Growing up in my small town there was not much questioning about what our government and national leaders decided was right, that I remember. During the Eisenhower years, I was too young to notice much of what was happening in the world. The next administration was headed up by a president of my parents’ generation, (JFK was born a year after my father) and I was then of an age to begin understanding more about national politics and world events. Mom and Dad identified, I believe, with President Kennedy’s idealism and messages of hope and greater social justice, and respected his service in the Pacific Theater where they both had served. For reasons I will never know, they both had extremely strong views about the evils of prejudice and discrimination that also were voiced by this President. When he was assassinated in 1963 we were dismissed from school when the news arrived, and I was shaken to come home and find both of my parents crying in front of the television, something I had never seen before.
I recall reading articles in our local newspapers in the early 1960’s about Concordia College students and faculty travelling to participate in efforts to enfranchise blacks in the South and the nightly news (Huntley Brinkley until the signal from Fargo’s CBS station improved enough that we could watch Walter Cronkite) of course brought us details about major events taking place in the country and the world. We were a family that watched the news together. As I graduated from high school the Viet Nam war was continuing to ratchet up and military service suddenly meant something a great deal more serious for the area boys who enlisted, than spending a couple of years in Germany, or making port calls around the Mediterranean on a navy ship. I cannot say if the war was popular or unpopular among the people in town, as I don’t recall people talking about it. I do remember our social studies teacher, Mr. Roos, explaining to us about the “domino theory” and how it was felt that intervention by the United States was believed necessary to keep Southeast Asia from “going communist” as had happened with Eastern Europe after WWII. Conventional wisdom wasn’t something I can honestly say that I questioned very often. I lacked the perspective to do so and without hearing diverse opinions voicing other views, was unlikely to.
A lot changed for me between the time that I graduated from high school in May 1967 and the end of 1968. For people of my generation, the early Baby Boomers, the year 1968 was full of turmoil and tragedy. Oftentimes we woke up and found that the world was in chaos and some of our heroes were being killed; governmental policies and military decisions were being questioned and challenged by a younger generation, ours, that had a different perspective on the world than the people had made those decisions. Institutions of learning and institutions of government proved to have feet of clay when we looked closely and critically at them.
Momentous events took place in 1968. Here are some of the things that happened that year, background to the end of my first, difficult year of college and the beginning of the second:
- January – The Pueblo Incident, North Korea’s capture of a US spy ship and its crew on charges of violating the country’s twelve-mile territorial limit.
- January – The Tet Offensive, which even included the capture of the US Embassy in Saigon for a short time. We heard new place names, like Hue, Khe Sanh and Bien Hoa.
- March – The My Lai massacre, a mass killing of unarmed civilians in a small village by US troops took place; it did not become known until November 1969.
- April – Martin Luther King was assassinated, triggering violence of such a scale that it was called the greatest wave of social unrest since the civil war. Major riots took place in many cities across the US, including Chicago, where the major South Side gangs decided to cooperate to control their neighborhoods, and kept the peace. I was on a road trip, it was spring break when this occurred.
- April – The Columbia University sit-in; the administration sent in the police after a week, injuring many and arresting over 700, triggering a campus-wide strike that shut down the university.
- April – The Civil Rights Act of 1968 was signed by Lyndon Johnson
- May – The “student uprising” in Paris, a million people marched in the streets of Paris setting off a series of general strikes, demonstrations and protests that for a short time brought the entire economy of France to a virtual halt.
- June – Senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated, again shocking the country and creating despair among many who saw his brother’s idealism reflected in him, and hoped he would prove a strong force for progress and for good.
- August – The Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland invaded Czechoslovakia with over 500,000 troops to stifle a democratizing trend in that country.
- August – The Democratic Convention in Chicago was the scene of anti-war demonstrations and riots by the demonstrators and the police. I hadn’t been successful landing a job at the convention and instead was hiking at Glacier National Park, out of radio contact as this happened. I learned about it later.
- November – Richard Nixon was elected president
For me to say that any of these events interfered with my studies seems like I could be trivializing them, which would be wrong; these were all significant events and some were immense tragedies. A lot was going on in the world, though, as I carried my book bag to campus every day and tried to study every night to keep from falling behind.
For me personally, 1968 had some very tough spots as well as some bright ones. My year began with the receipt of my grades from the first quarter’s classes, which were waiting for me in my mail box at the dorm when I returned to Chicago. The results were a strong wake-up call, as has happened to many a freshman college student. High school had not been very difficult for me and I did not have to apply myself in a way that developed my studying skills. I had been curious about what was going on in the world during high school, I read a great deal, I was competitive and had a drive to appear as the smartest kid in the class (I usually wasn’t) every chance I got, and I liked to learn, and all that carried me fine through to graduation. When I went to college, however, I noticed that the situation had changed, that I was surrounded by extremely smart people, and almost all of them had attended better, more rigorous high schools than I had. Despite noticing this I often stayed up all night talking to my new friends in the dormitory and listening to music instead of cracking the books. Big mistake.
I did not understand how profoundly the competitive situation at school had changed until, as I said, I returned after Christmas break and my first quarter’s grades were waiting for me in my mailbox. They made it clear that I was at a tough college and would have to work harder if I was going to make it. My highest grade overall was a single B and I had failed my pre-calculus class, a very rude wake-up call for me as I had been planning to major in chemistry. Hawley High school had not offered calculus, and the “new math” (sets, subsets, integers, etc.) was rolled out to the class just behind me in school. Chicago’s Math 150, which I failed, introduced these concepts to prepare me for higher mathematics. I had attended about half of my math classes but there had been no interim tests along the way during the quarter, and I did not realize that I had completely failed to understand the subject. It was common for Chicago classes to have just one test at the end of term to set grades, and this one was humbling! I am sure that most of my high school friends are smiling at this news, and not necessarily sympathetically; I was pretty cocky in class, I know that I deserve it.
I had to see my school advisor immediately, of course, and I learned from him that if I repeated the class and got an A, the F would be removed from my academic record. So, I applied myself that quarter, went to every class, got some coaching on study habits from a friend who was a senior, studied every day and many evenings instead of having fun, and got the A that erased the F. There were greater consequences that could not be reversed, however. Failing this course meant I did not have sufficient time during the 48 months of my deferment from military services to take the math courses that were needed for me to pursue a degree in chemistry. Goodbye chemistry.
I wish I could say the episode drove me to develop perfect study habits, but it didn’t. I stopped attending chemistry class (lectures were at 8:30 in the morning when I was still asleep, and my high school chemistry was good enough to pull me through the rest of the year) and changed my major to economics as a sophomore, to political science as a junior, and ultimately graduated with a degree in history. My habits did improve over the course of my sophomore year as eventually I realized that failing to study every free moment just meant that I was falling behind in something. Once I accepted this my grades improved steadily through to graduation.
There were a couple of outside events that happened in 1968 that I did not miss that made an impression on me. The first was witnessing the Chicago police beating up a crowd of peaceful demonstrators. The second was attending a George Wallace rally in Chicago with a group of other students, to try to disrupt it.
On Saturday, April 27 I went downtown with a friend to go to a record store and look around a bit, I don’t remember for what. Coincidentally, an anti-war march had been scheduled to take place downtown that day (I hadn’t known and they seemed to happen a lot). Permits had been issued for the demonstrators to march from Grant Park on the eastern edge of the Loop to Daley Plaza, about a mile and a half away. As I recall Daley Plaza was where City Hall was located, and a large statue by Picasso is prominent. On the morning of the march the permit was revoked and when the demonstrators reached Daley Plaza they were kept moving on the sidewalk perimeter of the block rather than being let onto the plaza for the expected speeches. Everyone was walking in a circle around the block and chanting, and police barricades blocked the empty Plaza. Ominously, policemen were standing in front of the barricades about every 3 feet, all around the block. I finished my shopping at the music store across the street from the south end of the plaza and left, staying on my side of the block, when suddenly I saw a couple of demonstrators throw their signs into the plaza, push over one of the saw horses and began running towards the middle of the square. Everyone stood still, and then a couple hundred people ran to follow them, pushing past the police. Most of the demonstrators stood on the sidewalk and watched. The next thing I knew, all the police took out their Billy clubs and began beating up everyone in sight, just on the other side of the street from me. “Everyone” included the people on the sidewalk, who had not crossed the police line. I learned the thunking sound that a police baton makes on peoples’ heads. Young, old, male, female, black, white, the sound of a club striking a skull is the same, like hitting a watermelon, I would say. It was shocking to me to witness this, a police riot, really, intentional violence inflicted on a peaceful protest, women and men alike without any discrimination; a harbinger of what was to come at the Democratic convention in August. People had blood streaming down their faces and down their arms, and many had to be assisted away from the scene because they could not walk unaided. I hadn’t known that anyone could do something like this, let alone police officers. That is how naïve I was.
After the clubbing had stopped and the police were lined up shoulder to shoulder again, protecting the empty plaza, I crossed over to that side of the street and challenged several of the officers, those who would look me in the eye, why they had done that and how that could have been necessary, how they could have beaten defenseless people, but they just shook their heads. It was Chicago and the mayor wanted it to happen.
My only other interactions with the police during my years in Chicago involved being stopped on the street without cause on my way to campus and having my book bag searched and my thermos inspected, and observing a payoff taking place at a restaurant, about par for the Windy City. I had difficulty speaking positively about “Officer Friendly” when my children were growing up, I can tell you.
I returned home for the last time that summer, lifeguarding at Buffalo River State Park, played the trombone in a combo every Thursday night at a resort in Park Rapids, hanging out with my friends, going to a Beach Boys concert in Fargo, and waited for the summer to pass. At the end of it, I flew to Los Angeles and camped my way back to Minnesota with a college friend and his summer roommate, then returned to school, by air this time rather than by train. Sophomore year started.
The second story I want to tell concerns politics. Those of my generation will recall that Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey in the general election that year. Less than a week before this, as the election season ground to a conclusion my friends and I read that George Wallace was going to be coming to Chicago for a campaign rally and had strong local support. He was a 3rd party candidate for President on the American Independent Party ticket. The campaign event was taking place at the International Amphitheater, which had been the site of the Democratic convention just in August. We all loaded up into a couple of cars and drove from the campus over to the event, about 5 miles away. Once we got there we found out that it was a closed event and we needed to get tickets to be admitted. As the straightest looking kid of the bunch, perhaps I’d recently had a haircut, I was sent to get our group tickets. I found an adult who was handing them out to people who, I guess, looked like they might be supporting George Wallace. I recall him looking at me pretty hard, but I got a handful of tickets when I told him how many I needed.
We all went in together and protestors were already making some noise at the far end of the convention center, so we made our way there and found seats in the middle row of what became the center of the group of protestors. The news accounts from the time say we were in the right upper balcony. We made noise, we chanted, then George got up on the podium, and we made even more noise. The rest of the people in the auditorium did not appreciate this conduct and didn’t care if we thought we had a right to free speech or free expression at that place and time. I don’t recall that Candidate Wallace “did a Trump” and told his fans that we should be shut up and/or thrown out, but I think the idea came naturally to them. Some of the younger and more aggressive Wallace fans swarmed up the aisles towards us and began beating up demonstrators, but because we were all in stadium seats, they could only reach the people at the edges of our group and not my friends and I in the center. This was quite a tense situation as the number of rowdies was growing, until the several hundred Federal agents on the scene under the direction of the Chicago US Attorney decided to usher us from the building in order to preserve the peace. We didn’t linger. This was another lesson in violence, through from a different source. Wallace won 46 electoral votes in the general election; H. Ross Perot, the next American independent candidate won 0 in 1996.
For me, 1968 was a very impactful year. I learned the level of hard work and study I would need to succeed at an elite university. I learned that some failures could be remediated, at least in part. The violence I saw taught me the merits of discussing differences of opinions to resolve them, and generally striving to resolve conflicts peacefully; it also showed me the potential madness of crowds in a bad situation. All good lessons and more were to follow.
It is difficult to grasp this was nearly 50 years ago. So many of the issues are still the same – voting rights, education, social justice, issues of war and peace – they are difficult, important issues and still we have so far to go before we get it right.