by John Colgan-Davis
“Don’t forget to turn your clock back 50 years before you go to bed tonight.”– Quote attributed to former pro football player Warren Sapp in response to the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial.
“ Voting is no racial entitlement?”– Letter to Justice Scalia from journalist Melissa Harris-Perry.
I visited the National Constitution Center two weeks ago and saw their current exhibit, “1968: An Extraordinary Year in American History.” I was 18 in 1968, so this exhibit has incredible relevance for me. Looking back from the vantage point of 2013, a lot of who I was and who I became can be seen coming into focus and/or being solidified in that year.
I was learning to play music in a serious way at that time, and I was involved in the Civil Rights and Social Justice Movements, took an active role in the anti-Vietnam War movement and expanded my reach in terms of literature and culture. The exhibit looks at a lot of those things, and there were parts of it that were very emotional to me. There were, of course, parts of the exhibit I didn’t care about all that much — 1968 fashion and television, for example.
But the cultural and especially the political changes and challenges engaged me and deeply. Touched me. Hearing and seeing a video of Dr. King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech and then seeing his funeral and news coverage of the riots following his assassination; watching news coverage of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination and funeral procession; hearing interviews with former U.S. soldiers on their experiences during the Tet Offensive and doing so in front of an actual Huey helicopter used in the war, watching the chaos of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago: these things caused me to stop several times and weep.
1968 was a time when U.S. culture went through one of those seismic changes that echo long after the year has passed; it set into motion many things that still affect us today. We now see real blood and hear real language in movies; colleges like Yale finally admitted women; “underground” music such as country soul and blues went mainstream; distinctions based on class became less important. And the politics of the nation were challenged in new and startling ways that affect us to this very day.
This was a time in which different politics went toe-to-toe in the public arena, in political organizing and on the news. The Black Panthers and Black Power movements appeared; radical leftists such as Students for a Democratic Society came into view; the rebirth of the KKK, American Nazi Party and like-minded groups occurred; Ceasar Chavez organized the Farmworkers union; NOW had helped make feminism a household word, and the Communist and Socialist parties were still organizing and running candidates.
In 1968 the sitting President, Lyndon Johnson, decided not to run for re-election due to the turmoil in the country about the Vietnam war, and this led many people from all different perspectives to join the race. There was an anti-war candidate in Eugene McCarthy, a somewhat anti-war candidate in Bobby Kennedy; there was Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, who represented the last of the Roosevelt coalition with an eye toward Civil Rights.
There were other, very different perspectives. There was eventual winner, Richard Nixon, who promised a return to old values and Law and Order. He devised what was later called “A Southern Strategy” to take advantage of much Southern upset over Civil Rights legislation. There was arch segregationist George Wallace, who had once stood in the doorway at the University of Alabama to deny entrance to black students and whose most famous line was “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
He won five states outright and captured 46 electoral votes. The 1968 election, then, was monumental, even if it didn’t seem so at the time. It was the election that shattered the remains of the Franklin Roosevelt-built coalition that had been in place since the Depression and WWII, leading most notably to the rise of the powerful state conservative movements that have since moved on to the national scene It was the election that set the stage for the gradual emergence of the Libertarians, and the Tea Party.
So in some very important ways, 1968 represented an attempt of much of the U.S. to get past a lot of its early baggage such as government-sanctioned racism and old gender roles. But as so often happens in dynamic societies, change is not necessarily permanent. I took in the exhibit in light of recent events in both U.S. courts and state legislatures. Pennsylvania and 20 other states passed voter ID laws that many acknowledged would make it more difficult for certain groups of voters to register and vote.
So hearing and watching the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech and knowing the pain, suffering and death that were behind that 1965 Voting Rights Act was a bitter irony indeed. I was watching that speech after legislatures in the U.S. said it is alright to make voting harder for some people in the U.S., and the Supreme Court said that doing so is sanctioned by the highest court in the land.
The verdict in the Zimmerman trial affected me in much the same way. A legislature has decided that it makes perfect sense for to pass a law which says that even if I instigate an action that results in a life threatening situation, I have a right to take another person’s life and not be held accountable. (Remember that Zimmerman got out of his car and approached Trayvon Martin AFTER being told by police not to follow Martin.)
What this means is that the gains represented by 1968 will remain in place only as long as citizens actively work to keep them in place. And that social progress exists only to the extent that it is not taken for granted . So we need to be actively involved in the process. We need to register to vote AND help others do so. Rights are not things given to nations. They are gained with struggle, and they are maintained with work and vigilance. And we won’t notice them being taken until they are already gone. The “1968” exhibit will run through Sept. 2. at the Constitution Center, 525 Arch St. For more information: 215-409-6600 or constitutioncenter.org.
John Colgan-Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is a Mt. Airy resident, teacher and member of the Dukes of Destiny, a rockin’ blues band.