Saturday, February 05, 2011

"The Center Cannot Hold": The Nightmare Year, 1968

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story. In this passage, I open my discussion on one of the key turning points in U.S. history.

As the first major Democratic showdown loomed in the Indiana primary on May 7, New York Senator Robert Kennedy drew large crowds that responded to his appearances with frightening intensity. The multiple tragedies of 1968 and the dreams that his supporters projected upon Kennedy delicately balanced the candidate at a thin intersection of hope and doom. Friends warned Kennedy that someone would kill him. The question for some was whether he would be slain by someone who despised him or someone motivated by a twisted sense of love.

Kennedy’s fans screamed and wept at his appearances, their faces marked by and their voices touched with pain over past losses and a despairing, wounded hope for a better tomorrow. Bobby’s older brother, President John Kennedy, had been assassinated five years earlier; and the recent murder of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as the bloodshed in Vietnam and a series of race riots that had ripped apart American cities had taken their toll on the emotions of the younger Kennedy’s followers. His audiences reached out to the New York Senator as a refuge from the madness.

“The crowds were savage,” recalled RFK adviser John Bartlow Martin. “They pulled his cufflinks off, tore his clothes, tore ours. In bigger towns, with bigger crowds, it was frightening.” Kennedy biographer Evan Thomas related how a Kalamazoo, Michigan, housewife reached into Kennedy’s open campaign car, grabbed for the candidate, and came away with a trophy – one of Robert’s shoes.

Kennedy would stand in his open top car as it slowly inched through admiring, emotional throngs, briefly touching the hands, arms and faces of grasping admirers while his aide Bill Barry desperately held him from behind, trying to keep him from being pulled away. “Not so tight, you’re going to break my back,” Kennedy was once heard pleading. Nevertheless, on another occasion a woman yanked his head down by pulling on his tie while another woman pulled him off the car completely.

These were violent scenes in a violent year. Two political murders darkened the year, as did the slaughter by American soldiers of the civilian residents of a Vietnamese village named My Lai. In 1968, nearly 16,000 American soldiers died in Vietnam and another 99,000 suffered injuries, the bloodiest year yet of the war in terms of American casualties.

The war also came home. The United States turned on itself, with the conflict between whites and blacks, pro-war “hawks” and anti-war “doves,” between college students and the working class, and between rich and poor often punctuated with bloodshed. “Nineteen sixty-eight was the pivotal year of the sixties; the year when all of a nation’s impulses towards violence, idealism, diversity and disorder peaked to produce the greatest possible hope – and the worst imaginable despair,” observed Charles Kaiser, author of "1968 in America: Music, Politics, Chaos, Counterculture, and the Shaping of a Generation."

In 1920, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats looked back at another time of multiple horrors, the First World War, and composed one of the landmarks of modern literature, a poem called “The Second Coming.” Looking at Europe’s post-war landscape, Yeats wrote:

"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; 

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, 

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere 

The ceremony of innocence is drowned; 

The best lack all conviction, while the worst 

Are full of passionate intensity."

Yeats’ words perfectly describe 1968. It was a year in which the bullet carried more power than ideas. Along with the 1930s, Kaiser argued, 1968 was a time when “large numbers of Americans wondered out loud if their country might disintegrate.” This epic year was a time when political heroes became martyrs, idealism turned to rage, and cities in Vietnam and the United States became funeral pyres.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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