2020: Not a very good year

2020 has had an inauspicious beginning. A pandemic precipitated economic hardship. Killings of African Americans by police and vigilante types were documented by citizens with cellphones, provoking uprisings that were met by violent crackdowns. Deja vu. It feels like we have been here before.

We were. In 1968.

Martin Luther King was shot dead on April 4, 1968, as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

Recent looting and burning were mild in comparison to the protests provoked by the murder of this great man who worked so hard for justice.

One voice that helped to modulate the violence was Robert Kennedy, Democratic Candidate for President, younger brother of the late John F Kennedy, also felled by an assassin. RFK’s short speech on that night served to soothe and quell a grieving crowd in Indianapolis.

Three months later, on June 6, 1968, Robert Kennedy was pronounced dead from an assassin’s bullet, shot in the kitchen of a hotel, where he had just delivered a victory speech for winning the California Democratic primary.

The spring of 1968 saw the beginnings of massive student protests against US involvement in the Vietnam War, a bloody conflict that ultimately claimed the lives of tens of thousands of American soldiers. In August, thousands of anti-war and civil rights protesters surrounded the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Thousands of police cracked down with a vengeance, beating and gassing the demonstrators, newsmen, and even doctors who had come to render aid. The bloody riot was broadcast on television and became known as the “Battle of Michigan Avenue.”

Civil unrest and police crackdowns persisted for years. The most chilling event took place at Kent State university in 1970, when 13 unarmed students were shot by the Ohio National Guard.

A Pandemic in 1968, but not as severe as COVID-19

In September of 1968, the Hong Kong flu struck the United States. This virus killed at least 1 million worldwide, including 100,000 in the United States. As with COVID-19, most deaths occurred in people over 65. At first glance the figures may seem similar. But the Hong Kong flu casualties were spread out over 2 years. In contrast, COVID reached the 100,000 milestone in the USA in a few short months, severely straining health care resources in the hardest hit areas, such as New York.

Black athletes were punished for activism

In October 1968, at the Olympic Games in Mexico, two African American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, took gold and bronze in the 200-meter sprint. They were thrown off the American team because they raised their fists during the playing of the “Star Spangled Banner,” in protest of racial discrimination.

1968 — A Great Film

There were some bright spots in 1968. “In the Heat of the Night,” which won the Academy Award for best motion picture in 1968, portrayed blatant racial oppression in the South, but also offered a ray of hope that attitudes could change. Sidney Poitier plays a detective from Philadelphia who, while passing through a small Mississippi town, is arrested for a murder, just because he is black and a stranger. When I watched it again recently, I was grabbed by one detail that I took for granted in the 1960's. The police officer who is combing the town for suspects looks into the waiting room of the train station but finds it empty. As he is walking away, he has a second thought and looks into a smaller, more spartan room and sees the man from Philadelphia. The smaller room, though not labelled as such, is the Colored waiting room. If you grew up in the south before the ‘70’s, you would know about “separate but equal” facilities. Hospitals and clinics were segregated. The movie theaters in my hometown designated their balconies as the colored sections, with a separate entrance.

Watching the movie helped me recognize the progress that has been made in overt discrimination. But we are still failing miserably in the realm of equal protection under the law. Recently, the news has been consumed by deaths of African Americans due to police brutality or to the actions of wanabee police civilians. It is likely that such atrocities have long been occurring, and only now more frequently reaching public awareness due to the wide use of mobile video recordings. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trevon Martin, Freddie Gray, Ahmaud Arbery … their deaths are the tip of the iceberg. Let us pray that the widespread peaceful demonstrations can lead not only to justice for these people, but that the demands for legislative action and policy changes will prevent future bloodshed.

Folk Music and Protest Songs Topped the Charts in 1968

Artists such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Sam Cooke, Peter, Paul, and Mary expressed the deep concerns of so many. A song by Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth,” released in December 1966, seems eerily prescient of the 1970 Kent State massacre.

“Eve of Destruction,” a protest song written by PF Sloan in 1964, was still dominating the airwaves in 1968. Click on the image above to listen. The lyrics are hauntingly relevant today.

Click the picture to hear Barry McGuire perform this song. You can substitute Hong Kong for Red China and Minneapolis for Selma, Alabama. The song states that “Marches alone don’t bring integration.” And today, marches alone will not bring about social justice. Laws and policies need to change to be consistent with our Constitution and the founding principle of our country, that all men {and women, I might add} are created equal. The peaceful demonstrations of 2020 could catalyze the social changes that we so badly need. We can hope for that, but hope alone will not solve the problems.

2020: We are only halfway through it

On the whole, the violent events of 1968 were much worse than our experience in 2020. But chaotic protests have morphed into calm and galvanized purpose. People are emerging from quarantine and learning to live with a virus. A year that began badly could end in a march toward peace and security for all. Click below to hear Sam Cooke. it has still been long time coming, and we still hope for change.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store


Gayle Woodson is a semi-retired surgeon/educator. Her award winning novel, After Kilimanjaro, was inspired by her work in Tanzania.