By Anastazja Kolodziej
1968 was marked with events that have guided the collective understanding of the United States as a nation. From the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and increasing opposition to the war, to the Democratic National Convention riot in Chicago, to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, 1968 is not just another meaningless date found in a “dusty textbook,” said librarian Eric Lindquist.
Six speakers lectured about important events from 1968 and their relevance today at the “You Say You Want a Revolution? 1968 and Its Legacies” forum at this university Wednesday, Nov. 14.
This year marks 50 years since 1968.
The forum was moderated by Lindquist, the university’s history, American studies, classics, and religion librarian. It consisted of several professors at this university, who spoke about matters related to history, computer science, kinesiology, government and politics, and African American studies. A retired university archivist also spoke about 1968 on campus. The panelists explained the societal changes that occurred in 1968 from various perspectives.
Dr. Katarina Keane, a professor in the history department and the executive director of the Center for Global Migration Studies, spoke about the role of protests and riots worldwide in 1968. While these protests occurred for different reasons, they were similar because they all involved student activists.
“They may not have agreed on anything. They may have come from very different political persuasions. They could’ve been socialist, nationalist, liberals…” Keane said. “But many of these activists were students or they were young people.”
Two of the main sites in which students sought social change were education and culture, Keane said. Many students saw the university as a “microcosm for ills in society” and so were encouraged to protest within their institutions. They also looked to protest to change the structure of society and to tear down traditional authority roles, Keane said.
Dr. David Andrews, a professor in the Physical Cultural Studies Research Group within the kinesiology department, also spoke about the role of protest in 1968, but through the perspective of sports.
During their medal ceremony for the men’s 200-meter run at the Mexico City Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos took off their shoes, bowed their heads and raised one of their fists, on which they wore a black glove. Along with the third medalist, Peter Norman, they also wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge.
Although the incident was considered a significant act of protest, it had a moderate impact in terms of bringing about change, Andrews said.
“It made its mark on the world, on our symbolic imaginations and, to a degree, to our enduring political imaginations,” he said.
The act of protest is still important in sports today. One of the most well-known sports activists, Colin Kaepernick, sparked controversy in 2016 when he chose to kneel during the national anthem to protest racial oppression.
“There is a clear homage that Kaepernick paid to both [Smith and Carlos] in recognizing the lineage of this form of athlete activism,” Andrews said.
Dr. Jerry Semper, who was a law enforcement officer in New York and is still a police academy instructor in addition to his role as professor of African American studies at the university, explained that the riots in 1968 helped to create the divide that currently exists between citizens and the police.
“Policing was supposed to be police officers helping out in communities,” Semper said. And for a while it was, until 1968.
When civil unrest began with riots in Detroit and Chicago, the police responded with violence. When Martin Luther King, Jr. died, dozens of demonstrations erupted throughout the country, which was a level of protest that police departments had never seen before, Semper said. As a result, police began generalizing against people who fit the standard for a protester, including students and African-Americans, even if they had not committed any crimes.
“The view [now] is ‘everybody is a criminal, unless…’ and it was not that way. It was ‘everyone is a good citizen, unless…’” Semper said. “If there’s going to be a change in policing in America, it’s the police themselves that have to change, their views have to change.”
All six speakers agreed that, despite its tumultuous nature, 1968 was a significant year in American history. While the events that occurred in 1968 were overwhelmingly negative, such as the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, or unsuccessful, considering most of the year’s protests failed, the impact the year holds on our current society cannot be understated, Keane said.
During the event, Lindquist quoted from Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.”
“’It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,’” Lindquist said, referring to 1968. “It might’ve been mostly the worst of times, but there were some bright spots.”
The talk was one of a series of lectures from the university’s Interdisciplinary Dialogue Series, held at McKeldin Library.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of Anastazja Kolodziej/Bloc Reporter.
Anastazja Kolodziej is a sophomore journalism and classics major and can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.