We Have Seen This Bitterness Before: Reflections on 1968 and Now


By Mark Naison (July 20, 2016)

I have many friends, most of them younger than me, who are terrified by the divisions in the country, by the violent acts that periodically add to the tension, and by an election which brings out a level of fear and anger they have never seen before.

Unfortunately, this is not new to me. I have vivid memories of the year 1968 and that Presidential election. We had a terrible war. Assasinations. Riots in every major city. Campus take overs. And a country divided down the middle over race and politics

I will give you snippets of this to put things in perspective. Race was a huge divider. There was bitter white resentment of Black urban uprisings and campus protests, fueled by a third party candidate named George Wallace, and used as a political platform in somewhat less visceral ways by the Republican candidate Richard Nixon. You could feel the tension on the streets, especially in neighborhoods which were undergoing rapid racial change. I vividly remember signs along the Cross Bronx Expressway which said “This is Wallace Country” as the line separating whites from Blacks and Latinos quickly moved from Tremont Avenue to Fordham Road. It also divided families. I was basically kicked out of my family for falling in love with a Black woman and adopted by her extended family, which had a base in the Bronx. Walking hand in hand through the city was like maneuvering a minefield. You never knew who was going to blow up at us

But it wasn’t just race. It was the war, drugs and the “hippie youth culture too.” I vividly remember driving through the Midwest with white friends on the way to Chicago, all of whom had long hair, and getting hate looks from parents while the children passed the peace sign. Some of my friends had been virtually disowned by their parents too, for growing their hair long, opposing the war, or participating in protests..

Those of us who were living through it saw no end in sight. Many of us thought we would die early deaths and that there would be a revolution or the emergence of some kind of fascist state. We had our apocalyptic fantasies and great music to fuel our fevered imaginations.

But though some people died, others burned themselves out, and families fractured, the nation survived and we stumbled on without our political system collapsing.

I suspect the same will happen now. We will hurt one another, and leave some lasting scars, but we will not turn into some unrecognizable dictatorship.

So friends, by all means worry, but do not despair. We will get through this. Damaged, but not destroyed.

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