Reflecting on 1968, a year that changed a nation
By Steven Hoffman
1968 was a pivotal time in the history of the United States. Fifty years have passed since the tumult and turmoil of that year, but the events of those twelve, uneasy months—shaped by civil unrest, political turbulence, and violence—still resonate today. Dr. Richard Winchester, a retired history professor, chose to complete his series of three talks at the Oxford Public Library by focusing on 1968, a year that included the Tet Offensive and a growing anti-war movement; the stunning assassinations of two iconic figures in Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy; and one of the most extraordinary presidential elections in U.S. history.
The May 1 talk attracted a large audience—so large, in fact, that library director Carey Bresler spent the first few minutes of the program bringing in additional chairs to accommodate everyone who turned out to hear Winchester, an engaging and informative speaker who honed his talents over the course of his 39-year career as a history professor at Lincoln University.
Winchester interspersed his presentation with his own memories from 1968, including his experiences as a white college professor at one of this nation's best historically black colleges, and as a delegate to the 1968 Democratic National Convention. He also insisted on class participation, involving the audience in the discussion throughout the evening.
Attendees were provided with handouts of timelines of events that occurred as early as 1950 and as late as 1980 to illustrate just how pivotal 1968 was—events that occurred 20 years earlier played a part in shaping 1968, and some of what transpired that year had an enduring impact on the country.
On Jan. 30, 1968, the Tet Offensive began, with the North Vietnamese launching a massive military campaign against several major cities in South Vietnam. There was heavy fighting between American forces and the North Vietnamese forces, and the battles were a stark reminder of the challenges of the war. Protests against the war were increasing and becoming more violent across the United States.
Winchester explained that President Lyndon Johnson, who had initially been a peace candidate when he ran for president in 1964, had increased the troop levels in Vietnam during his time in office. As early as 1967, Eugene McCarthy, a Senator from Minnesota, positioned himself as the anti-war candidate against Johnson in the 1968 race. By March of 1968, Johnson had announced that he wasn't going to seek reelection, opening up the Democratic field. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy announced that he would run for the presidency. Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s vice president, would also eventually enter the race.
The My Lai massacre occurred in March of 1968, though it would be more than a year before the country would know about the incident in which as many as 504 civilians were killed by U.S. troops.
While anti-war sentiments were growing, there were other reasons for Americans to feel unsettled. On April 4, Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. Winchester recalled that he and his wife, Connie, were dining at the Red Rose Inn, not far from the Lincoln University campus, when they learned about the assassination.
One attendee asked Winchester what Oxford was like in 1968. Winchester explained that the racial dynamics were still very difficult. The King assassination did not help improve racial harmony.
Just two months after King was killed, Kennedy was also assassinated, creating chaos in the run up to the 1968 election.
Sen. George McGovern entered the race for president just a few weeks before the Democratic National Convention, seeking to continue the work of Kennedy.
Winchester served as a delegate to the Democratic convention in Chicago. After the stunning death of Kennedy, the convention was hopelessly divided. On a lighter note, Winchester joked about how he won the first spot on the statewide ballot to be a delegate, and how that prime ballot position ensured that he would, in fact, win the contest. With a last name that started with “W,” he said, he had become accustomed to waiting his turn on anything that was organized alphabetically, so it was nice to be at the front of the line for a change.
Winchester was an eyewitness to one of the most eventful national political conventions in U.S. history as protesters from all over the country poured into Chicago.
The city's mayor, Richard J. Daley, still had considerable influence as a politician and as a leader of a major city, but there was no controlling the events of the Democratic National Convention. Delegates and party leaders argued endlessly. The police struggled to maintain the peace outside, and officers and protesters violently clashed time after time.
“The city just exploded,” Winchester recalled.
The hopelessly divided Democrats eventually nominated Humphrey, but he lost to Richard Nixon in the November general election. George Wallace ran as an independent and captured 13 percent of the vote in a race that was decided by less than one percent. The election results were another illustration of how divided the country was.
Winchester concluded his remarks by summarizing the impact that 1968 had on the country. “What is the significance of 1968? I think the overriding significance of 1968 is the distrust of government, a distrust of authority and of elites,” Winchester said. “I think one of the consequences of 1968 was the fundamental distrust of government.”
Another significant development as a result of the events of 1968 was the weakening of the two political parties, Winchester said. That’s not good for the country because it’s up to the two parties to shape policies that improve people's lives.
The series of three talks by Winchester was extremely popular—the final one ended with a warm ovation by the audience.
One attendee dropped a not-so-subtle hint that more talks would be appreciated, asking: “What topics will you be doing next fall?”
While Winchester stopped short of agreeing to do more talks, he did have some good news for everyone in the audience: “You will all get an ‘A’ in the course,” he joked.