It’s that time of year when college students complete end-of-semester projects and prepare for exams in May.
Many graduates will be heading for advanced study at graduate schools while others will be heading to the for-profit and not-for-profit worlds. Some may be going on a sabbatical year to wait for the lingering effects of the pandemic.
I anticipate that many of my students in the Human Rights program at Southern Methodist University, where I teach, will remain active in social justice causes for Black Lives Matter, women’s rights and LGBTQ, activism. anti-hate and beyond.
For many, an uncertain personal and national future looms – circumstances that I personally find familiar.
The graduation marks at this time of year remind me of my undergraduate days and experiences, centering at George Washington University located just three blocks from the White House during the social and political upheavals of 1967 to 1971.
I attended my first anti-war (peaceful) rally at the Pentagon in October 1967 with 55,000 people. I was studying history and philosophy, young (17) and idealistic about wanting my nation to end its terribly confrontational war in Vietnam and focus on achieving racial and sexist justice. And then came 1968, arguably the most important year of the second half of the 20th century in the United States. It turned out to be exhausting in every way possible.
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The Tet offensive was unleashed in Vietnam, and although a complete military debacle for the North, was a time of paradigm shift in that country as public opinion would continuously swing against the war for the remaining years.
On February 8, after three nights of growing racial tension over efforts by South Carolina State College students and other supporters to desegregate a bowling alley business, state police opened fire and killed three students and injured 28 others in the first such tragedy on any American college campus. The Orangeburg massacre would be a sad omen of things to come.
US forces would commit the worst known war crime in our history at My Lai on March 16; On March 31, President Lyndon Johnson announced to a shocked nation that he would not seek re-election and four days later Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. would be assassinated in Memphis.
With my comrades, I watched much of Washington, DC, go up in flames that night. Senator Bobby Kennedy, who would be assassinated two months later, gave a prophetic speech the following day entitled “The Senseless Threat of Violence”; it’s a lesson this nation has yet to embrace.
The nation saw more violence that summer at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, as we witnessed a police riot against protesters on television. Cold War tensions were pushed again as Soviet forces invaded Czechoslovakia, and John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s salute to Black Power from the victory medal stand at the Mexico City Olympics was a painful reminder of the work still to be done to realize Dr King’s vision of a more just society.
The following year, 1969, brought little relief. The war, now under the responsibility of President Richard Nixon, would go on with no end in sight. Britain sent troops to Northern Ireland to quell sectarian violence in what would come to be known as the “Troubles”, a skirmish that would last for three decades.
The riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York in June would forever change America and its LGBTQ struggles, and the counterculture would reach its peaceful climax in August in Woodstock, New York, with crowds of over 400,000. The assassinations of Tate-LaBianca by the Charles Manson “family” this summer in California would make Manson a cult figure for the next five decades.
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The largely peaceful anti-war movement peaked in November as more than 500,000 protesters of all ages and generations converged on Washington as the president said he would not be swayed, instead watching sport at the television.