What do you remember from April, 1968?
Do your memories revolve around sports? Fashion? Popular culture? The news? Politics?
Who were you dating back then? Where were you in school?
What do you remember from fifty years ago?
Here’s what I recall . . .
They were lighthearted, talented, irreverent and oh so very good looking. Though I never saw them live, never even wanted to, I loved their music. I still do.
But there is so much more to remember of 1968.
I was finishing my second year at a Bible college in Westchester County, NY, to which I’d applied when I thought I was going to be a missionary nurse. By the time I graduated The King’s College, I knew the missionary part was not for me. I graduated that June with an associates degree in “pre-nursing” and went on to Cornell’s School of Nursing in NYC where I discovered the nurse part was also not for me. But let’s stay in April, 1968.
I’d recovered from my first broken heart (JonRon was captain of the basketball team during my freshman year and my body did little flutter-like things whenever he walked in the room) and was dating Gordon (no cutesy nickname for him; not so many flutters either). We’d been on and off since 1966 — we met the day of the White House wedding of Lucy Baines Johnson, to be exact (WHY do I remember such things?).
I had a steady babysitting job nearby in Chappaqua, where I had worked the previous summer as a “mother’s helper” for Jeffrey, Jimmy, and “little Janet.” Yes, I was called “big Janet.” It was a way to distinguish me from the 2 year-old. Yeah, right. Seems you had to be French back then to be called an au pair.
So much happened that year. Looking back at April alone, here’s what still stands out for me:
- I was swinging and swaying to Otis Redding singing Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay. Redding had died the previous December, in a plane crash just three days after recording this hit. He was 26 years old.
- 2001: A Space Odyssey opened in theaters on April 2. I’d never been a fan of sci-fi; real life held enough strangeness for me, and I still have yet to see this film in full. But I certainly heard of it.
- Eugene McCarthy won the Wisconsin primary also on April 2 with 56% of the vote (to President Johnson’s 35%). I looked those numbers up; I’m not that much of a political wonk.
- The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed on April 4. The resulting riots across the country covered by national TV shook this nation to its core.
- President Lyndon Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act, also called the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (to distinguish it from the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which is also called the Voting Rights Act). The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. just the week before helped LBJ garner the needed votes. Many believe it would not have passed then, had we not had that tragedy. Of all the website summaries of this act, this is the one I recommend, from the History dot com site.
- In the Heat of the Night won the Oscar on April 10. I loved Sidney Poitier, though I liked him even more in To Sir With Love the year before.
- Hair opened on Broadway April 29 and went on to have 1750 performances. I saw one of them — from the last row of the upper balcony (with Gordon, btw; you remember him.).
Politics and popular culture were in my sights even then. The Vietnam War was on the news every night; I was aware of it, but I hadn’t begun to pay close attention and wouldn’t begin to march in opposition for another year and a half. For me, it just was.
I have no recollection of sports that spring, no idea what was fashionable. Politics and pop culture, that was it. I don’t even recall my courseload at college that spring, except that I crammed for a World History final and fell asleep during the exam.
I do remember walking into my dorm room at King’s the evening of April 4 to find my two roommates nonchalantly telling me Martin Luther King had been shot and killed. I also remember thinking they weren’t upset enough.
In preparing for today’s post I listened once again to MLK’s final speech, the one he gave in Memphis, Tennessee the night before he was assassinated. You can listen to it and read the full text with this link to American Rhetoric if you’d like. And, in a nod to my inner grad student, I’ve pulled excerpts of it here, in the pulldown “Learn More” window. These are the paragraphs that jumped out at me. I’ve tried to keep it short.
I've Been to the Mountaintop, excerpts
Martin Luther King, Jr., April 3, 1968, Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters), Memphis, Tennessee
Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world. And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?” …
Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.”
Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. …
Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same: “We want to be free.”
I can remember — I can remember when Negroes were just going around as Ralph has said, so often, scratching where they didn’t itch, and laughing when they were not tickled. But that day is all over. We mean business now, and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God’s world.
And that’s all this whole thing is about. We aren’t engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying — We are saying that we are God’s children. And that we are God’s children, we don’t have to live like we are forced to live.
Now, what does all of this mean in this great period of history? It means that we’ve got to stay together. We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity.
Secondly, let us keep the issues where they are. The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. Now, we’ve got to keep attention on that. That’s always the problem with a little violence. You know what happened the other day, and the press dealt only with the window-breaking. I read the articles. They very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that one thousand, three hundred sanitation workers are on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them, and that Mayor Loeb is in dire need of a doctor. They didn’t get around to that.
Now we’re going to march again, and we’ve got to march again, in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be — and force everybody to see that there are thirteen hundred of God’s children here suffering, sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights wondering how this thing is going to come out. That’s the issue. And we’ve got to say to the nation: We know how it’s coming out. For when people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory.
It’s alright to talk about “long white robes over yonder,” in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here! It’s all right to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.
Now the other thing we’ll have to do is this: Always anchor our external direct action with the power of economic withdrawal. Now, we are poor people. Individually, we are poor when you compare us with white society in America. We are poor. Never stop and forget that collectively — that means all of us together — collectively we are richer than all the nations in the world, with the exception of nine. Did you ever think about that? After you leave the United States, Soviet Russia, Great Britain, West Germany, France, and I could name the others, the American Negro collectively is richer than most nations of the world. We have an annual income of more than thirty billion dollars a year, which is more than all of the exports of the United States, and more than the national budget of Canada. Did you know that? That’s power right there, if we know how to pool it.
We don’t have to argue with anybody. We don’t have to curse and go around acting bad with our words. We don’t need any bricks and bottles. We don’t need any Molotov cocktails. We just need to go around to these stores, and to these massive industries in our country, and say,
“God sent us by here, to say to you that you’re not treating his children right. And we’ve come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment, where God’s children are concerned. Now, if you are not prepared to do that, we do have an agenda that we must follow. And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you.”
Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation. And I want to thank God, once more, for allowing me to be here with you.
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
And so I’m happy, tonight.
I’m not worried about anything.
I’m not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!
It was a prophetic speech.
With all these memories, the one I’d like to end with as I look back is that
fifty years ago, old people were a lot younger than they are today.
Today, we understand the value of exercise and good nutrition. We’re healthier, more active, and chew better than at any time in our history. (Yes, chew; I’ve had fluoride in my drinking water since I was about seven.) That’s what government used to be about — making our lives better by funding the research and distributing the findings. Oops, there I go again. I’ll stop.
How about you? What do you remember from fifty years ago? Here to get you in the mood is Otis Redding’s official video of Dock of the Bay. Enjoy.