Mara Hall
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1968 - INTO THE DARKNESS

In the 1960s, it seemed all things were possible. But by mid-1968, we wondered if anything was possible. It was the year that shook the country to its very foundations. How did we reach such a moment? How did we get past it? Fifty years later, only about a quarter of the population can call on firsthand knowledge of the time. Yet the events and the lessons they offer are important ones for today. Join historian Russ Gifford as he looks back on the year, the events, and the reasons that threatened the end of the American experiment in 1968, and what it means to us today.

MONDAYS, NOON TO 2 P.M.
Location: Advanced Sciences Building, Room L416/417, Entrance 11
Fee: No charge / Max: 50
Lifelong Learning membership required 

Session 1: January to March—Astonishment
With over half of a million troops committed in Vietnam by the end of 1967, the public had learned the true cost as the death tolls skyrocketed every month in 1966 and ’67. The news spoke of vic- tories in every big battle, but on TV we saw bleeding young men in chaotic situations.

At the end of January, every major city in South Vietnam exploded under surprise attacks. Americans at home watched a pitched battle on the grounds of the U.S. Embassy. In the field, the Tet Offensive began in earnest.

America decisively won every battle, but that misses the point. After three years, 20,000 American deaths, and half-a-million American soldiers in country, the enemy was still capable of exerting its influ- ence. The Battle of Hue and the Siege of Ka Sanh would take months to resolve. As more than one person would remark “sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel turns out to be an oncoming train.” No corner had been turned. Americans, who had never been totally enthusiastic about the war, now clearly split on the question of “why are we fighting?” As the chaos continued, the American political campaign for the 1968 Presidential elections started. It would lead to a shocking announcement no one saw coming, and yet another upheaval in 1968.
Monday, March 26; noon to 2 p.m.
Course # 18/FY-CPDV-2998-01 

Session 2: March to April—Assassination
Martin Luther King, Jr. was tired. It had become a habit to him to work 18 or 20 hours a day, stay up all night reading and talking, and then be ready to start the new day at 5:30 AM. He never stopped thinking about America’s future, and the agenda needed to see that it had a future. The black community, he felt, could not solely be concerned with only civil rights issues. The war was costing billions of dollars and thousands of lives. Racism was stealing the futures of those it limited, and those that practiced it.

His efforts to use nonviolence showed both sides they could work together, on parallel courses of development, to fix their problems.

As the world would see, it would take 60,000 troops to finally halt the upheaval of anger in the cities across the U.S. But with King struck down, who would preach non-violence now?
Monday, April 2; noon to 2 p.m.
Course # 18/FY-CPDV-2998-02

Session 3: April to June—Acclaim
Robert Kennedy was preparing to address an audience of largely African American citizens when he was told Martin Luther King., Jr. had been murdered. He stepped to the podium and told his au- dience the news, met by moans, shirks, and calls of anger. He spoke from his heart of his feelings following his brother’s assassination five years before. As often happened, Robert Kennedy, a man who had been born with everything, was able to connect with people on a level no one understood because of his vulnerability. The crowd recognized his shared pain and remained calm. It was a vision of how Robert Kennedy managed to move so many people because of his ability to overcome the gulf between people.

Kennedy’s path to the presidential campaign had been a rocky one. His relationship with Lyndon B. Johnson was always terrible and breaking away had not made it an easier one. His feelings on the war in Vietnam were complicated by his brother’s part in the buildup. In the years since JFK’s death, Bobby had become convinced Johnson’s choice to escalate to war was the wrong one for the country. When Johnson dropped from the race in early 1968, Kennedy jumped in winning primaries. But Chicago would still require an answer, because destiny decided RFK would not be there.
Monday, April 09; noon to 2 p.m.
Course # 18/FY-CPDV-2998-03

Session 4: August to October—Anarchy
The indignities of the year 1968 came home in August. The Democratic National Convention acted as the funeral pyre for the hopes of the left in the November election. The removal of almost all the adult voices that commanded any respect among the youth and the rising tide of violence in the wake of King’s death, led to a confrontational gathering of hippies and activists in Chicago. For some, it was theatre. For most, it was a stage. When Richard Daley’s police force decided to violently clear the streets, the stage became a national one as network news broadcasted the events to all. As kids chanted “the whole world is watching,” the world was indeed watch- ing. What they saw were police wielding billy clubs and lobbing tear gas canisters into the crowds. The results put Hubert Humphrey, the eventual nominee, so far in the hole, he really had little chance to come back. Especially when his first statements sided with the police.

But he came back. By the end of the election, Humphrey had closed the gap. But would it be enough?
Monday, April 16; noon to 2 p.m.
Course # 18/FY-CPDV-2998-04

Session 5: October to December—Aftermath
The pressures of the campaign took a new toll on the American public and the campaigners. It was later immortalized as the first presiden- tial campaign to sell the candidate as a commodity, and it changed campaigns forever. The surprising resurgence of Richard Nixon to defeat George Romney was a shock to everyone. The confused democratic race, with first Johnson then Kennedy’s disappearance, left the party completely in disarray. The late addition of George

Wallace as a third-party candidate made waves no one wanted to admit. Wallace was known for literally blocking African Americans from access to enter state colleges, continuing to claim segregation forever. It was thought he’d have no following outside the south. But he had no problem quickly gathering signatures to get on the ballot in California.

In the end, it was a horse race, the typical American campaign when the party candidate was not really the choice of the majority. In a hold your nose and vote election, Humphrey made it look close. In the end, Nixon was the one.

Democrats retained control of Congress. Plotting his course forward, the politically astute Nixon realized what most didn’t: the race only looked close because former democrat Wallace did not steal demo- cratic votes for Humphrey, but from Nixon. It would lead Nixon to choose to pursue a Southern Strategy and further divide the country.

Nixon, whose campaign promised to “Bring Us Together” worked to break the South from the democrats. He succeeded beyond his wild- est dreams. But unbeknownst to anyone, the left wing was equally divided, between liberals and libertarians. That would not become clear for decades.

In the fire of 1968, the melting pot was a crucible, and the elements fractured, rather than becoming an alloy.
Monday, April 23; noon to 2 p.m.
Course # 18/FY-CPDV-2998-05 

 

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