Opinion pieces recently have been comparing and contrasting what is going on in the year 2020 with what Americans went through in 1968. One such piece in the Washington Post focused on riots, pandemics, and the law-and-order theme in presidential campaigns. Others have focused on causally unrelated events: each year had a viral health crisis, influenza in 1968, Covid-19 in 2020; and each had a landmark space mission.
We want to focus on events relating to the continuing racial problems in our country. 2020 and 1968 look alike, but they are not. The extreme racial violence leading into 1968 was different in at least three ways.
Although most of the victims of racist violence in 1968 were African Americans, some were young white men and women. They risked and gave their lives working for racial justice.
First, although most of the victims of racist violence in 1968 were African Americans, some were young white men and women. They risked and gave their lives working for racial justice. Their deaths horrified, shamed, and disturbed the consciences of white Americans, old and young, except in places where deeply rooted racism was the longstanding way of life for white citizens.
Andrew Goodman (20 years old) and Michael Schwerner (24) from New York City worked alongside African American James Chaney (21) of Meridian, Mississippi for the Congress of Racial Equality. They were abducted, shot point-blank, and buried like animals in an earthen dam (June 21, 1964) near Philadelphia, Mississippi.
Thirty-eight-year-old James Reeb was a white protestant minister with a wife and four children. He was committed to the idea that "you cannot make a difference for African-Americans while living comfortable in a white community." In early March, 1965, as a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he left his family at home in predominantly African American Roxbury, Massachusetts and went to Selma, Alabama in order to join the protest marches. He was clubbed to death while walking with two other white clergymen back to their lodgings outside the 'negro' area of Selma (March 9, 1965). Rev. Clark Olsen, who survived this brutal attack, recalls hearing the three of them called "n- lovers" and then the sickening thud of the wooden club smashing Reeb's skull.
Viola Luizzo, age 39, had grown up in extreme poverty in Georgia and Tennessee and felt profound sympathies for African Americans living as 'slaves by another name' in the Jim Crow South. She felt called to leave her husband and five children to travel from Detroit, Michigan to Selma, Alabama in March 1965. She was shot twice in the head by members of the Ku Klux Klan while shuttling marchers and volunteers by car from Montgomery to Selma.
Second, prominent leaders in the national government and civil rights organizations were themselves relatively young and deeply committed to ending racism. In fact, we are writing this piece on the anniversary (June 11, 1963) of President John F. Kennedy's televised address to the nation explaining what civil rights are and why southern universities needed to be integrated.
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Those who led us as a people had experience, real and vicarious, of the brutality of war and the inhumanity of poverty and prejudice. Martin Luther King, Jr. who had begun working for civil rights when he was 25, was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968 in the prime of his life. Medgar Evers, a WWII veteran, a lawyer and tireless state field secretary of the NAACP, was murdered in his driveway by rifle fire by a member of the White Citizens' Council in Jackson, Mississippi on June 12, 1963. Evers was 37.
John F. Kennedy, a war veteran with an understanding of anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudice, and his brother Robert F. Kennedy were 46 and 43 respectively when they were murdered by gunfire. The Kennedys were children of privilege and elite education, but they came to know, as James Brown would put it, "what it is and what it is."
JFK had introduced civil rights legislation in Congress in April 1963 and RFK, as attorney general, had sent 400 federal marshals to Montgomery, Alabama in May 1961 to protect MLK and other civil rights activists. On May 24, 1963, RFK, while attorney general, held a small informal gathering on race relations with a dozen prominent African Americans including author James Baldwin and singers Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne. Jerome Smith, a Freedom Rider who had been jailed and beaten in Mississippi, came along. Smith did not mince words. He described being arrested and beaten while Justice Department officials stood by and took notes. RFK's conversion was not instantaneous like Saul's on the road to Damascus. But he eventually grasped the day-to-day realities of racism and acted to stop racism.
With Vietnam a constant public issue, RFK could declare, "How long can we say to a Negro in Jackson, 'When war comes you will be an American citizen, but in the meantime you're a citizen of Mississippi—and we can't help you'?"
The third major difference was the Vietnam War and the draft. Phase 1 of the Tet Offensive and the prolonged siege of U.S. Marines at Khe Sanh from January to July 1968 were determining factors in turning public opinion against the war. With Vietnam a constant public issue, RFK could declare, "How long can we say to a Negro in Jackson, 'When war comes you will be an American citizen, but in the meantime you're a citizen of Mississippi—and we can't help you'?" The universal draft exposed every young American coming of age to mortal danger. It made many families think about Saigon and Khe Sanh and about Jackson and Selma and Montgomery at the same time.
The contrast with 2020 is clear. Right now, we have neither a critical mass of mainstream Americans nor young dedicated leaders in political office who feel deeply enough about what is going on to do more than debate the acceptable boundaries of police use of force and how to keep targeted minorities from responding to acts of violence with violence. On the positive side, Rev. Al Sharpton sees reason for hope in the racial and gender diversity of the protesters at recent peaceful demonstrations. If we are to reach another new frontier, we may have to rely on each other—a remarkable 'ask' in the time of Covid-19, but one that many people, young and old, seem to be answering. We can draw upon models of moral courage and moral leadership in the 1960s.
We have martyred victims in 2020 who are calling us to do more than demonstrate. 2020 is not 1968, but it could be.