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Two short years after 1968, the year the United States endured a series of cataclysmic episodes of politically tinged bloodletting, historian Richard Hofstadter observed that “Americans certainly have a reason to inquire whether…they are not a people of exceptional violence.”
Indeed, as ’68 brought shockwave after shockwave—assassinations, urban riots and ugly news from the Vietnam War front—a fierce national debate buzzed: Was the United States a society far more prone to violence than all other industrialized nations? And if it was, what made it so? Fifty years later, the debate still rages.
The question crossed the lips of political leaders, activists and those in the nation’s mainstream news media. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil-rights icon and Nobel Peace Laureate, told striking workers in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3, 1968 that “the nation is sick, trouble is in the land.” After a racist gunman shot and killed King the next day, The Los Angeles Times editorialized that “we are a sick society that has fallen far short of what we claim to be,” adding that a “kind of mental and moral decay is eating out the vitals of this country.” The New York Times pinpointed the sickness as coming from the stench of racial prejudice and racial hatred that remained powerful currents of thought and were at the root of the murder of the iconic civil rights leader. “We are becoming…a violent nation of violent people,” the Louisville Courier-Journal moaned.
When Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in June of that year, President Lyndon Johnson cautioned the American people against jumping to any conclusions “that our country is sick.” But his vocal, defensive claim had the unintended effect of signaling that something was fundamentally off in the nation’s body politic. What was causing the violence? Was the United States sick? These were the pervasive questions shaping American conversation in 1968. And while Johnson was among those who maintained that the country’s democracy was fundamentally healthy, most other American leaders and activists disagreed.
They differed, though, over the ailment’s causes.
VIDEO: The Assassination of RFK The assassination of Robert Kennedy was another tragic incident in a year marked with unrest.
Depending who you asked, the culprit could be one or more of a laundry list of toxic forces. Maybe it was the daily dose of Vietnam war violence being broadcast into Americans’ living rooms, or the televised images of inner cities in flames. Maybe it was the spewing of racist ideas and committing of racist acts, even though civil rights and voting rights had passed into law. Perhaps it flowed from the ubiquity and easy access to firearms by hate-filled madmen, or from the breakdown of social mores as rebellious young Americans openly thumbed their noses at tradition and authority. For some, it was a growing crisis of faith in a government that allowed so many citizens to languish in poverty—and that repeatedly lied to its people about lack of progress in the war effort.
Indeed, for many on both the left and the right, there was a feeling that the “system”—the nation’s institutions, be they civic, political or religious—had become complicit in fomenting the violence (Vietnam). Or, at the very least, it had been unable to restrain Americans’ pervasive violent impulses.
Of course, politicians stepped in, beat their chests and proffered their prescriptions. Some—most notably Richard Nixon—vowed to restore the rule of law, bring order to chaos and apply the balm of patriotic fealty and godly devotion. In his 1968 speech accepting the Republican nomination for president, Nixon acknowledged the scourge of national violence and hatred. And in a prelude to his later famed “silent majority” speech, he hailed “the quiet voice…of the great majority of Americans, the forgotten Americans—the non-shouters; the non-demonstrators. They are not racists or sick; they are not guilty of the crime that plagues the land.” Blaming the nation’s leaders for America’s convulsive state, Nixon offered himself as the solution: leadership that would crack down on lawlessness and counteract years of what he characterized as Democratic failure.
Not that the nation’s past hadn’t been littered with politically driven bloodletting. The Civil War alone left more than half a million dead. Racial prejudice inspired unrelenting barbarity against African-Americans—slavery, lynching and systemic police brutality—along with steady outbreaks of violence directed at a wide swath of ethnic minorities and immigrants. The U.S. had a deep history of political assassinations and bombings committed by shadowy groups or lone wolves with murky causes. And the state had used its fair share of clubs, guns, teargas and more to quash everything from labor strikes to legal protests.
But 1968 appeared to reinvigorate this legacy of politically motivated violence and cap a decade of politically tinged bloodletting. “Violence in the United States has risen to alarmingly high levels,” one government report, issued in December 1969, announced. “Whether one considers assassination, group violence or individual acts of violence, the decade of the 1960s was considerably more violent than the several decades preceding it and ranks among the most violent in our history.” And the violence of 1968 in particular clashed with Americans’ notions of what it meant to be a 20th-century superpower—especially one touting the ideological supremacy of democratic rights and freedoms amid the anxieties of the Cold War.
Martin Luther King’s assassination, followed quickly by Bobby Kennedy’s, dashed much hope that social progress and economic justice could be achieved through nonviolent means. By 1968, each man was agitating to end the war in Vietnam and to curb racial and economic inequality by mobilizing a biracial coalition of working-class Americans. Their murders fueled the notion that King had been prophetic about the nation being “sick” and “troubled.”
But it was more than just the two political assassinations of towering liberal and civil-rights leaders. In the aftermath of King’s assassination, the country appeared powerless as the largest wave of urban riots in history engulfed more than 120 cities. The grim tally deepened the despair and sense of dread: 39 dead, more than 2,600 injured and countless African-American communities ravaged, left with millions of dollars in damages and losses.
When Kennedy was murdered by a 24-year-old Palestinian on June 5, President Johnson mourned how “a climate of extremism, of disrespect for law, of contempt for the rights of others” had led to an outbreak of uncontrollable violence. He even announced the formation of a National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, which later concluded that the root cause of America’s sickness was a dearth of employment and educational opportunities in America’s “inner cities.” The Commission ultimately recommended that the United States overhaul its criminal justice system, adopt “a national firearms policy” to restrict access to handguns, provide more opportunities for youth to work in public service, and “improve the conditions of family and community life for all who live in our cities, and especially for the poor who are concentrated in ghetto slums.”
The pattern didn’t end with RFK’s assassination. The sickness seemed to flare anew on the streets of Chicago outside the Democratic National Convention in August. TV cameras beamed into Americans’ living rooms images of antiwar protesters and Yippies as they marched to decry U.S. involvement in Indochina and voice grievances against an amorphous “establishment.” Law-enforcement officers kicked and beat the mostly nonviolent youth, unleashing what the government later described as a “police riot.” Inside the convention hall, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who had orchestrated the police crackdown, shouted down his critics with an expletive-laced tirade. And when the Democratic Party essentially ratified Johnson’s war—with little move to withdraw forces or find a way to end the conflict—it ignited the fury of the antiwar left. The result: a further fracturing of liberalism, arguably the nation’s most powerful political creed since the New Deal.
There were additional incidents, both at home and worldwide, that made the question of national sickness more urgent. Police violently expelled student protesters from buildings on Columbia University Morningside Heights campus, dealing a blow to the idea of college campuses as havens for American dissent. From Paris to Berlin to Mexico City, students and workers protested, police cracked down and blood flowed in the streets. Just 23 years after the United States led a coalition to defeat the evil of Nazi fascism, Western democracy itself seemed engulfed in one violent outbreak after another.
VIDEO: Why Did Columbia University Students Protest in 1968? Learn how the Vietnam War and the construction of a gym on campus prompted Columbia University student groups to protest the administration in 1968. See how their numbers swelled into the thousands and inspired student protests all over the country.
For a time, the promise of nonviolence as a means to advance social change appeared to have been defeated. Some African-American leaders and activists, including the Black Panthers, soured on King’s nonviolent approach, instead advocating violent confrontations with an oppressive white establishment. King himself questioned the efficacy of his nonviolent movement at times. The activist movement Students for a Democratic Society—which in its definitive 1962 political manifesto, the Port Huron Statement, declared that “people are fearful…that at any moment things might be thrust out of control”—saw their prophecy fulfilled. By decade’s end, the group’s radical splinter faction, the Weather Underground, turned to bomb-making and more violent means of revolution.
Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss 1968 as a year when the United States simply unraveled and lost all hope of civil discourse. The legacy of nonviolent solutions to social and political problems remains alive in 2018. Witness the 2017 Women’s March, the #MeToo movement and the student-led campaign to impose common-sense gun restrictions. And while the abuses of urban police departments remain rampant 50 years on, the Black Lives Matter movement, combined with increasing media scrutiny of police violence against African-Americans, serve as reminders that efforts to reform police practices and the criminal-justice system remain central to the political conversation.
Yes, the violent, bloody shadow of 1968 still casts itself over the United States 50 years later. But the year amounted to more than just moments of horrific beatings and assassinations. Five decades on, it’s equally clear that the legacy of peaceful protest on behalf of economic and social and civil rights—the idea of peaceful electoral change through the ballot box—didn’t die in 1968. It survived that brutal, tumultuous year, and is still very much with us.
Matthew Dallek is associate professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management and author, most recently, of Defenseless Under the Night: The Roosevelt Years and the Origins of Homeland Security.