today in black history

April 15, 2024

Harold Washington, first Black mayor of Chicago, was born in 1922, and civil rights and labor leader A. Philip Randolph in 1889.

Welcome to 1968

POSTED: January 06, 2018, 11:00 am

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The calendar may indicate it’s 2018 but the nation is very much in a 1968 frame of mind. While the circumstances confronting American society are different in context, the divisiveness is very much in keeping with the atmosphere of 50 years ago. Much of the turmoil that is evident today is the residue of unfinished business from that year in which we witnessed political assassinations, unrest in cities, the rise of a defiant generation of youth, protests on college campuses, the unceremonious end of the civil rights movement, and a growing distrust of government due to our foray in Southeast Asia. 1968 was a year that put an exclamation mark on a decade that represented the baring of America’s conflicted soul and upended the post-World War II narrative of American exceptionalism.

In many ways, the new year is déjà vu – we’ve been here before. For starters, race continues to define America and divide us. Despite some instances of overcoming our racialized history, the embers of hate continue to burn and black people, African-Americans and Latinos, and American Indians, continue to be outcasts in a land built by the hands of their forbearers. The resurgence of patently racist displays and expressions of hate is very much a legacy of the ugliness of 1968; the combination of southern defiance and northern complicity. The hateful rhetoric we hear is the echo of the worse lies of white supremacists of yesteryear, amplified and cast widely via social media and reaching a far greater audience than the technology of 1968 allowed. Today, we get fed a steady diet of hate that shows up on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds.

Like 1968, controversy surrounds the current occupant of the Oval Office. Back then, the sitting president, Richard Nixon, had received a narrow victory by engaging in a “southern strategy” that played upon the resentfulness of whites toward the civil rights movement. Nixon also lobbed culture bombs by perfecting an ‘us v. them’ thematic couched in a law and order framework, admonishing the nation for letting criminals and subversives take over the country. Similar to Trumpian politics, Richard Nixon pledged to restore the nation to some mythic greatness that the evidence of the slaughter of American Indians, the enslavement of Africans and the denial of rights and violence against African-Americans refutes. Still, it is this manipulation of public sentiment that makes the politics of 2018 eerily similar to 1968, and in some ways far more dangerous.

What did we learn in 1968? For one, our political institutions are extremely vulnerable but also astonishingly resilient. The assassination of a candidate in the middle of a presidential campaign and a civil rights leader who had scored victories over Jim Crow set the nation back, but it did not break it. Neither did the decision by an incumbent president to not seek re-election due to dissension over the Vietnam War, and the election of a candidate with polar opposite views, destroy our government though it certainly undermined public confidence. And many of the young people who were in the streets of Chicago in the summer of 1968 are now part of ‘mainstream’ America and have surrendered their peace signs, berets and flower child personas for a middle-class lifestyle.

It is why the resurgence of a 1968 type tension is all the more remarkable and frightening. We’ve been here before and should know better. The nation succumbed to coded language in political discourse and racially driven rhetoric and violence 50 years ago, and the wreckage forestalled the maturing of America and the realization of its potential. We wasted tremendous resources battling hateful legacies that were built on lies and deception, and served only to drive a wedge between blacks and whites alike to benefit an entitled class of white elites. We have been fighting that same battle since 1968, really since the founding of the nation, and today we are being manipulated to engage in the same hand-to-hand combat for the same purpose. The great tragedy of America is that we never really learn from our mistakes, we just find new ways to repeat them.

“The great tragedy of America is that we never really learn from our mistakes, we just find new ways to repeat them.”

It’s 2018 but the Ku Klux Klan is back in vogue, white nationalists wave the confederate flag, Muslims and immigrants are cast as threats to our society, police brutality is rampant and tough talk soaked in divisiveness and sold as patriotism, is spewed from the White House. Like 1968, there is an enemies list and most of us are on it; including those who have been manipulated to believe that their race status is an insurance policy. For most, that insurance policy ran out a long time ago despite the premiums they have been paying with their votes and devotion to demagogues who view working class whites as the necessary collateral damage to retain power in America.

We are being pushed to the limit, and like 1968, the pressure is building and the hate is threatening to engulf the nation. What’s worse, there is no Dr. King, or political leaders like Adam Clayton Powell, Hubert Humphrey or Bobby Kennedy who will speak plainly and truthfully to the nation’s shortcomings and its unfulfilled promise. Instead, we find ourselves frantically chasing an evasive truth that gets lost in the whirlwind of the 24-hour news cycle, propaganda laden White House press briefings, self-serving politicians, and a torrent of social media postings and debates that are steeped in ignorance, bias and outright lies.

We ended 1968 with an American astronaut trying to inspire us to a better place as he circled the moon and read a passage from the Bible. We cannot expect such a lunar life preserver being cast our way when this year concludes. The hate we are experiencing is similar to 1968 but the undertow is far greater and it threatens to take us all under. This year begins for me with a sense of dread; that if we do not take extraordinary steps this country will end this year at the point of no return. History teaches us that so-called great civilizations have fallen under the weight of their arrogance, greed and inhumanity.

So, we begin a new year that might be the beginning of the last chapter of this experiment called America.

Walter Fields is Executive Editor of

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