We engage in commemoration. Doing so serves a twofold purpose: to celebrate and reflect, and to learn from history–learn from both mistakes and triumphs. Remembering on an intermittent basis keeps events in our hearts and minds. We remember birthdays and anniversaries yearly, some others upon reaching a decade. But, a Golden Anniversary usually brings about a major homage.
As we plow into 2018, there is a lot to do looking forward, but I’d like to take the time to look back 50 years so we can recall some events from an extraordinary year.
The year was 1968 and it was one of tumult. We were mired in three wars; one hot in Vietnam, one cold against the Soviet Union, and a third war, right here at home–the establishment fighting the protesters who were just starting to show disdain for the opaqueness of actions taken by our government and economic leaders. 1968 was mostly a dirge with only a smattering of calls for “Ode to Joy.”
Events cascaded one after another. Starting on January 23, the North Koreans captured the U.S.S. Pueblo, a surveillance ship that they said had purposely traveled over seven miles into their territorial waters. Of course, we contended they were wrong and that the ship was in international waters. The crew was captured, tortured and finally released just before the end of the year. Naturally, tensions and threats ensued. We’ll be reflecting on the 50 years since that incident in less than two weeks while we are still at odds creating renewed tensions and threats with the same country.
Jan. 30, marks the North Vietnamese army launching the Tet Offensive. The Lunar New Year was usually cause for celebration in the region and a time for temporary truces. Not in 1968. The raid into South Vietnamese territory was a complete surprise as 85,000 Vietcong soldiers attacked 36 cities. The toll was massive and the U.S. military looked vulnerable for the first time. By March the My Lai massacre had occurred, further staining America.
On April 4th, unspeakable tragedy struck when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Dr. King was the unchallenged champion of the nonviolent civil rights movement for 15 years. He had been holding his civil disobedience together by a thread in recent months and after his death, a more violent facet took over parts of the movement with people willing to burn down the country to gain equality.
President Lyndon Johnson went down on April 16. Four years prior he had won a landslide victory, gotten massive civil rights legislation passed, and installed Medicare, but was forced to drop out of the race for his second full term partly by throngs of protesters outside his office, day and night, chanting, “Hey, Hey, LBJ. How many kids did you kill today?” His mishandling of the war had destroyed any good his Great Society had created. It likely destroyed the man as well.
One week later, on April 23, students at Columbia University took control of several buildings on campus in what began as nonviolent protests over the school’s participation in war research and building a gym for the school, using property zoned for low income housing. Police overreaction led to more agressive protesting by students and faculty, closing the school for the rest of the semester. Both protests were successful and campus unrest ensued around the country.
Then came June 5th/6th. Robert Kennedy, who was on his way to a likely Democratic nomination for President of the United States–another leader and voice of reason–was whisked away with the squeezing of a trigger.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos, two winning Olympians, got their chance for peaceful protest on Oct. 16 as the summer Olympics wound down in Mexico City. On the presentation stand, they both removed their shoes to protest poverty, wore beads around their necks to protest lynchings, and upon receiving their medals, they each raised a gloved fist with heads bowed to salute Black Power, one of the factions that filled the void left by MLK’s assassination. We are still protesting and having to deal with racial injustice. The NFL kneeling protests mirror Smith and Carlos to a T. Perhaps we should pay closer attention to what occurs in real time and not have to rely on 50 years of history for our lessons.
As a fitting wrap-up, police in Chicago violently beat protesters in Grant Park outside the Democratic National Convention and Richard Nixon was elected president, which of course, led to many more American Tragedies in the coming years.
Suddenly there was hope. After a year of crisis, doom, and gloom, we finally made it to December. On Christmas Eve, the Apollo 8 moon mission capsule with astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders aboard, reading Bible verses to intent listeners on Earth, disappeared behind the moon in a first ever orbit. These men were the first to see the dark side of the moon and as they finally emerged on the other side, they were the first to see another sight. They witnessed an Earthrise. Anders grabbed the camera and took photos of awe and beauty no human had ever seen. The photo of our medium sized, blue and white planet was stunning. It was published on newspaper front pages, on the covers of magazines, it became a stamp. The sight of our planet from such a vantage point was humbling. It reminded us that we all share this planet and that if it were to survive in its stark environment, we’d need to work together to keep it viable.
Finally, an event to celebrate! And, celebrate we will, next Christmas Eve, as the Golden Anniversary is commemorated. But, we should do much more. Those of us who remember should carry those lessons forward. We can learn only if our stories of failure and success are kept alive.