Editorial: America in 1968, and America now

  • Robert F. Kennedy talks to campaign workers in Los Angeles minutes before he was fatally shot on June 5, 1968. At his side are his wife, Ethel, and his California campaign manager, Jesse Unruh, speaker of the California Assembly. After making a short speech, Kennedy left the platform and was shot in an adjacent room. AP

Sunday, June 03, 2018

The anthem of 1968, a tumultuous year considered a turning point in American history, was released a few months before that year commenced. It was the eerie, acid-dripped, apocalyptic “The End” by Jim Morrison and The Doors. Much like today, half the country saw 1968 as a new beginning free of war and cultural rigidity, and half saw it as the end of the America they knew and loved.

“This is the end / Beautiful friend / this is the end / my only friend / the end. . . . Of our elaborate plans / the end / of everything that stands / the end / no safety or surprise / the end.”

It was indeed a monumental year; the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential contender Bobby Kennedy. Fires burned in America’s cities; the police ran riot at the Democratic convention in Chicago; the war in Vietnam, fueled by the civilian draft, was going badly; the Jan. 30 Tet Offensive proved that the nation’s leaders had been misleading the public; news anchorman Walter Cronkite, the most trusted man in America, announced that the war could not be won.

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America,” President Lyndon Johnson said. A few months later, he declined to run for re-election. His decision, and Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, paved the wave for Richard Nixon’s election in the fall, and we all know how that turned out.

The war, which claimed 58,000 American lives, went on for seven more years.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have gone on for nearly as long but a volunteer army means that relatively few families are touched by fighting that has largely disappeared from the news.

In this 50th anniversary year the search is on, by historians, the media, and those who were there for the struggle for civil rights and against inequality, sexism, paternalism, poverty and the war in Vietnam, for parallels with 2018. What’s different and what’s the same.

The divisions in 1968 that were generational are now political. The culture war, though President Trump has been pouring verbal gasoline on it, has largely been won by the left. Gay and interracial marriages are commonplace. But sexism, five decades after women protested at the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, is with us still. Female executives are still badly outnumbered by males, but women graduate in almost equal numbers from medical schools and more females than males enrolled last year.

1968 was marked by the killing of public figures and bombings by radicals on both sides. In 2018 it’s been the slaughter of schoolchildren and innocents. There are fewer poor, and far fewer elderly poor, than there were in 1968, thanks in good measure to the Great Society measures Johnson sweet-talked and bullied through Congress. But a South that, after the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1968, turned from blue to red remains in Republican hands, though that might be changing.

The gap between rich and poor has widened and upward mobility has stalled. Gone are the high-paying factory jobs of the 1960s that allowed high school graduates to join the middle class and nearly gone are the unions that they belonged to. In real terms, today’s federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour is worth $2 less than in 1968, a year when one decent job could support a family.

Civil rights have made great gains and the nation elected a black president, but racism is a daily fact of life in America and people of color are disproportionately jailed and killed by police.

Religion played a bigger role in everyday life and abortion was illegal in 1968. Today, traditional religions are in decline, abortion is under attack, and conservative, evangelical faiths are on the rise. Most disturbingly, democracy, which was advancing across the globe in 1968, is in retreat at home and abroad. Preserving it for 2068 will take the energy and activism of that infamous, historic year a half-century ago.