COMMENTARY: Think we’re divided today? Remember 1968

Everybody talks about the current political climate in the United States, how the opposing political views are so divisive, and how the fire and fury will tear our nation apart. Certainly, those are valid concerns.

But then I look back at 1968. The music proclaimed that it was all about long beautiful hair and the Age of Aquarius. But the planets were not aligned to let the sunshine in. Instead the Vietnam War, the draft, and multiple assassinations cast a pall over our country that endures 50 years later.

For many of us, 1968 will always be remembered as a dividing point between the past and the future. It would be my last year of law school and my last student deferment. I knew my graduation would be followed immediately by my draft notice. And it was, within two weeks of graduation. In 1968 the draft hung over everyone. It was a way of life. I accepted it as part of my duty as a citizen, as did most, although there were a few who fought their draft notices, claimed new deferments (e.g., bone spurs), or simply fled to Canada. (Later, the lottery changed the rules; then in 1973 the draft was eliminated entirely.)

Behind the draft curtain was the Vietnam War, which was killing our best and our brightest at an alarming rate — some 15,000 Americans died just during 1968. The year started out with the Tet Offensive on Jan. 31, when the North Vietnamese led 85,000 troops in a coordinated attack against major cities throughout South Vietnam. The battles for Hue and Khe Sanh for many became the turning point in the war.

While our troops were being hammered, two of our country’s most iconic figures were being assassinated here in the United States. On April 4, in Memphis, Martin Luther King Jr. was fatally shot by James Earl Ray as King stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, preparing to lead a major march in support of striking city sanitation workers. On June 5, in Los Angeles, Bobby Kennedy was fatally shot by Sirhan Sirhan as Kennedy stood at the podium of the Ambassador Hotel, proclaiming victory in that day’s California presidential primary.

In August, in Chicago, the Democratic National Convention brought with it anti-war protests. These generated mass violence as 10,000 demonstrators were confronted by more than 20,000 police and national guardsmen. Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Tom Hayden became famous as part of the Chicago 7 who were tried for their part in the in the protests and violence.

King’s assassination sparked uprisings in as many as 100 U.S. cities. These riots and destructive fires in turn spawned protest marches that both vented the simmering anger and carried the message that the social unrest in our country had to be addressed. I clerked that summer for a large Washington, D.C., law firm and vividly recall being encouraged by the firm’s senior partners to join in a protest march along Constitution Avenue to show support for the cause of peace and reconciliation. I did march, and I felt energized by walking in the protest march because it showed by the power of the spoken word and the marching masses.

Later in the year, running on a platform of law and order, Richard Nixon captured the theme of the country and thumped Hubert Humphrey in the presidential election. That election, now enhanced with the hindsight of Watergate, certainly marked an ominous ending for a tumultuous year.

Dayton attorney Merle Wilberding is a regular contributor.

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