Fifty years after a turbulent ‘68, America still works

Published 6:50 am Friday, July 6, 2018

Star Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

When Minnesotans in the high school class of 1968 walked across the graduation stage 50 years ago, America was in chaos. War, assassinations and social movements converged to interrupt the innocence of the 1950s and earlier 1960s, when those graduates were growing up.

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Gone, it seemed, were the days when the most important milestones in young lives were that first dance, first kiss and first time behind the steering wheel without a parent in the passenger seat. The lead story in the July 4, 1968, edition of this newspaper described a skirmish between blacks and whites before a Minneapolis speech by race-baiting presidential candidate George Wallace.

Fifty years ago, even pop culture seemed on a downer. One of the most popular songs of the time was “The End” by the Doors, and doom had a front-row seat as the Class of ‘68 entered adulthood. Some graduated and fought for their country; some went to college and some drifted. But most eventually found jobs and careers, raised families and paid mortgages.

During the Mexico City Summer Olympics 50 years ago, U.S. track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos were suspended from the team after raising their gloved fists in a black power salute during a medal ceremony. Today, debate swirls around NFL players who want to kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality.

Richard Nixon, the president we elected in 1968, sought to brush up his image with a “Sock-it-to-me” performance on “Laugh In,” the popular TV comedy hit of the time. Today, we have a president in Donald Trump who made a name for himself with “The Apprentice,” a reality TV show where he bossed everyone around. Nixon went on to ignominy; the jury is out on Trump.

While so much seems similar today — gun violence, racial disparities, immigration and the political divide seem especially daunting — it is worth noting that the nation survived the last 50 years — and the previous 192 — because America still works and cares.

When Houston was hit by Hurricane Harvey last year, it was a flotilla of volunteers from nearby Louisiana known as the Cajun Navy who came to the city’s rescue. When gun violence reached a crescendo of stomach-turning proportions in Parkland, Fla., earlier this year, brave teenagers demonstrated the effectiveness of free speech and peaceful assembly to lead a new discussion about the place for guns in society.

And in the face of deplorable treatment of immigrant families, hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in cities around the country last weekend to make their voices heard.

Since 1968, the U.S. has elected Republican presidents and Democratic presidents, from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, both of whom taught us about American values without preaching from a pulpit.

We’ve had periods of economic recessions during the last five decades and periods of unprecedented economic growth. We’ve been in wars and military skirmishes. But we have survived.

Some things change slowly. It took 50 years, but the Miss America contest will no longer have a swimsuit competition and physical appearance will no longer be a criterion for the title. It’s a small step in the fight for gender equality but a step nonetheless.

We don’t need slogans like “Make America Great Again” to remind us who we are. Sometimes we just need to look at ourselves through a fresh set of eyes.

“If we look at 1968 as a potential guide [to stability], it probably starts at home,” says Matthew Loayza, the History Department chair at Minnesota State Mankato who has studied post-World-War-II politics. “Wherever people stood on issues, there was a common sense of national values. After they brawled, they dusted each other off and started over again.”

We can learn from that.

As for the class of 2018, they can ask their grandparents from the Class of ‘68 for a little advice on weathering turbulent times. As the older generation learned, it’s doable.