That year, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. Riots rocked Washington, D.C. and other U.S. cities. Campuses erupted in protests over the Vietnam War. A rising Richard M. Nixon flaunted his power. Race relations flared, unleashing the Black Power movement. The Beatles released their “White Album.” And Apollo 8 soared into outer space.
With 2018 marking the 50th anniversary of that extraordinary year, more than 1,500 historians met in Washington recently to figure out what 1968 was all about.
I still remember that year. That’s when I first arrived in D.C. My uncle, Joe Dizon, was working then at the Library of Congress. He was living with his family in District Heights. He talked me into moving from Columbia, Missouri, where I was selling vacuum cleaners. Having just graduated from Central Methodist College in Fayette with an English Degree, I wasn’t in a hurry to look for a permanent job.
My uncle thought I would have better opportunities in Washington, D.C. so I took up his offer. I have lived in the area since.
Dr. King was killed on April 4. A few days later, my uncle drove me around the city. Lots of buildings burned down in the wake of rioting, mostly in the city’s northeast. I was totally unaware of the upheavals taking place in the country at the time, isolated as I was in a conservative Midwestern town. I had been living in a distant world until I moved to the nation’s capital.
Meanwhile, the US war in Vietnam was escalating. In February 1968, students in Boston staged a hunger strike to protest the war. There were demonstrations in other parts of the world as well. The issues of race, civil rights, free speech, the establishment and just about every matter of strife in the United States were tearing the country apart
In the Philippines, the corruption and human rights abuses of President Marcos heightened the surge of student activism. Colleges shut down. There were riots in campuses and in the streets. Communist rebels were gaining ground. Revolution was considered a possibility, waiting to happen. All these culminated in the First Quarter Storm.
I left Manila in August 1965, so I missed all the turmoil. The next two years, as I tried to finish College, was like living in a bubble. Imagine spending time in a Methodist school, where there were more prayers than political conversations.
But after graduation, I lost my college deferment and ordered by the Selective Service Administration to report to my local draft board. As U.S. troop strength in Vietnam increased, more young men were drafted for service. And I, who arrived in this country three years earlier, was going to be shipped back to Southeast Asia and deployed thousands of miles away from my new home. Hundreds of war resisters, draft evaders and conscientious objectors questioned the justness of the war itself.
My draft board eventually rejected me because, as the recruiting sergeant puts it, “you’re one inch too short.”
The riots, the anti-war resistance, and rejection from the draft changed the trajectory of my life in a profound way. I look back to 1968 as a time when the seeds of activism were planted. Four years later, Marcos declared martial law in the Philippines.
So, historians ask, why does 1968 loom so large in the narrative of political and cultural change?
I will wait for historians to figure this out. All I know is, the events of 1968 and the radicalization that moved beyond college campuses, spurred by grievances and growing unease over the Vietnam War, raised my awareness about civil rights, racism and dictatorship. I began to see the connections among various people’s revolutions, from the Philippines to South Africa, and the role of U.S. policy in suppressing Third World people’s aspirations for freedom and independence.
I thank my Uncle Joe for basically rescuing and bringing me to the nation’s capital, and opening my eyes to the tumult and turmoil of 1968.