Wed, Apr 04, 2018 - Page 13 News List

Half a century after MLK

As the US observes the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death today, signs indicate that the country is in a similar spot as it was back then

AFP, Washington, DC

In this file photo taken on August 28, 1963 The civil rights leader Martin Luther King waves to supporters during the “March on Washington” on the Mall in Washington, DC.

Photo: AFP

US troops in a never-ending war. Students marching in the streets. Women demanding respect. Black athletes protesting for racial justice. Political upheaval.

Today’s headlines?


But they also could be from 50 years ago —1968 was a year so eventful that it’s become known as “The Year That Changed America.”

“Assassinations, riots, rebellions, protests, disorder and chaos —1968 was a year of really extraordinary shocks, shocks that I think still reverberate through today,” said David Farber, a history professor at the University of Kansas.

“The 1960s are this incredibly turbulent, tumultuous decade of politics and 1968 really sticks out,” said Amy Bass, a history professor at The College of New Rochelle.

Some Americans are thinking “the people are rising and will have a voice,” said Bass, author of One Goal.

“And then there’s this other faction, (Richard Nixon’s) so-called ‘silent majority’ who sees the 1960s as America as coming apart at the seams.”

Rocking America in 1968 was the assassination on April 4 of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr and that of Democratic presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy just two months later.

By then, the country was already reeling. In January, North Vietnamese troops had launched the Tet Offensive, a blitz on South Vietnam that would eventually turn the US public against a war that was America’s longest until the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.

US college campuses were gripped by anti-war protests and 700 students were injured in clashes with police at New York’s Columbia University in April 1968.


The war in Afghanistan has spawned no such protest movement despite entering its 17th year.

This can be explained in part because it stemmed from the Sept. 11, 2011 direct attacks on the US — but also because the military draft was eliminated in 1973, said Columbia University history professor Todd Gitlin.

“And the intensity of the war is far less,” said Gitlin, author of The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage.

“It’s off the screens for Americans and the body bags are few and far between, relatively speaking.” US students are on the march once again though — not to oppose an unpopular war, but to demand tougher gun laws.

“There’s a big difference, however,” Gitlin said. “The high school students are actually starting something.”

In the largest student protest in decades, hundreds of thousands took part on March 24 in the “March for Our Lives” organized by teenagers from a Florida high school where 17 people were shot dead in February.

“The political system again seems frozen for students today and they’re trying to find answers that don’t fit normal electoral politics,” Farber said.

Students were not the only ones protesting in the 1960s — the decade was marked by the civil rights movement led by King. King notably advocated non-violence but his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee sparked riots in several US cities.

Fifty years on, the banner for racial equality has been taken up by the Black Lives Matter movement and its protests against police misconduct and the use of force.


One of the iconic images of 1968 is that of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, winners of the gold and bronze medals in the 200-meter dash at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, raising black-gloved fists as the Star-Spangled Banner played.

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