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1968’s chaos: The assassinations, riots and protests that defined our world

Firefighters fight a blaze in Washington on April 5, 1968, when the city exploded in riots after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (The Washington Post)

When Alan Shane Dillingham, a historian at Spring Hill College in Alabama, lectures on the 1960s he starts by displaying a timeline of the decade’s most iconic, tumultuous year — 1968.

The assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. The riots that shook Washington, Chicago, Baltimore and other U.S. cities. Campus protests. Civil rights protests. Vietnam War protests. The Tet Offensive. The My Lai massacre. The rise of Richard Nixon and the retreat of Lyndon Johnson. And so much else: Black Power, “The White Album,” Andy Warhol, “Hair,” Apollo 8, the first black character in Peanuts.

“Was there something in the water?” Dillingham asks his students. “What is it about this year?”

With 2018 marking the 50th anniversary of that extraordinary year, Dillingham and more than 1,500 other historians descend on Washington this week for the American Historical Association’s annual meeting, where they will grapple with that question and others about 1968 in a series of special panels.

The historians arrive in the nation’s capital at a time when many of 1968’s flash points still consume the country, including race, political polarization, war and America’s standing in the world. The man who occupies the White House graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1968 and got a draft deferment for bone spurs in his heels, exempting him from military service in Vietnam.

The election of President Trump, who came of age in the ‘60s, and even the designation of gender neutral bathrooms at the conference are reminders that the political and social forces unleashed at that time still reverberate today. But the historians aren’t looking at 1968 in the context of current events. Instead, they are focusing on how that year shaped — and was shaped — by global events.

A young photographer took this harrowing image of the Vietnam War. He didn’t live to see it published.

In many ways, the panels represent the symbolic pass-the-torch movement that occurs in any field of historical study — a move away from first-person, character-driven accounts in favor of more detached analysis. Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, feminist Betty Friedan and activist-turned-academic Todd Gitlin, author of “The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage,” had great stories to tell (and sell) about the 1960s. But what didn’t they see?

“I think the limitations of historical narratives dominated by participants tell a kind of romantic story — obstacles overcome, that kind of stuff,” Dillingham said. “That’s important, but it can also simplify these moments and prevent you from seeing important connections.”

Younger historians, many of whom were born in the 1970s or later, are examining the ‘60s through a global lens that isn’t tainted by nostalgia.

Dillingham, who is leading a 1968 panel at the conference, is 36 years old. Chelsea Szendi Schieder, a historian who helped organize the special focus, is 34. Fabio Lanza, another ’68 panel leader, was definitely around for 1968, but as a baby.

These younger scholars learned about King, Nixon and the Kennedy clan growing up, then in college and graduate school read works by historians who, as it happened, were often part of 1960s political movements. Gitlin, who teaches at Columbia University, was president of Students for a Democratic Society.

“This is not to dismiss a generation of scholars,” Schieder said, “but I think right now is a kind of reckoning.”

The papers being presented about 1968, for so long treated as an American artifact, certainly reflect that notion. One is titled, “Long Live African Women Wherever They Are! Black Women, Pan-Africanism, and Black Power’s Global Reach.” Another is, “Gender Trouble in Guatemalan Student Movement Memories.” Schieder, who teaches at Meiji University in Tokyo, is presenting “Beyond the Barricades: The Possibilities and Pitfalls of the Campus-Based New Left in Japan,” looking at campus protests that rivaled the more famous ones at Columbia and the University of California Berkeley.

In the 1960s, just about every matter of strife in the United States — race, war, free speech, the establishment — was a matter of contention elsewhere. The timelines line up nicely.

In February 1968, students in Boston staged a hunger strike to protest the war in Vietnam. Not long after, 10,000 people, many of them students, marched in Paris against the war. There were riots in Memphis and Mexico, Washington and Poland.

“The problem with the U.S. and ’68 is that it looks very insular, but it’s not,” said Lanza, a professor at the University of Arizona. “I think that is changing, though.”

But first, historians have some pretty big questions to answer.

One: Which came first, the American chaos or the global chaos?

Another: Why does 1968 loom so large in the narrative of political and cultural change?

There’s a building consensus, historians say, that while 1968 gets all the attention, it is actually a later chapter of a story that begins much earlier — after World War II.

The postwar baby boom in the West and Asia vastly increased the number of people who went to college in the early 1960s. Dorms were crowded. Students argued a lot — with each other and university administrators. Many early campus protests, both in the United States and abroad, were not over Vietnam. They were over dorm living conditions.

“A lot of these small grievances start to snowball,” said Dillingham, the Spring Hill College historian.

And the radicalization moves beyond college campuses, spurred by growing unease over the Vietnam War. As the body count in Southeast Asia grows, Americans take to the streets. But so do Europeans — and they have other concerns, too, including the Cold War clash between communism and democracy playing out on their doorstep. In August 1968, the Soviet Union invades Czechoslovakia to end the political liberalization movement known as the Prague Spring. Suddenly, the whole world seems like it’s coming unglued.

The Black Power protest salute that shook the world in 1968

Amid all of this, there’s the incredible rise of the mass media, particularly television. In 1950, the number of U.S. households with TVs was 3.9 million. In 1968: 57 million. The adoption patterns are similar in other developed countries.

So, when two U.S. athletes gave the Black Power salute at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, the footage is seen around the world. Television helps fuel protests, uniting activists at home and abroad.

“In the late 1960s, black civil rights activists in Alabama are also reading about struggles against colonialism in Africa,” Dillingham said. “And they’re reading about the Cuban Revolution. And they’re reading about the Algerian struggle against the French. They start to understand their local fight within a global framework.”

So what caused what?

“It’s hard to know,” Dillingham says, “because that global context is very much shaping local fights. The global and the local become deeply intertwined.”

What’s local in one place is global in another. Untangling all that is the goal for the conference — and beyond.

“As historians, we don’t have the full picture yet because people weren’t operating only within their national context,” Schieder said.

“So I guess what I’m really hoping in bringing all these different scholars together, is that we can start to say, ‘Oh, I only thought that happened in Argentina. Oh, I only thought that happened in Japan.’”

The scholarly infrastructure is now in place to make these connections. The 1960s even have their own academic journal, called, appropriately, the “The Sixties.”

In an editorial in the first issue, the editors wrote this: “Nostalgia, in its most primitive form, entails the indiscriminate love of a particular past because it is one’s own.”

That year, 1968. It belongs to the world.

Read more Retropolis:

A white mother went to Alabama to fight for civil rights. The Klan killed her for it.

‘The Dragon Lady’: How Madame Nhu helped escalate the Vietnam War

How Jane Fonda’s 1972 trip to North Vietnam earned her the nickname ‘Hanoi Jane’

The gang rape was horrific. The NAACP sent Rosa Parks to investigate.