That was the word Mercy College History Professor Ted Rosenof used to describe 1968. A 25-year old graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison at the time, Rosenof expressed that he “witnessed the upheaval of the time in the college setting.”
The year is arguably the most chaotic, turbulent, and most influential 12-month period in American history. It saw a political and social giant assassinated, a war take on a new meaning, and a nation take on a new mind-set.
Rounding out the already controversial and momentous decade of the 1960s, ’68 may have been the most important of years. Known for its grave negativity, the year still had its share of memorable feats, although few and far between.
The Tet Offensive, the Battle of Khe Sanh, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy, the Civil Rights Act of 1968, the bizarre Summer Olympics in Mexico City, the Rolling Stones’ emergence, and the Presidential election of Richard Nixon are all only a fraction of the preeminent events that shaped the year that was.
Most notably, all of these incidents subsequently changed America in the years to follow. And still to this day, now 40 years later, a nation feels the historic impact of ’68â€¦
The Civil Rights Movement of ’68
African-American icon and foreman Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in cold-blood on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968.
King was a man that most considered a savior, a liberator, and in a quick moment, was taken from his beloved people with the pull of a trigger.
Immediately after his death, half the nation went into shock. The other half was poised to wreak havoc on the streets of their cities, infuriated with anger, but more commonly, saddened by the death of their fallen hero.
Ironically enough, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who would be assassinated just months later, broke the news publicly for the first time to most of the American people.
In the famous speech in Indianapolis, Kennedy stated, “I have some very sad news for all of you, and I think sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.”
In an effort to reduce the inevitable violence that ensued due to King’s death, Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson was quoted saying, “I ask every citizen to reject the blind violence that has taken Dr. King, who lived by non-violence.” Johnson even abruptly postponed a trip to Hawaii for peace talks on Vietnam to deal with the heinous event.
But Johnson’s words were seldom heard in some black communities, notably the Chicago ghettos.
On April 4, 1968, violence erupted in large proportions in the black ghettos on Chicago’s west side. The Chicago Riots, as they are familiarly known today, were a series of related crimes committed on a 28-block stretch of West Madison Street.
Various instances of arson took place primarily in the corridor between Roosevelt Road on the south and Chicago Avenue on the north. The instance was so frightening to the well-being of others that Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley implemented a curfew on anyone under age 21.
Daley closed the area streets to automobile traffic and banned the sale of guns, ammunition and inflammable materials to its inhabitants.
The incident became so intolerable that thousands of U.S. troops had to infiltrate the area, trying to keep the streets safe from of any violence. Many consider it to be one of the lowest points in the Civil Rights Movement.
But things turned brighter in the ensuing days thereafter.
On April 11, just seven days after King’s assassination, Johnson signed the monumental Civil Rights Act of 1968.
The act (also known as the Fair Housing Act of 1968), which expanded the previous Civil Rights Act of 1964, was signed to prohibit the discrimination of any race, religion, national origin, etc. The act also implemented harsher, more stringent rules based on discrimination including the intolerance of discrimination concerning the sale, rental, and financing of housing.
In retrospect, both the assassination of King and the ensuing Chicago Riots changed many of opinions in America concerning the rights of individuals, primarily blacks. Those events that transpired helped end a time when people walked down the streets scared to a time when people walked down the streets proudly.
;Nam in ’68
It was North Vietnam versus South Vietnam. Good versus evil to some, but plain old war to most. It was an onslaught of military force that is considered by most to be the turning point in the 16-year span of the Vietnam War.
For nearly seven months, in the heart of 1968, the Tet Offensive became the number one prerogative of United States military intelligence after it was launched in late January. It was simply a Vietcong military strategy that became an international phenomenon overnight.
The actual offensive was a series of surprise attacks by the Vietcong, whom were rebel forces sponsored by North Vietnam and North Vietnamese forces. The Vietcong targeted cities, towns, and hamlets throughout South Vietnam with a fleet estimated to near 85,000 strong.
The Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) were allies with the United States, who throughout the entire Vietnam War strove to eliminate communist reigns in North Vietnam.
This strategy set forth by the Vietcong aimed to spark a general uprising among the population of the South Vietnamese that would then overturn the Saigon government and end the already decade-long war with one fatal blow.
The Vietcong did not believe that they could sustain more American abuse on their men, so they planned a full-fledged attack throughout South Vietnam. In late 1967, the United States located their forces in six major Vietnamese cities. Most, even the Vietcong, felt the United States were closing in on victory.
But the aftermath of the Tet Offensive changed everyone’s perspective on the war.
Although the United States recuperated most of the Vietcong attacks on the South Vietnamese cities, the “Massacre at Hue” still lingers in the memories of most native civilians. Besides thousands of innocent civilian deaths, more than 100,000 civilians were left without homes as the entire city was leveled by Vietcong attacks.
The common consensus on the Tet Offensive is a Vietcong failure. But it proved to be a phyrric victory for America and its allies, since many feel as if the Vietcong subsequently changed the military and mental strategies of the South Vietnamese and United States thereafter.
“The Tet Offensive in early 1968 led to the turn-around in America’s role in the Vietnam War: escalation from 1965 through 1967, de-escalation thereafter,” Rosenof explained. He conveyed the Tet Offensive was a major inversion in the layout of the Vietnam War after 1968.
Operation Scotland also made its mark on 1968. Operation Scotland, also known as Operation Pegasus, but better known as the Battle of Khe Sanh may have been the single most publicized battle of the Vietnam War.
Set in the Quang Tri-Province of South Vietnam, which was an old French outpost and then United States base, the Battle of Khe Sanh was a territorial scrounge. The base was a potential United States and South Vietnamese launching post for future operations to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos.
The encounter was a 66-day barrage of explosives that saw the United States military drop 5,000 bombs daily and use the equivalent of five Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs in the area. The entire battle lasted nearly four months, taking 205 United States casualties, wounding 1,600.
But the North was hit hardest, losing an estimated 10-15,000 men in the struggle, a dent in the morale of the Vietcong forces.
Through the eyes of the American public, 1968 was a negative year in Vietnam. To most, it was innocent men dying in a conflict with no finish line in sight. In reality, the year was a turning point in the war and helped the struggle diminish in the early 70s.
For the boys at home, Vietnam was not a desirable venue. Regardless of political affiliations or personal opinions, most felt the battlefield was not the place for a college student.
“The easy way out of Vietnam back then was to be in school, that’s were I was. My roommate in college was actually killed in Vietnam combat in 1963,”said Paul Trent, Director of the Speech Program at Mercy.
Trent expressed the time at Mercy was, “â€¦very tranquil. It was more around 1970 when students became much more conspicuous on political issues.” But Trent also conveyed that times began to get radical in just a four-year time span until 1974.
Trent told the Impact that he was enthralled in theatre back then and possessed no specific thoughts on the Vietnam War. “I thought Vietnam was absolutely outrageous. I never had a positive view on it because I didn’t like that type of turmoil,” he claimed.
’68 in Politics: A turning point in American society?
The 1968 Presidential Election is considered the second closest Presidential race in the history of the United States. The seesaw battle falls second to only the classic 1960 JFK-Nixon duel that ended in Kennedy’s winning the popular vote by a mere tenth of a percentage.
The race, set in the heat of 1968 in a time where a change needed to be made, saw the experienced and determined Republican California Senator Richard Nixon take on Democratic Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey and Independent George Wallace.
The incumbent President and would-be Democratic representative Lyndon B. Johnson withdrew from the race surprisingly on March 31, 1968. Johnson was still eligible for another four-year term, but left the race open to a two-man showdown.
Nixon would eventually defeat Humphrey, beating the Democrat by a slender 500,000 total votes. The Nixon administration, which would later become a scandalous one, was now in office.
“Richard Nixon won the presidency over the segregationist George Wallace who took 12 percent of the popular vote as a third-party candidate. The popular vote for the Democratic nominee declined 18 percent from 1964,” said Rosenof of the significance of the Nixon victory. “It was the point at which the country moved from a liberal reform era to an era of conservative reaction that continued into the current Bush presidency.”
On April 23, students at Columbia University protested the school’s allegedly racist policies and took three school officials hostage. As rumors surfaced about a segregatory gymnasium to be constructed in a local park, students lashed out at administration. Buildings were blockaded, and a protestor David Shapiro took a picture of himself in sunglasses and a cigar behind the university president’s desk. Students began occupying school buildings and eventually had a violent clash with police seven days later. Over 150 students were injured and 700 were arrested.
In September, the women’s liberation movement made headlines when it demonstrated at the annual Miss America Beauty pageant for a week. Hundreds of women marched along the Atlantic City boardwalk shouting “No More Miss America!” and threw bras and other undergarments into garbage bins.
Trent stated that the national radicalism of college students did not touch Mercy College until two years later.
“The students I was teaching in 1968 did not reflect the students that we saw on television protesting,” he recalled. “But within a few years, the administration and faculty realized the changed in student attitude.”
Sports and Leisure
1968’s cultural impact dug much deeper than just the outside world. Entertainment took on a whole new aspect as artists ranging from musicians to actors to sports icons added to an already unforgettable year.
Whether it was Joe Namath waving his finger in the Super Bowl, or African-American Olympic medal winners Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists on the podium as a symbol of “black power,” 1968 was simply an unforgettable year to say the least.
The film industry did a 180 in terms of how movies were now filmed. “Night of the Living Dead,” and “Rosemary’s Baby” changed the perception of the horror film by grossing a combined $45,000,000 in a time when that type of movie gross was unheard of.
The photo of Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, South Vietnam’s chief of police, was photographed executing a suspected Vietcong agent in front of NBC and AP journalists in February of 1968. The photo won Eddie Adams of the AP the Pulitzer Prize for spot photography. He later told Time Magazine, “The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera.”
Director Franklin J. Schaffner’s “Planet of the Apes” did more for Hollywood than further make-up techniques. According to Trent, “Planet of the Apes was not a ridiculous concept. The fear of the bomb was taken for granted as a fact that happened. The fear of atomic warfare was very real, and at the time was easy to respond to the audience.”
1968 also saw the career of one of the most influential directors of all time, Stanley Kubrick. His film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” still ranks today as one of the most popular science fiction films of all time.
Best picture winner was “Oliver” which is based on Charles Dickens’ novel “Oliver Twist.” It was certainly a bizarre choice to win is such a revolutionary year, as it was considered a “throwback’ type of movie, said Trent.
The number one song on the billboard charts was The Beatles “Hey Jude.” Written by Paul McCartney in an effort to comfort John Lennon’s son Julian, the song was originally called “Hey Jules,” but was changed to Jude to fit the song better.
To this day, it is the longest single to ever go number one, and stayed that way because of the Beatles’ unwillingness to cut it short.
According to “The Beatles Anthology,” their record company told them to make it shorter in order for radio stations to play it. They refused, believing it would get picked up no matter what. The song stayed at number one for nine weeks, longer than any other Beatles song, and proved the band right.
“The music was all essentially politically or sexually driven, and sometimes both. I never really had any problems with what was being said in the lyrics because everyone has the right to say what they believe,” commented Dr. Sean Dugan, Interim Dean of the School of Liberal Arts.
Simon and Garfunkel also raced up the charts with “Mrs. Robinson,” which was inspired by the controversial film “The Graduate,” released in late ’67.
“The Graduate was wonderfully influential. The movie was very unusual for me. It was very risqué at the time seeing the relationship between a young man and an older woman,” commented Trent.
Arguably the most famous concert of all time, Woodstock, didn’t actually happen until 1969, but much of the groundwork for the groundbreaking performance of several of the days biggest acts including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and The Grateful Dead, was put together in 1968. A simple idea of making money for the use of their land, Michael Lang, John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, and Artie Kornfeld took out an ad in the New York Times and Wall Street Jurnal that simply stated, “Young men with unlimited capital looking for interesting, legitimate investment opportunities and business propositions.” In doing so, they got the ball rolling on the most memorable concert of all time.
The 1968 summer games in Mexico City are still the only games ever to be held in Latin America. The most infamous and memorable moment came when runners Tommy Smith and John Carlos raised their black gloved fists in the air symbolic of “black power.” Both athletes were banned from the games for life.
“That incident made many people angry; my parents were pretty liberal and they were pretty angry about it. I had mixed emotions. I’m all for civil rights, but maybe they shouldn’t have participated in something represented by the government,” said Dugan.
Muhammed Ali was suspended from the sport of boxing due to his failure to report to duty after being drafted. In his absence, Joe Frazier was named world champion and defeated Buster Mathis in ’67, and retained the world championship in ’68 by defeating Manuel Ramos of Mexico. With Frazier becoming champion and Ali on the sidelines, promoters began to formulate the “Fight of the Century,” when the two would battle for the undisputed Heavyweight Championship.
“Even though the first fight didn’t take place for another three years, it certainly set the stage for what I believe is the most hyped boxing match of all time,” said Prof. Michael Perrota, a freelance sportswriter for the Newark Star-Ledger. “The black communities, along with anyone who was anti-establishment, was infatuated with Ali. Smokin’ Joe was portrayed as ‘The White Man’s Champ,’ and that became his fan base for the fight.”
Ali had denounced the Vietnam War, while Frasier stated that if he were drafted, he would have served. The tension surrounding the match became more of a race issue than about the title, as the blood feud between the two began in 1968 and still exists today.
“Fed by the promoters and the media, Ali’s taunts turned personal. He referred to Frazier as an ‘Uncle Tom’ and an ‘ugly gorilla.’ It is something that Frazier, to this day, has never forgiven Ali for,” said Perrota.
Joe Namath guaranteeing victory for his New York Jets over the heavily favored Colts during the 1968 football season is still to this day one of the most memorable moments in sports history, and the image of Namath waving his finger in the air, ready to keep his promise, has become one of the most iconic images of all time.
Another interesting tidbit. The Boston Celtics defeated the Los Angeles Lakers, four games to two. Forty years later, the Celtics repeated the same victory by the same score.
The investigative newsmagazine program known as “60 Minutes” debuted in ’68. The show currently holds the record for the longest continually running program of any genre scheduled during American network primetime. Johnny Carson was still in the midst of ruling the Late Night with “The Tonight Show,” and Adam West’s conservative take on Batman was the most popular show of the year.