I REMEMBER THE RIOTS, AND MUCH MORE FROM THE 1960s
It was the time of the Vietnam War. A time when a nation was struggling to understand the truth behind what its leaders were saying. When the measure of victory was the nightly body counts. We must be winning. More of them are dying.
It was a time when a pacifist priest spoke to our high school class in protest. We made signs, in our ignorant response. “Bong the Cong,” “Napalm, not Negotiate.” Two years later, my second in college, I would be sitting in a dorm room stuffed with young males, all intently watching the national military draft lottery, raffle away our future life’s prospects.
Reality counts, truth will out. But sometimes it is only found in history books or articles like this. What were we fighting for?
These were the 1960s. Another “Great Awakening” in America, and not just a religious one. President Lyndon Johnson had succeeded in passing the Civil Rights legislation of 1964. It was John F. Kennedy’s legacy and, to move the law forward, it was necessary to bring Democratic Senator Clair Engle, dying from a brain tumor, back from the hospital. With a crippled arm, he pointed to his eye in assent. That’s how close that vote count was.
And don’t forget that it was Johnson who brought on the “Great Society” programs of Medicare and Medicaid. For 40 years, I’ve paid into their funds, and now find the withdrawal a worthwhile prospect!
These were the times of free speech, feminism, and questioning of the elder generation’s guidance. And the birth control pill changed sexual preferences.
So, what happened to President Johnson in 1968? In January, the North Vietnamese launched the “Tet Offensive.” It advanced in three phases, even breaching the defenses of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Remember the battles at Khe Sanh and Hue? You should read about them.
On March 31, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson had had enough. He went on national television and withdrew from the race to succeed himself as President. “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”
Richard Nixon would win the Presidential election in 1968, promising to restore “Law and Order” to the nation. What had happened in America?
Riots. And soon, “Four dead in Ohio.”
It had not started out that way. In 1967, there was the “Summer of Love” [“if you are going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair” – Scott McKenzie] and the Monterey Pop Festival. That was in California. You still drive past the Monterey Fairgrounds as you drive down Highway101. And everyone was sitting out in chairs, politely listening.
By the time I saw Jimi Hendrix perform, two months later, the seats were gone in the Ambassador Theater in Washington, D.C., and psychedelic art was lit by black lights in the theater auditorium. These were the “hippie” days, newly exported from California. Far too new for East Coast Washington. Way too loud! I left after three songs. How was I going to talk to my date, a new experience for me? Only when I later reached college, did I realize the significance of what I had missed, by walking out on Jimi Hendrix with only ten people in the audience!
Woodstock would come later, on Max Yasgur’s New York farm in 1969. Even in torrential rain, the people, police, and promoters showed how well everyone could work together. The Hippies were winning. That’s when Jimi performed his famous version of our National Anthem. Made it the sound of his generation. A special talent. Give it a listen.
But that illusion of love, coming together with a new music, was shattered at the Altamont Concert, in California, in December of 1969.
I was at that one, too, along with about 300,000 of my friends. I stood up with the others and surged forward when the Rolling Stones came on. I stopped when Mick Jagger stopped singing, and a biker stabbed a man in the front row. We had been pushing him forward. I didn’t know it then, but the Summer of Love had ended. I was still grooving on the previous set by the Flying Burrito Brothers.
What happened in between? What else had I seen? I lived in Washington, D.C., with my family. Driving down the George Washington Parkway in Spring of 1968, in my beige Rambler American Classic, I saw those spirals of smoke swirling out of the fires and riots in Washington, D.C. But I didn’t know what they meant.
Martin Luther King, Jr. had been murdered in Memphis, Tennessee. But I wasn’t going into downtown D.C. I was driving back to Falls Church, Virginia, where my family was living. I didn’t know what it meant.
Martin Luther King was killed on April 4, in 1968, in Memphis. The National Civil Rights Museum, housed in the Lorraine Motel where he was killed, is worthy of your visit.
Then, on June 5, 1968, Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian born in Jerusalem, whose family emigrated to California, assassinated Senator Robert F. Kennedy, JFK’s brother, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California.
It seemed like the world was becoming hell. There was trouble everywhere.
But that didn’t stop John Wilpers and me from touring the west in that Rambler American automobile [“Flight of the Silver Bullet”]. It was good to be young in the summer of 1968. The car died on the return trip.
We have had a succession of Presidents since that time. Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump. And there are protests, again, in our nation.
Maybe it is time to find out what it all means.