The CNN special 1968 is worth watching. Why? History matters. It always has. 1968, fifty years ago, resonates today through the resulting cultural and social changes of that year. That year changed our country and influenced many of us who lived through it.
In 1968, I turned 16. Social changes rocked the country. Integration was now the law of the land. Old restrictive ways, legal and illegal, said and unsaid, began to erode. Civil unrest reigned. Riots, demonstrations, the struggle for women’s rights, a presidential election that included the governor from my home state of Alabama, and the Vietnam War dominated the headlines.
At 16, my priorities were simple teenage desires. I was focused on the freedom a driver’s license could bring me. I got my license in February, but initially there was little driving for me. I had to earn the money to pay my car insurance. It took me a while even though I had a weekend job. Finally! I had a license, insurance and occasional access to the family car.
While the world swirled around me I continued in my teenage world.
On January 14, I watched the Green Bay Packers with Alabama’s Bart Starr defeat the Oakland Raiders 33-14 in Super Bowl II at Miami’s Orange Bowl.
Five days after that, on January 21, my family celebrated my birthday with homemade vanilla ice cream and my favorite of my Mom’s cakes, chocolate icing with pecans.
In sports, I went out for spring football practice.
As a fledgling speaker, I admired Dr. Martin Luther King. That year he delivered two of my favorites. Years later, I would learn his The Drum Major Instinct and I See The Promise Land and would deliver them in churches.
On April 4, many of us who were teens had to grow up when a gunman ended Dr. King’s life, and the hopes and dreams of many Americans, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Riots erupted across the country. It was a scary night for me as I made my way home from spring football practice. The crosstown trip would take two-and a-half hours and three buses to make the trek from my private high school to my home.Since the age of 14, I had lived in the segregated world and the integrated private school world that my dad paid for with two and sometimes three jobs. I often said that I was an ambassador between those two worlds. That night, I felt as if both worlds had failed me. I was alone and afraid.
Two months later, Robert Kennedy, running for President, was assassinated like his brother President John Kennedy was in 1963. Literally, the world has never been the same. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King in the same year two months apart. Five years after John Kennedy. What if, they had lived? What if’ was the question many of us asked over and over. A world of justice, peace, and love had seemed so close.
Change continued throughout the year.
On May 13, one million students marched through the streets of Paris.
In the fall of 1968, Henry Harris, a basketball player from Boligee, Alabama, entered Auburn University as its first African American scholarship Athlete. He was the first in the states of Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. He would become a friend and big brother to me.
On September 24, 60 Minutes debuted on CBS.
On October 16, at the Olympics in Mexico City, with the world watching, African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their fists in a black power salute after winning, respectively, the gold and bronze medals in the Olympic men’s 200 metres. They were both banned from future Olympic games.
On November 5, Republican challenger Richard Nixon defeated the Democratic candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and American Independent Party candidate and Alabama Governor, George Wallace. Nixon would become the President of the United States.
On November 14, Yale University announced it would admit women.
1968, like 1963, changed us all. Many of us remember what we were doing when those critical historical moments occurred. Some still debate the value of those times. I agree with Dr. King, “Time is neutral it can be used either constructively or destructively.”