1968 and Now

By Michael Ansara

Editor’s Note:
In “1968 and Now” a father struggles with whether his generation of civil rights activists were successful.  The piece is intensely vulnerable as it searches for signs of progress in lost time.  Have we fought hard enough for human rights?  Civil rights leader and longtime Georgia congressman John Lewis inspired many with his dedication to America.  He is acclaimed for his indignant approach to social justice.  And in the spirit of his penchant for Good Trouble, we are seeking stories about the times you used your voice to inspire and create change.  What did you learn about fighting injustice?  When were you inspired to stand up for yourself and others in support of human rights?
Vanessa Lewis, Blog Editor


My 28-year-old son turns to me, “You failed, you failed.” We are attempting to discuss the morality of the moment. Is violence against police morally defensible?  Is there any case that can be made to not vote? I am attempting to pass on lessons from my youth. He is having none of it. “You failed completely,” he hurls at me in bitter condemnation. “Completely.”

The “you” is not just his father; it is the vaunted baby-boom generation and even more specifically the young activists and organizers of the movements of the 1960’s of which I was one. I remember all too viscerally that passionate refusal to listen to older people. I want to argue with him that we did not fail, or at least not completely. However, given the current state of our politics, the unbroken chain of police killings of unarmed Black people, abiding segregation of schools and communities, a raging pandemic that has already claimed over 200,000 American lives, no effective action to blunt climate change, unemployment at Depression levels, and income and net worth inequality at the highest in 100 years, it is hard to argue with him.

Given American cities in protest, the national guard and police out in force, a pivotal national election looming, unnecessary deaths caused by the actions and inactions of our feckless national leaders and the sense that the country is spinning out of control, that anything could happen, that each week brings the unthinkable, 1968 echoes in the collective memory.

1968, one year which seemed the length of ten. 1968, year of hope, year of blood, year of upheaval, year of historic inflection; year of firestorms, year of surprises, year of lost opportunities. 1968, a year that rocked the foundations of societies around the world, from Paris to Prague, from Berlin to Mexico to Washington. The year that we activists thought we were driving historic change when we were bobbing like small corks on the surface, driven furiously by the maelstrom. The year that we failed.

***

Late in 1967, Tom Hayden, one of the founders of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), came to Massachusetts to drum up support for massive demonstrations in Chicago the next summer. A dozen young activists, veterans of SDS and anti-war organizing, crowded into the small living room of a dingy Cambridgeport apartment, Tom and Rennie Davis made the case that all eyes would be on Chicago for the coronation of LBJ. We must not let the Democratic Party pretend there is no war, they argued, or evade their responsibility for it. Vietnam was LBJ’s war. There must be no business as usual, no politics as usual. We must not allow the war to remain remote, over there, only on the TV. We needed to make it real, felt, present in the streets of Chicago this next summer. We must bring 50,000 people to Chicago.

I was initially all in.  We formed an organizing committee for New England. We all agreed: it was imperative that the anti-war movement besiege the convention, peacefully but in such numbers that they could not avoid confronting the war. We were certain that LBJ would be the nominee. His convention; his war.

Over the next weeks as planning proceeded, I began to feel queasy about what might happen. I had a sense that Tom and Rennie were willing to provoke an extreme police response. All my friends were itching for a battle. With blood being spilled every day three thousand miles away, all of us felt desperate. We knew the reputation of the Chicago police. We knew that they too were itching for a fight.  I was not worried that our plans might lead to massive confrontations and a pitched battle with Mayor Dailey’s police. I would have been OK with that. I was concerned that we were not accurately preparing people for what would come. We were not discussing the risk and that bothered me enough that I tried to talk to Tom about it. He dismissed my worries, made it clear that we would bring the war to the streets of Chicago.

I did not want to sabotage the effort. Still I had pictures in my mind of peaceful demonstrators being set upon by police. I felt as if I would be deceiving people. I quietly disengaged from the planning group; stopped attending the meetings; decided not to go to Chicago. I would not urge anyone else to go but I would not argue against anyone who wanted to go.

—–

January 1968, the new year commenced with indictments. Dr. Spock, the person so many of our mothers turned to for guidance, along with the Rev William Sloan Coffin, chaplain at Yale, Mitch Goodman, a writer, Marcus Raskin, onetime disarmament expert in the Kennedy Administration and Michael Ferber, a friend from Boston draft resistance work, were indicted by a grand jury in Boston for urging young men to resist the draft, as so many of us were doing every day.  For many activists, prison seemed increasingly possible.

On the 21st day of the new year, the siege of the American air base at Khe Sanh started with nightly news coverage of the fighting at the encircled base. LBJ, haunted by the French catastrophic defeat at Dien Bien Phu, told his generals, “I don’t want any damn Dinbinfoo.”

At half past midnight of the last day of January, the Tet Offensive was launched; by 2:45 AM the U.S. embassy in Saigon had been invaded and held for seven hours. There was fierce fighting, devastating fighting, door to door, in city after city.  We all watched on television as the “Viet Cong,” who our military leaders had said were close to defeat, fought vicious battles. It went on and on, savage, bloody, remarkable, for days and then for weeks. Cities devastated. Blood flowed in city streets, flowed into American living rooms on the nightly news.

Writing of the battle for Ben Tre, Peter Arnett of the AP quoted an American officer’s iconic lines that summed up so very much of the war:  “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

Less attention was paid to Czechoslovakia where, in that same first month of the year, reformer Alexander Dubcek was elected as the First Secretary of the Communist Party.

Martin Luther King, always the prophet in our land, gave what all too soon would become his own eulogy. If I am to die, “I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody… that I tried to love and serve humanity. Yes, if you want to, say that I was a drum major for peace… for righteousness.”

Day after day, the entire globe seemed caught up in a struggle between the old and the young, between a tired, bloody present and a vastly different future. In Prague, reformists challenged Soviet domination and orthodoxy.  In New Hampshire, anti-war Senator Eugene McCarthy challenged Lyndon Johnson and suddenly, Vietnam was the most important issue in the Democratic Presidential primaries. On the right, Alabama Gov. George Wallace, he of “Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. And segregation forever,” campaigned as an independent candidate for president drawing large, very angry and very white crowds. The people turning out to cheer him were experiencing profound change and did not like it.

—-

I had been a lucky, strangely successful researcher the previous year, unearthing the web of covert CIA funding of domestic organizations for Ramparts, the brash, flashy New Left magazine. They proposed that I travel to Europe to follow up doing more research on CIA covert activities.  This would be my first chance to travel outside of North America. Excited, I saw it as an opportunity to meet with student movements to explore better coordination in the effort against the war in Vietnam.

It was a whirlwind trip, traveling fast, spending as little money as possible even though I knew Ramparts spent wildly. I did Ramparts research in the first part of the day and then met with student groups and young radical leaders in the afternoons and evenings. In 21 days, I hit London, Geneva, Bonn, Frankfurt, both East and West Berlin, Copenhagen, Oslo, and Helsinki. From there a quick stop in Paris, then back to London and home. I visited no museums; I did no sightseeing.

In Berlin, I found myself in a small apartment, filled with books, talking with a shaggy haired leader of the German SDS, Rudi Dutchke, soon famous as “Red Rudi.” I found him thoughtful, cogent, compelling. The Germans SDS was the student wing of the SDP, the social democratic party. While from a much richer and different history than our SDS, it was very much a new left student organization.  Late winter light filled the apartment accenting how devoid of color it was, except for the colors of the covers of books everywhere. I felt an instant kinship, a connection with both Rudi and his American born wife Gretchen Klotz. Gretchen frequently left the discussion to check on their young son. Rudi and I talked about longer term strategy. The challenge to move from a student movement, a new left of the youth, to something more permanent and powerful. I talked about the challenge we face in the States. How the anti-war movement was isolated from the very people who were paying the heaviest price for the war, those serving and fighting and their families. We agreed on the overarching need to stop the war in Vietnam. “The American war in Vietnam” Rudi always called it. We talked about the Shah of Iran and how protests of his rule had been important to the German students. We shared our concern that the concentration of power in fewer and fewer hands would only increase unless checked.

Rudi said, “We are worried especially about the concentration of the media. Here the Springer empire dominates news and has a profound impact on consciousness and politics. They are a powerful force.”

Then he shifted, sharing his vision: “Michael,” he said, “we are only students for a short time. Here in Germany probably longer than you in the States. Our challenge is to see beyond a student movement to something larger.”

He leaned back, looked at me, “We need a long march of our own. A long march through the institutions of society, yes?”

I nodded in agreement.

Rudi rocked forward, “We need to march through all the institutions, especially those that shape consciousness, schools, newspapers, television, but also all the institutions of everyday life. We need to transform them, making them more democratic and subverting the dominant capitalist paradigms. Not to bring them down but to transform them. This long march of ours is one where we need to learn how to make all the institutions work differently. I am not talking of destroying them. Quite the contrary, I am talking about our long march through the institutions being where our generation learns how to do the work, manage the institutions at the same time we transform them.”

“But what if we cannot make them work differently?” I asked.

“Then we have to also create our own. But we cannot do that if we do not learn how to actually organize production, how to actually build buildings that are on a human scale, how to make products that are not obsolete in 3 years, teach children from the earliest ages on in a way that doesn’t make them into mindless consumers, produce a culture that is one of liberation.  Consciousness cannot be transformed without the transformation of the institutions that shape and support it. “

Soon Rudi shifted to the more immediate challenges.

“We in SDS here take seriously the slogan: ‘One, two, three Vietnams.’ That means we in Germany must open another front against the war, lead a non-violent campaign against the terrible power of America.  If the Americans are to be stopped in Vietnam it will be because of a global struggle against imperialism. We in Germany want to play our part.”

“Yes,” I responded, “but the real responsibility is ours, inside the US. We are in the center of it.”

“You are,” he says, “and we need you to be part of a global struggle.”

I agreed and we talked briefly about promoting more communication between German SDS and SDS in America. I was excited to connect. I felt as if I could have talked with Rudi for a week and not be wasting time. But this trip did not allow for it.  We exchanged addresses. Rudi and Gretchen loaded me down with literature, most of which was in German which I could not read.  But I took it. We promised to stay in touch. We hugged and I left.

The next day, I went by subway into East Berlin, under the border rather than through it. I was stopped, my bag searched and pulled aside by the East German police who were shocked and irate that I carried German SDS literature. They acted as if the new left was significantly more of a threat than NATO. They confiscated every pamphlet, every poster, every brochure. As an American I was sternly admonished and then set free to go on my way. It was clear that the old men who ruled the Communist states and their many guards were part of the past we sought to overthrow.

The trip  reinforced my view that I was part of a worldwide new left of the young and that we were pitted against an elite of old men in a fight for our future, for decency, for democracy, and against barbarism. I felt confident as to the outcome. I was delighted to be part of the struggle. 

—-

Back home, the first signs of spring arrived in Cambridge. The bulbs pushed up through the soil. We too experienced small shoots of hope, slender and tentative. Still we could not shake the iron smell of blood. We kept replaying in our minds the TET offensive and the gruesome battle for Hue City that had gone on and on, the casualties horrific on all sides.

Undeniably though, spring was coming. LBJ’s challenger, Gene McCarthy surged, along with anti-war sentiment, and almost won in the New Hampshire primary. Robert Kennedy finally took the plunge, announced he would run for President. He campaigned against the war and for a vision of economic justice that appealed to both Black and white working and poor families. Still it was not radical enough for us.

Shockingly, President Johnson announced:

“I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office—the presidency of your country.

“Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”

We could hardly believe it. Perhaps the war would actually end. Hope flared, brief, a match struck in the dark.

On April 4th, Martin Luther King was shot down on a Memphis motel balcony. He was there to aid the organizing of the garbage workers, to insist that economic rights are inextricably essential to full civil rights. The garbage workers were doing essential work but being paid wages they could not live on, treated miserably. They were on strike and Dr. King, fierce critic of poverty, of the war, of inequality, traveled to Memphis to support their struggle. Boulevards will be named after him. A holiday will be created. How many people remember why he went to Memphis?

I watched, angry, powerless as America’s Black neighborhoods from Oakland to Boston erupted in sadness, in anger, in rage and frustration. Smoke and cinder drifted in the air, even over the river to Cambridge. The national guard was called out. With his death, it seemed as if it was truly the fire this time. Now. Washington burned. Detroit burned. Roxbury burned. Smoke and violence filled the air each spring day.

Exactly one week later, on April 11th, I was stunned: Rudi Dutschke had been shot in the head as he went to the drugstore for cold medicine for his child. It was unclear if he would live. (He lived for another decade before dying from his injuries.) 2,000 students marched through Berlin to the offices of Springer Publishing. For months the Springer media empire had mounted a savage, non-stop attack on SDS and on Rudi, its most charismatic leader. Springer papers repeatedly called on readers to act to “stop the terror of the young reds now!” and “eliminate the troublemakers.” A reader had answered their call and shot Red Rudi. The students marched. The police mobilized to defend the Springer buildings. The German student movement that had been surging, largely in opposition to the Vietnam war, now broke out into massive demonstrations. Tens of thousands took to the streets. All over Germany the young battled with the police. The country was rocked to its core.

I was shocked. Tet. Dr. King. Rudi.  The tide of blood was rising, rising.

In the same week that Rudi was shot, and student protests swept across West Germany, SDS and the Student Afro Society at Columbia University in New York mobilized demonstrations over University ties to the Institute for Defense Analysis and the construction of a new gym opposed by the African American community surrounding Columbia. The leadership of Columbia SDS (declaring themselves the “Action Faction”) was more militant than any other SDS group had been. They brought a new style and language to the organization that was rapidly taken up by newer SDS leaders across the country.

Hundreds of students occupied first one and then another and then another of the Columbia buildings. These were declared “free zones” and produced a heady sense of rebellion and freedom. Tom Hayden joined the occupation and sent out his usual well-crafted essay on the historical significance of the student occupation.  He declared that the Action Faction had opened a new front in the war, all of us were part of a global war for liberation. Somehow without much real thought we had moved from demanding “Bring our troops home” to proclaiming we would “bring the war home.”

Before dawn broke on April 30th, the NYPD stormed the occupied buildings, liberally spreading tear gas, arresting over 700 students. The following days there were more confrontations and this time some of the students fought back. The protests continued into May with more police attacks and more arrests. The police savagely beat protestors. A massive student strike completely shut down Columbia for the rest of the academic year.

My high school friend Ron Carver had entered Columbia after several years organizing with SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) in the South. In Mississippi he had been jailed, chased, and hunted but in the end never physically harmed. He became the press person for the strike committee. During the second sweep of police, several Columbia deans recognized Ron, and told him the police were looking for him in particular because of his visibility. They offered him safety in one of the unoccupied buildings. Only they were not offering him safety; they were intentionally sending him into a building where a squad of police waited to administer such a brutal beating with saps and Black Jacks that he was rushed to the hospital— a beating so savage, so thorough, that I literally could not recognize him when I visited him almost a week later.

Anything, everything, seemed possible – from the worst of possibilities to wild soaring hope. Each week’s news brought the improbable and unbelievable. Events were speeding up. History was all around us. First the massive demonstrations of the German students and then the battles of Columbia. On the heels of Columbia, the French students staged even larger demonstrations.  In early May, authorities shut the University at Nanterre. The police occupied the Sorbonne. 20,000 students took to the streets of Paris. The police attacked; battles were joined all over the country. The result was a tidal wave of student strikes: college students went out on strike, soon high school students went out on strike, ever larger demonstrations were met by increasing police violence. Soon, unlike in Germany and in the US, the movement spread beyond the schools and 11 million French workers went out on strike.

All Europe was ignited in protest and movement. Even in Eastern Europe, in Czechoslovakia, the Prague Spring led to the expulsion of the Soviet military forces and the experiment of “socialism with a human face.” Hope was everywhere. So were tear gas, truncheons and bullets. In Mexico students marched and were murdered. The whole world was caught up in struggle, protest, violence, hope.

I was riveted to each day’s wild news as were all my friends. Our moods would swing from hope to horror and back. Students around the world were reaching a new level of militancy and scale.  The old men were determined to stop them, stop us, by any means, including naked violence. This was now more than protests. This was now more than a fight over one war. This was now a fight over everything. This was a fight for the future. Somehow in the midst of the drama, the pain, the excitement, we failed to think carefully and strategically. Given how much was at stake, what could we actually win? How could we win it?

The tide of blood rolled on in Vietnam. Sustained battles. Tragedy piled on tragedy. Blood and more blood. I was convinced that we needed to keep the anti-war movement growing and militant, but we needed to find a way to bridge the chasm between the movement and the people paying the highest price for the war. I started to focus on community colleges where returned Vietnam Veterans were enrolling in large numbers. Many vets supported the war because otherwise their sacrifices, the deaths of their buddies, would have been in vain. But more and more of them in 1968 were already convinced that all that had been lost, all they had endured, was the result of terrible decisions made by feckless leaders. Pain for them was turning to a bright, bitter anger.

In June, I formally graduated from Harvard. I helped organize and signed a letter that appeared in the Crimson with the names of more than 100 graduating seniors. It stated simply:

Our war in Vietnam is unjust and immoral. I believe that the United States should immediately withdraw from Vietnam and that no one should be drafted to fight in this war. As long as the United States is involved in this war I will not serve in the armed forces.

The Harvard class of 1968 had invited Martin Luther King to be the class day speaker. Now Coretta Scott King filled that role.  More than half the class wore armbands to show opposition to the war. Bizarrely, confirming precisely how tone deaf the University was, Harvard’s official choice for an honorary degree and commencement speaker was “His Imperial Majesty, Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, the Shahanshah of Iran.” The Shah, installed by a CIA-backed coup, was a modernizing dictator whose secret police organization (SAVAK) was infamous for throwing student protestors out of the upper story windows of their towering headquarters. Their record of torture and continuous violation of all basic standards of human rights was well known to anyone who cared to look. We and the Iranian Students protested. I was marching in a picket line during my own commencement. The Crimson reported, “Sargent Kennedy, secretary to the Corporation, said the Fellows were not upset by this demonstration. ‘Any distinguished man,’ Kennedy said, ‘is bound to have some opposition.’”  I left Harvard convinced that its self-centered administration had no clue as to the maelstrom all around them. I was glad to be gone.

The gulf between the old and the young was unbridgeable. Some of the elites were for the first time becoming fearful. They were losing their own children who condemned and denounced their parents as immoral. The elites saw their colleges riven and shut down. They saw the country as spinning out of control and they feared what was coming. We did not sense their fears, missed the fissures opening up in elite support for the war. Despite how large our protests had been, we thought we were not making progress. We had made enormous strides. But we did not feel it. We were desperate. We were hopeful. The future was the prize. We were determined to keep our eyes on the prize, keep on walking, keep on marching. Anything seemed possible.

——

The summer of 1968 continued wildly. There was no respite from savage news. Every week it seemed as if the world shook. What happened was beyond our wildest imaginings.

In June, Bobby Kennedy was shot dead on the very night he won the California Primary. In early August in Florida, Richard Nixon was nominated by the Republicans. On the night of August 20th 200,000 Soviet soldiers and 2,000 tanks invaded Czechoslovakia crushing the Prague Spring and with it any chance of reform within the systems of Eastern European satellite countries.  I cursed the old men of Prague and the old men of Miami Beach, whose withered hands were holding back history.

The very next week brought the Democratic Convention in Chicago. Anti-war protestors “bringing the war home” flooded the streets of Chicago outside of the convention hall.  The nation watched on television as the Chicago police force spun out of control, rioted, and beat anyone and everyone that they perceived as possibly “other,” everyone possibly with the protestors. It did not matter – journalists, delegates, family of delegates, younger congressmen, they all were attacked by the rampaging cops, urged on and unleashed by the profane mayor, Boss Daley, kingmaker, Democrat. We were disgusted. The Democratic Party was torn apart. Humphrey became the nominee. I felt simultaneously vindicated in my judgment not to go or bring others to Chicago and guilty that I was not there.

 I did not understand the profound change that had occurred. I knew we had more support than ever, but I did not grasp where the country was, that a majority now opposed the war, that the elites were split.  My friends and I failed to grapple with the real strategic challenges. We never thought through what was entailed in shifting from a protesting minority to leading a movement with majoritarian aspirations. We certainly never entertained what we might do to swing the election to the woeful Democratic candidate Hubert Horatio Humphrey who, refusing to break with the war, emerged limping and dazed out of Chicago to mount a joyless campaign.

I thought we needed to up the level of protest. I had never seriously sat down to figure out exactly how we would end the war. Would it be by electing a new president? No, the system was rotten and rigged. Would it be by cutting off funding for the war in Congress? That seemed simultaneously too mild and completely impossible. We would never get the votes. The conclusion: shift from the slogan of “bring our boys home” to “bring the war home.” 

—-

Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee, promised that he had a plan to end the war but would not announce it. He and Henry Kissinger secretly committed treason by interfering with the peace talks in Paris between America and the Vietnamese, making sure there was no breakthrough for peace. Nixon, even before entering the White House, subverted the law, prolonging the agony of the war.

In the wake of the civil rights successes, Nixon adopted the first “Southern Strategy,” which reshaped the Republican Party, over time wiped out the once dominant Southern white Democrats and altered the direction of American politics for decades. His campaign started the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln, down its long march to become the party of white grievance and of Donald Trump. In the face of riots and continuous protests Nixon ran “a law-and-order campaign.”

He proclaimed: “As we look at America, we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame.    We hear sirens in the night …  We see Americans hating each other; fighting each other; killing each other at home.  And as we see and hear these things, millions of Americans cry out in anguish.   Did we come all this way for this?   Did American boys die in Normandy, and Korea, and in Valley Forge for this?”

As America lurched toward Election Day, it became clear that this would be a remarkably close election. Humphrey had the entire Democratic establishment desperately working as hard as they could. They would not be quite enough in what turned out to be an election decided by less than one percentage point.  Those of us in the student anti-war movement saw Humphrey as profoundly corrupt, profoundly tainted by his support for the war. We hated Nixon but in truth we had not experienced what a right-wing government could do. We came of age and into activism in the years since 1960 – so we only knew Kennedy and Johnson as Presidents; we experienced a liberal domination of national politics and, more often than not, the policies we protested were the policies of liberal Democrats.

In the fall of 1968, we experienced a great failure of political imagination.

We thought it would not matter if Nixon or Humphrey won. We thought the war would keep going on, exactly in the same deadly way, no matter who won. We could not imagine that the war would be expanded, that there would be a simultaneous policy of “Vietnamization”, so that the American body count decreased, and escalation that would claim another million more Asian lives. We could not imagine the disaster that would befall Cambodia because of Nixon and Kissinger. We did not imagine the Christmas bombings of Hanoi and Haiphong. We did not see what was coming – at home as well as internationally.  We did not understand that soon Nixon would invite to the White House and celebrate the leaders of building trades unions who led violent attacks on anti-war protestors in New York. We thought the well of Black sadness could not get any deeper. We were wrong. We could not imagine what would be unleashed against Black leaders and the Black community. We did not imagine that the FBI and Chicago police would murder Black Panther leader Fred Hampton as he slept in his bed, possibly drugged.

We had no idea of the damage that would be done.

We could not conceive of the manipulative use of a “war on drugs” to go after Black communities and the anti-war movement. As cynical and as sophisticated as we thought ourselves to be, we could not conceive of policies that, years later, Nixon’s top aide, John Ehrlichman would bluntly describe to Dan Baum of Harpers thusly: “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people…You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities …We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”

Despite our growing dread, we did not imagine that protesting students would be gunned down at Kent State and Jackson State. That Hoover’s FBI would get the green light to go after Nixon’s enemies and unleash the full force of the FBI on Black organizations and the anti-war movement.

We, in SDS and the anti-war movement, had legions of students with us, literally hundreds of thousands. While the voting age was 21 and so many of us could not have voted, there were enough of us over 21 that we could have played a pivotal role in the election. Most of us who built the anti-war movement, demonstration by demonstration, dorm meeting after dorm meeting, were so sickened by the corruption of American politics that we refused to participate. Real change, we thought, could somehow only come from outside the system. The rules of the election game were rigged to favor the corporate elites. We were so habituated to being a prophetic minority that we could not understand that a majority of the country was turning against the war. We could be a prophetic minority no longer. However, we were so disgusted by all that we had experienced that we wanted to “up the ante.” We thought our job was to create so much disruption that the elites would somehow be forced to end the war. We completely failed to grasp that the war and our movement had totally shattered the unity of the nation and that now our task was to reassemble a new majority. Instead, we kept on determined to keep shattering a status quo that was already splintered. We failed to understand strategy.

***

We sat out the election. We organized street protests. Our slogan was Vote with your feet, vote in the street. We marched. We mocked. We did not organize young people twenty-one and older to vote in one of the closest elections in American history. There were tens of thousands of young people looking to us for direction. We did not say “Make history. Swing this election to Humphrey and show how powerful we as a group now are. And then demand he end this damn war.” No, we declared, “A plague on both your houses,” and walked away. I had turned 21 in January. In November, I did not bother to cast a vote.

Nixon won. Without knowing it, we had missed our moment. We started to dream of revolution at the very moment when we could have led a significant portion of the country. The young around the world were shaking the order of the old. We were so caught up in dreams that we no longer could see the ground slipping away under our feet. SDS led hundreds of thousands of students. Only a few years ago our meetings had drawn a handful. Now those meetings angrily filled the largest halls on campuses across the country. We could not imagine it but in another 12 months SDS would be no more, blown apart by factions as foolish and dangerous as any in the old left we once despised.

1968. Year of blood. Year of hope. A year upon which history hinged. A year in which we thought we were winning and were in fact failing. We were not wrong in our assessments of Humphrey; we were wrong in our assessment of whether or not it matters if a corporate liberal was elected over an insecure, unstable, right wing candidate who did not respect the Constitution. 

We failed to understand Nixon and what was at stake. We could have turned the close election in favor of Humphrey. That would have bought us time and space to forge forward, start the long march through the institutions of America, begin to capture pockets of power and move the country in a different direction.  Our refusal to participate started a process of making our movement increasingly irrelevant. We allowed Richard Nixon to come to power, starting a right-wing counter-reformation that would hold power and warp American politics for most of the next four decades. We allowed militancy to replace strategy.

We would continue to march. Hundreds of thousands of us continued to protest the war. We shut down campuses. We organized sit-ins. We organized returning veterans to join the fight against the war. Millions would still participate in 1969 and 1970. The Moratorium of 1969 would mark the high water of anti-war activism, with millions in every part of the country protesting the war. But the new left veered off the rails of relevancy. Many long-term, enduring movements and changes in the country would have their roots at least partially in our efforts. However, none of that changes the mistakes we made in 1968.

I often think of what might have been. What if charismatic Tom Hayden, instead of traveling the country seeking demonstrators to bring the war home to the streets of Chicago, had traveled the country recruiting young people to run for elected office? What if I had sought to build the broadest coalition to bring our positions into the electoral arena instead of calling on tens of thousands of my young comrades to continue to storm the barricades, ever more militantly? What if I had understood the necessity for both protest and electoral power? What if ……. But what ifs are the curse of the old and there is still much work to be done.

—–

Now once again, the country is plunged into rebellion. African Americans and young people of all races are in the streets. Once again, the old men cling to power and authority, attempting to stop a new future from being born – a future where the systemic racism permeating our history and our society is for once faced and a stake put through its heart. A future where climate change is confronted, and drastic action taken. A future where a pandemic is not allowed to run rampant and where every American has adequate health care. A future where essential workers are not paid low wages that no one can live on and inequality is finally lessened.

That future can happen. But only if political change happens this fall. Unless there is a massive turn out and popular pressure that all votes be counted, America could be headed for minority rule for another 20 years, an ever more conservative court system resisting change and continued efforts to suppress the vote.

The good news is that history does not need to repeat itself. There are critical differences between what is happening today and the heartbreak of 1968. Trump is not Nixon, he is LBJ, the wounded incumbent, but without the grace to withdraw from the election. While he will attempt to blame everyone else for the bungling of Federal response to the pandemic, clear majorities fault him. Certainly, the electoral college, voter suppression, vast misinformation campaigns and an unlimited war chest mean that he could conceivably squeak out a victory while losing the popular vote. He will invoke shades of Nixon, call for law and order.

However, we are in a vastly different moment than in 1968. The white response to the killing of George Floyd is completely different from the response to the riots of that year. This time there is massive engagement and support. Over 2,300 cities and towns across the country have witnessed protests. Unheard of majorities of Americans tell pollsters that they think the protests are justified.   The protestors of today need not make the same mistakes my generation did in 1968. There is nothing more important than turning out to vote this November. Political change is the necessary first step. Will that alone solve the challenges we face today? Absolutely not. But it will give us the room to address racism and inequality and climate change and healthcare.

The good news is that many of today’s protestors understand the importance of elections. That they have profound consequences. That if we want to stop the police from ending Black lives, we must take control of the city, state and federal government and break the power of the police unions to resist real reform. If we want to deal with the imperatives of pandemics and climate change, we must harness the resources of the nation—and that means controlling the Federal government. That road is still open before us – if we learn from the mistakes of 1968, if we make sure that the protests of today build into a wave of voters determined to change America in November and create a chance for change.

My son says, “you have failed” I think “probably so.” Now the country is once again at one of those moments when history hinges, when the tectonic plates of consciousness and culture and politics shift. When the unexpected becomes possible. I can only hope that my son’s generation will not repeat the mistakes of 1968. I want to believe that they will not. I want to believe that while we, my generation of activists, failed to finally drive a stake through the harshly beating heart of systemic racism, we will have succeeded in one way: raising the generation that finally does it.


Michael Ansara

Caught up in the civil rights movement in Boston at age 13, Michael Ansara spent decades as an activist and organizer. He was a regional organizer for Students for A Democratic Society, Chair of the ’69 Harvard Strike Committee, spent ten years organizing against the war in Vietnam, became a community organizer, was director of Mass Fair Share, worked on voter registration efforts and numerous political campaigns. He owned and operated several companies. In the last 15 years he has been a co-founder of Mass Poetry, a writer of poems and essays, a board member of Indivisible Massachusetts and an organizer of Together for 2020  This essay is based on a memoir in progress. His essays and poems have appeared in Solstice, Ibbetson Street, Salamander, MidAmerica Poetry Review, Muddy River Poetry Review and Vox.

Comments
  1. Ed Leclair on

    Michael it was a painful insight to read your essay on line. 1968, I was acting out Clifford Odett’s play in Boston’s gorilla theatre for social justice, as part of an emotionally satisfying community action but also with no strategic plan. So your essay rang a deep sensation of sadness for the last 4 decades. I hope you are correct that our children, with our support, can start the turn away from this politics of injustice and lead us into the future.

  2. Vicky Denman on

    This was the best article that I have read in a very long time!

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