We’ve Come Far, But It’s Still a Long Slow Trip
Updated: Sep 27
This post was originally published at smerconish.com
With riots and destruction, racial tension, a raising daily total of dead Americans, a presidential campaign in a deeply divided country, a worldwide pandemic, and men being rocketed into space, people have been comparing 2020 to 1968. While at first glance the years may appear to be similar, 1968 was a far more tumultuous year, that not only fundamentally changed the direction of this country, for both good and bad, but also helps to explain why we are where we are today, and why we haven’t progressed as much as many people think we have or should have.
To understand why the years, though sounding similar are different, we have to examine the basic elements starting with both societies being deeply divided. Today it’s left versus right, Democrats versus Republicans. In 1968, it wasn’t merely political, it was also generational. It was the hippies versus the hardhats. Workers versus students. Parents versus their own children. While today’s chasm is “us versus them”, in 1968, it was more personal with nuclear families torn apart.
Today, the news features running totals of those who have died from the pandemic, while in 1968, it was weekly account of how many soldiers, American and Vietnamese were killed in action. The pandemic is being caused by an invisible foe created by nature, that makes little distinction regarding who it infects, while the deaths in Vietnam were the result of the choices made by our government, and was incurred by the young, who were mostly drafted and forced to participate, and even there, more of the burden was taken on by the poor and minorities, rather than by the white sons of the wealthy and middle, many of whom were able to avoid the draft with college deferments and other escape hatches.
The protests and marches weren’t just for a few weeks, but rather were an on-going feature for most of the year, motivated by a multitude different causes, including Civil Rights, women’s rights, ending the war and political fights. Protesters lined up at the White House fence chanting, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids you kill today?” on a dialy basis, and when he announced he wouldn’t seek re-election, the battle to be the Democratic candidate to replace him made the Biden/Sanders tussle look like an unruly debate club meeting. The Democratic Convention in Chicago itself, featured police violently beating protesters, all of it on live on television.
As for the Presidential election itself, not only did it feature Hubert Humphrey running as the establishment candidate who promised he’d try to find a way out of the war, against Richard Nixon running on the premise of “Law-and-Order” and putting an stop to those “dirty, long-haired hippies”, but it also featured Alabama Governor George Wallace, an actual unapologetic segregationist, racist, who would often quote Miami Police Chief Walter Headley, who in 1967 threatened the black community with attack dogs and said, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” And Wallace made it very clear what he was suggesting.
If that wasn’t enough, throw in a mix of terrorists, bombings, an international incident where North Korea seized a US Navy ship, the USS Pueblo, and held its crew of 83 men for most of the year, and of course the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr and Robert Kennedy. No, the chaos of 1968 wasn’t like that of 2020, it was violent and more destructive.
Which causes us to ponder the question, with all that passion for change, why didn’t the fight for civil rights and equality progress more over these last 52 years and even more disturbing, why do many believe that we’ve actually already solved the problems? As for the second part, according to a Pew Research Center report in 2019, 43% of Americans thought that the country has gone far enough in giving blacks equal rights with whites and 15% suggested we’ve gone too far. Among those who are or lean Republican, those numbers jump to 53% and 31%. This folks is the reality of America today. Or at least it probably was a month ago.
As for the first part of the question, the problem is that changing societal values is generational, but not one generation to the next, but rather the a slow progress as impact of older distant generations continue to linger on in current day America. It is said that one’s worldview is mostly developed before the age of 25. Key social and emotional coping skills are developed during the formative years between birth and eight years of age, and are almost entirely a product of those close to individual, the family. Between eight and 18, the beliefs and attitudes of the greater community become a factor, and eventually college and workplace experiences in fill in the rest.
2016 was the first year where more than half the electorate was 51 or under, with 69.6 million voters 18-51 and 67.9 million 52 and older. And you were 52 or older, your worldview was influenced by what you saw and experienced in the 1950s and 1960s, and more importantly, by your parents and grandparents, who’s own set of values were developed in the early 1900s, taught you. Think about that for a moment. Almost half of the voters in 2016 grew up in a world where African-Americans and other minorities were second class citizens, where racism was the norm, and where our parents, grandparents and teachers would explain just how much progress had already been made in civil rights since the turn of the century. Heck, unlike when they were kids, we were told, women could now vote and African-American’s could drink out of any water fountain they wanted.
If your 55 years or older, you grew up in a world where you either experienced or saw segregated housing and schools, white-only establishments, and civil rights activists both black and white being killed merely for wanting to ensure that African-Americans could vote. And speaking of voting, remember that segregationist running for President? Almost ten million Americans proudly voted for him and his beliefs. In 1968 you would have watched major college football and basketball programs such as Alabama, Clemson, Auburn, Florida, Duke and Kentucky field all white teams with blacks not allowed to play. During the summer you would see much of the country’s outraged when African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos dared to raise their fists in a black power salute after winning medals at the Summer Olympics. And you’d hear how offended so many people were when NBC dared to show a white Petula Clark, touching Harry Belafonte affectionately on the arm, or Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, kiss Lieutenant Uhura in the first-ever interracial kiss on national television. For good measure and to show that 1968 wasn’t just about race and war, it was also the year that Yale University announced they would admit women in the fall of 1969. If that was your world in 1968, why wouldn’t feel that the civil rights movement has come so far?
For Millennials it’s hard to contemplate that in the scope of American history, those events were so recent, or even harder, that that was the world their parents grew up in. I remember in 2016, taking my now college age daughters to see the film “Hidden Figures” and how difficult was for them to fathom that the space program and white-only bathrooms, occupied the same time period.
The good news is that for the most part, Baby Boomers instilled in their Generation Xers and Millennials children, a vision and hope for a better world, than the world their pre-World War II parents had related to them. Even better, the upcoming Generation Z, will have their worldview shaped by those same Gen Xers and Millennials who we see taking to the streets today, and won’t feel as if we’ve come a long way, but rather be disturbed that we are still even dealing with these issues.
That said, there are two things that made 1968 so special in a positive way. The first, took place at the end of the year, when Apollo 8, from 200,000 miles away, showed us what a beautiful and fragile marble in the darkness of the universal we all inhabited together.
The second was that 1968 had one of the great all-time soundtracks.