History, right now: Echoes of 1968, and other American

Ted Anthony Ap National Writer
Friday, June 5, 2020
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In this Aug. 29, 1968, file photo, Chicago Police attempt to disperse demonstrators outside the Conrad Hilton, the downtown headquarters for the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. AP PHOTO

The streets were on fire as National Guard troops streamed into American cities. The shouts were soaked in anger and anguish: “We’re sick of it!”

There was dark talk of “radical agitators.” Violent outbursts and arrests piled up across the republic. The White House issued martial statements about law and order. On TV, footage of unrest and anger played on a continuous loop.

The voice from mission control was cool and calm as the rocket soared into the sky and towards space. “Stage One propulsion is nominal.”

It was the late 1960s. It is right now.

For Americans of a certain age — and for those mindful of the past — it is impossible to ignore the similarities between these past few days and some of the more unsettling moments from the 1960s. In particular 1968, a year marred by assassinations and violent social unrest.

And there are reasons to believe that 2020, not yet half done, may even surpass 1968 as one of American history’s most powerful social and political flashpoints.

From an impeachment trial to a devastating pandemic, from galloping unemployment to George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, all the threads are there, flowing together into a raging, muddied river that serves up unimaginable challenges.

“All these things are being woven together,” says historian Thurston Clarke, author of “The Last Campaign,” which chronicles Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign and assassination on June 6 of that year.

“It’s like an anti-hit parade, a convergence of the greatest catastrophes of the past 100 years or so, all hitting us at once,” Clarke says. “And with what hope?”

In the morass that is 2020, history’s ghosts from an assortment of American eras have resurfaced:

— From 1918, when a pandemic’s first wave ravaged, ebbed and then gave way to a more powerful second wave.

— From 1930, when an economic crash revealed its longer-term effects on American citizens in the form of the Great Depression.

— From 1974, and the governmental disarray that preceded Richard M. Nixon’s resignation, echoed in January and February with the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.

— From 1992, and its images of Los Angeles burning after the acquittal of four police officers in the beating of Rodney King.

Perhaps the most uncomfortable era to summon for comparison is the one no one really wants to talk about: 1860, when the final pieces of polarization fell into place for what would be a cataclysmic Civil War.

Slavery, America’s greatest historical shame, was the flashpoint then. Today, it is police brutality against black people, a descendant of that awful legacy. Then, as now, there was deep economic disparity, and a debate between individual rights and the common good. Different visions of American life. Different sets of facts and ever-hazier notions of truth.

“What’s fundamentally common for all of these things in our history is a lack of agreement of what reality is — a lack of agreement about facts, about causes,” says U.S. historian John Baick of Western New England University. “When we can’t agree on basic truth, we reach our greatest periods of divide.”

Now, we also must navigate a social media landscape overloaded with instantly uploaded imagery to persuade and provoke — an echo chamber full of lighter fluid that itself is a subject of national contention, thanks in part to the president.

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