a show of black power. Some in the world were puzzled, while others were amused. Most Americans, especially conservatives, were shocked and angry.
However, my schoolmates and I at Bethune-Cookman cheered. To us, Carlos and Smith were heroes who used the world stage to demonstrate black America’s discontent with the racism that defined our existence.
A bright moment came when New York’s Shirley Chisholm became the first African-American woman to be elected to the U.S. Congress. But the shine soon dimmed on Chisholm’s victory as racial discontent simmered nationwide.
Robert Kennedy, the man most black people adored, was dead, and his spirit of hope and the electricity he generated by just walking into a room were gone.
Wallace’s Alabama racism lingered, and Nixon’s lugubriousness and the meanness of his running mate, Spiro Agnew, had morphed into symbols of strength and wisdom that ushered them into office.
Even then, I knew that 1968 was a watershed year. From my reading, television and lectures in college, I sensed that Americans and other people worldwide, especially those in communist bloc states, were reassessing their values and their visions of themselves and their governments.
Nothing would ever be the same again in our nation because of the events of 1968. I found my footing as a college student, dedicating myself to reading voraciously and traveling as much as possible.
It was a bittersweet year, one of violence, change, disappointment and reaffirmation. I am fortunate to have come of age then.