1968 was a year beset by great division, one that birthed great international protest. If we’re looking to change the world of tomorrow, we should look to yesterday.
In 1968, the world was in a state of political and social stress, and arguably, one characteristic of this global rebellion was the spread of a social, literary and musical counterculture, specific to young people. From Japan to Northern Ireland, Brazil and elsewhere, protest movements also came to the fore. The separation of the young from the rest of society involved protesting techniques that had not been generally used before such as sit-ins and student boycotts. Protests on university campuses were common. Students realised they had a voice and they weren’t afraid to use it.
Maybe there was not a sudden epiphany in 1968, but more of an apotheosis: an explosion of built-up social and political pressures. Racial discrimination, the disregard for life demonstrated by unjust wars, and the oppression of women and minorities were all evident well before 1968. Was it the assassination of Dr King that caused the spark that set off the explosion in the US? Was it the Prague Spring that triggered European protests? Or was it the worldwide student consciousness that had been released by the big changes in social mores and morality that occurred in Europe?
America’s involvement in the Vietnam War caused massive and violent protests not just in the United States, but around the world, notably in London, Paris, Berlin and Rome. We also protested in large numbers. Opponents of the war were especially spurred on by the 1968 Tet Offensive in which the communist forces made critical inroads into South Vietnam. This event turned out to be important in shrinking support for the war and for US involvement.
Apart from the explosive issue of the Vietnam War, the year 1968 was a turning point for the civil rights movement in the United States. On April 4th, the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated, which led to outbreaks of violence and race riots across American cities. Dr King was the leader of the non-violent black protest movement and his death changed the tone of these protests so that a more strident attitude to asserting black rights came to the fore. In many respects the fight for equality by African-Americans continues today with the black population being over-represented in jails and the ranks of the unemployed. Dr King’s campaign for legal and social change drove important changes in legislation and social values in the US over subsequent years.
The Poor Peoples March on Washington, DC in 1968 was an effort to gain justice for economically disadvantaged Americans. It was largely organised by Dr King, but it didn’t occur until a few weeks after his assassination. Thousands of participants set up a protest camp in a park in Washington Mall where they stayed for over six weeks.
Then in June, Senator Robert Kennedy, then 42, was assassinated in Los Angeles. Kennedy was a leader in the fight for racial and economic justice, and also an important voice against the role played by the US in the war in Vietnam. His death was another stimulant to action and protest.
The Kremlin-based Soviet regime came under protest over the lack of basic human rights and the imposition of military oppression in Central and Eastern Europe. Widespread protests escalated in 1968; and the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, as well as protests in Poland and Yugoslavia, made world headlines.
The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the arrest of President Alexander Dubček occurred in 1968 after the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia called for individual liberties to be recognised and political and economic reforms to be implemented (this was known as the Prague Spring). In August, Eastern Bloc armies took over the government and Dubček was forced out. A non-violent resistance was mounted throughout Czechoslovakia and lasted for eight months. Czechoslovakia remained Soviet-controlled until 1989, when the so-called Velvet Revolution terminated Soviet rule peacefully.
The impact of 1968 today
I’ve wondered for a long time why the 1960s were so dark on one hand, and so light on another. There was an atmosphere of doom and war and misery and yet there was a revolutionary spirit. Social values were changing. The sexual revolution of the 1960s and the advent of the women’s movement and the civil rights movements typified a broad desire for change.
When a head of steam builds up in societies around the world then massive protests and consequential change can happen. It happened in South Africa in the 1990s. It happened this year in Mexico when Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) became president. Over recent years in Egypt and Tunisia, prominent activists have been targeted, persecuted, arrested, sometimes assassinated. A similar story applies in Palestine, China, Russia, Cambodia and elsewhere in the world. Yet despite 21st century protests like those that arose out of the 2008 financial crisis, we haven’t really witnessed a huge coinciding of global protests as happened in 1968.
We have the crises, the social wrongs and inequalities today, such as the world-wide refugee problem, that could justifiably cause protests and social upheaval similar to what happened in 1968. What may be lacking are leaders to inspire protest, and a student population and others who think beyond self-interest and are concerned enough to protest. Of course the anti-change, pro-establishment forces have even more military and policing power now to crush protests and that has to be a factor in militating against a repeat of 1968.
But no matter how repressive things become, there will always be people who choose to stand up for what they believe in.