PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER
RE-CREATE ’68 ?
The coming of 2008 has triggered a spate of articles about how we were 40 years ago, in 1968. 40 seems to be a magic number, packing some powerful symbolism. Maybe it goes back to the Bible. Have we been wandering, since 1968, 40 years in the wilderness? Is there some promised land at hand? It hardly seems likely.
But lots of writers are finding it instructive to reflect back on how things were 40 years ago. Or perhaps, like me, they just can’t resist the temptation to draw comparisons.
reflections in the mainstream media generally focus on the three most memorable
events of that year: the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert F.
Kennedy, and the Democrat convention in
particularly convenient way to remember 1968. It suggests that these were three
isolated events, connected only by the fact that they were so unexpected, like
thunderbolts of violence bursting out of the blue. Such things were supposed to happen in third
world banana republics, not in solid, stable, peaceable
That was indeed a widespread feeling in 1968. As strange as it may seem, the label “senseless” was actually an effective way to make sense out of the violence. It made the violence seem like a superficial overlay on an unchanging essence of American life, a brief alien invasion that could not change things in any fundamental way.
“Senseless” violence was securely fixed in one corner of the public’s picture of American life. So the violence could not disturb the larger picture of basically good people going about their basically pure, virtuous American lives. The idea of “senseless” violence actually reinforced the traditional American sense of national innocence.
It still does. For millions of Americans, it’s just as comforting now as it was 40 years ago to put the spotlight on one piece of the picture and call it “senseless,” leaving other equally important pieces shrouded in the darkness of historical forgetting.
Many find it convenient to forget that the violence of
1968 hardly came out of the blue. It came out of a complex interplay of many
forms of violence that had been going on since the first white people set foot
More specifically, the three great acts of violence
that get remembered from 1968 all rose directly out of the larger framework of violence
that surrounded American life in that year. On most days, the war in
have changed greatly in 40 years. Now, who even knows that the
In 1968, the Vietnam war might be eclipsed on the TV news when African-American ghettos across the nation burst into flame. Now, TV news still shows us violence in poor (often African-American) urban areas almost daily. But consider the vast difference. Today, the violence is interpreted as isolated criminal acts by individuals seeking money or revenge or having no rational motive at all.
40 years ago, there were also attempts to label the urban violence “senseless.” But nearly everyone knew that the violence was in fact political: an expression of rage against an oppressive system. Nearly everyone knew -- though few had the language to say it -- that the violence in the streets was a direct response to the structural violence that had subjugated people of color for centuries.
Dr. King knew it and he did have the language to say
it. By 1968 he was well into his new career, no longer a civil rights leader
but a radical critic of the three pillars of American empire: racism,
militarism, and materialism. He was
calling for structural change on a scale that would have shaken the empire to
its roots. And he was insisting that white
By June, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was beginning to talk in similar tones. Certainly he never approached the radicalism of Dr. King. But RFK was more threatening in one sense because he was an insider, a full-fledged member of the white establishment, beginning to talk like a radical. How far he would have moved if he had lived, and if he had become president, we will never know. But it’s hard to resist the conclusion that there were people who wanted to make sure we never found out. In that, they succeeded.
Then there was the third great outbreak of violence,
in the streets of
The victims of the violence had come to
The police also understood, at least intuitively, that more than just the war was at stake. Their violence, obviously planned well in advance, was not specifically meant to support the war. It was meant to support the political-economic-social system that gave birth to the war, a system that was under attack in the streets. Their violence was meant to show that the prevailing system would maintain itself, using the code words “law and order,” at all costs.
Now, of course, there’s not much need for such
official violence. The attacks on the system are rather more polite and thus
much less threatening to the establishment. But the
No, we are nowhere near the promised land. The system still rolls on, using violence whenever it seems useful, and using the mainstream media to frame the violence in ways that reinforce the old idea of American innocence.
But it is a good time to stop and remember that there was a time when the violence of the system was challenged by the nation’s most respected, dignified, eloquent orator, by the scion of a super-rich establishment family, and by a mob of scruffy kids who took to the streets as an exercise in good citizenship and planned to have great fun doing it. The system’s violence produced those challenges. And the system’s violence snuffed those challenges out. The violence was totally predictable.
But the resistance to the system was not. It all happened so fast. Just three or four years earlier, hardly anyone in this country could have imagined the kinds of resistance that MLK, RFK, and the protests in Chicago represented -- resistance that was sweeping across the nation in 1968. That was the really unpredictable bolt out of the blue.
Now, 40 years later, we start a new year. We have been wandering a long time in the wilderness. No, we won’t re-create ’68. In history nothing ever really gets repeated. But who know what brand new things might happen this year?
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