Picture: Attorney General Kennedy and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 22 June 1963, Washington, D.C. Abbie Rowe, National Park Service/John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston. Wikimedia Commons.
In the U.S., 1968 was a year of unprecedented upheaval. From the Tet offensive and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy to protests and riots, profound events seemed to occur at an overwhelming pace. 1968 was certainly a year of confrontations, but it also witnessed hopes of democratic participation and economic justice. In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was organizing a poor people’s campaign to demand more anti-poverty programs and economic justice for poor people. In April, King went to Memphis to support a sanitation strike by black workers. And on April 3, 1968, he delivered his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis. Towards the end of the speech, King was ominously skeptical about his own future, but expressed hope for people in the struggle:
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountaintop. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!
And so I’m happy, tonight.
I’m not worried about anything.
I’m not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
King was assassinated the next day at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Grief and rage replaced hope, as riots erupted in many cities. Some people in the black power movement symbolically referred to King’s murder as a requiem for nonviolence. Others, like James Brown, attempted to cool down the situation. On April 5, 1968, Brown was scheduled to perform in Boston, a city that was ready to erupt like many other cities on that day. Brown, however, addressed the audience and managed to calm them down so that the gig would go on. On that evening, Brown helped to maintain relative peace in the city by the force of his music.
Later in April, students at the Columbia University occupied five separate campus buildings. In a confrontational spirit that was reflective of the year 1968, the students protested against the University’s decision to build a campus gymnasium in Harlem’s Morningside Park. The students sided with the black community in their vocal opposition against the decision. The campus occupation also turned into an experiment in participatory democracy. After occupying the buildings for eight days, however, the police removed the students by force.
The political situation changed again dramatically in June. After winning the California primary, Robert F. Kennedy, the preferred candidate for antiwar activists, was murdered at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. “Now it’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there,” Kennedy had declared in a speech just before he was shot. As Kennedy was dead, it was likely that the Democratic Party presidential nominee would not be a peace advocate. Antiwar and other activists started to prepare for demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention that was to be held in Chicago in August. At this time, thousands of activists thought protests at the convention were a necessity and a new imperative for them was “on to Chicago!”
Niko Heikkilä is a Ph.D. candidate in Cultural History and a member of the working group to organize the seminar.