1968 and 2020: A Boomer Perspective

In a 2018 article, the Washington Post described it as “the year the center did not hold” and the year “many Americans saw their country spinning out of control. It was a shocking time, a moment of danger, destruction, and division—yet also a time of passion and possibility.” It was also the year the Beatles released their top hit, Hey Jude.”

We Have a Valuable Perspective

1968 was one of the most difficult years in American history and one that forever changed our country. For those of us who remember 1968 and/or the challenging years that followed, we have a unique understanding and recognition of what is happening in our country today. Although some circumstances are much different today than they were in 1968, many of the basic human rights and social justice issues are the same. We can also understand the fear and anxiety that some younger people, who have never experienced a high degree of national injustice and unrest, are feeling.

A teenager recently shared his concern with me about what was going on in the country today. I listened to his concerns. Then I shared some of what I remember during the late 1960s and early 1970s. We were able to talk about some of the similarities of then and now as well as some of the small changes that started to occur as a result of protests. He said, “Then you do know what it’s like.”

Because we’ve lived long enough, we do know something about what is happening today and why. We know that we will face more losses because of the pandemic, and there will be more fighting ahead for justice and equality. At the same time, we also know something about our own resilience and the resilience of our country. Younger people generally have not developed the same degree of resilience as those who have a lot of life experience. We can help younger people have hope for tomorrow by sharing a bit of the past and helping them see beyond the present.

Snippets of Our History from 1968

As the Smithsonian Magazine explained it, “Movements that had been building along the primary fault lines of the 1960s—the Vietnam War, the Cold War, Civil rights, human rights, youth-culture—exploded with force in 1968. This was also the year that North Korea captured the USS Pueblo. One U.S. crewman was killed and 82 others were imprisoned.

In January 1968, eighty-seven-year-old Jeannette Rankin led about 5000 women in a march on Washington D.C. to protest the Vietnam War. The motto for the movement was “Sisterhood is Powerful.”  Interestingly, Rankin was the first woman ever elected to the U.S. Congress. She had also helped pass the 19th Amendment decades earlier, giving women the right to vote.


Also in January—as President Johnson was making claims that the U.S. was winning the war in Vietnam, the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive, a shocking attack that further galvanized the country against the war.  General trust in government was eroding.

On April 4, 1968, a white supremacist murdered Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Riots broke out in more than 100 cities nationwide. Thirty-nine people were killed, 2600 were injured, and 21,000 were arrested. White supremacists are still attacking and killing African American citizens.

Black and brown Americans still experience what is often a significant degree of racism; today, we are witnessing a renewed awareness about the degree of racism and injustices nonwhite Americans are experiencing.

War protests, marches for racial and gender equality, rioting, and angst were regularly broadcast on the three major news channels available at that time. Many families huddled in front of their televisions each evening in horror as they watched coverage of the national unrest, rioting, burning buildings, and protests.

In June 1968, Robert F. Kennedy, a presidential candidate and the brother of assassinated President John F. Kennedy, was also murdered. As the country continued to reel and convulse, the unrest continued. Younger people were pitted against older people, blacks against whites, women against men, war protesters against an unpopular war, poor people against economic inequities.

At the 1968 Democratic Convention, police and National Guardsmen clubbed and tear-gassed hundreds of antiwar demonstrators, news reports, and bystanders as this violence was broadcast on national television. We witnessed unchecked brutality and violence on television in 1968; it still needs to be addressed today.

In September, feminists protested the Miss America Pageant. Women did not want to be viewed as mindless sex-objects or feel as though they had to conform to societal expectations about beauty. Women are still engaged in this fight today.

Change is Possible

While we may want to solve problems immediately, we know from our lived experience that change generally is slow and often painful. Yet, change is possible and it will come.

After Dr. King’s assassination, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968; this new legislation was intended to provide equal housing opportunities regardless of race, color, religion, or national origin.

By the end of 1968, a few encouraging signs of change emerged. Shirley Chisholm (NY) became the first black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.  Yale University agreed to start admitting female undergraduates after 267 years of only accepting male undergraduates.  On November 22, “Star Trek” aired the first interracial kiss on television, even though some at NBC tried to censor the scene.

Hope for Tomorrow

2020: I am hopeful that we will see significant, positive changes as a result of the protests and all that we are experiencing as a country. I believe we are trying to bridge divides and to work together for a brighter future for all. Change will come—maybe not as fast as we want it to, but it will come – as long as we do not lose heart. Younger people need to know that we’ve got their back. We believe in their future. We have hope for tomorrow even when they cannot see it.




This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Joyce Cohen

    Paula, You are spot on! Thank you for taking the time to trace civil rights events over the past 50+ years of our history. As we all watched the horror of police brutality in Minneapolis, thousands of us in 100’s of cities and across the globe took to the streets to say ENOUGH. When it comes to civil rights and policy brutality, America FINALLY answered in force. The tipping point that Malcolm Gladwell introduced to us in his book of the same name back in the year 2000 spilled over to the streets. I abhor the destruction of looters and arsonists while I applaud the peaceful marches by our masses. Perhaps it took 20 years to reach the crescendo where we are today but it was 400 years in the making. Gladwell described The Tipping Point as that time when “the moment of critical mass has been reached, the threshold has come , the boiling point was surpassed.” .
    Only history and today’s youth will know what happens in 50 more years. For the rest of my life, I re-commit to stand with individuals and causes marginalized and/or forced to live in fear. It is a new era. Vocally, let’s ALL continue to make forward strides forward justice… TOGETHER!

    1. Paula Usrey

      Beautifully said, Joyce. I can’t recall if I ever read Tipping Point, but I will make it a point to read it (or read it again). Thank you for your insights and thoughts!

  2. Cindy Eastman

    Fantastic article. I like all of the facts of what occurred in 1968 and bringing that history forward to what is still occurring today. We’ve been through so much. But we managed to get through it before and we will again. Hopefully stronger smarter and most importantly less divided and more unity than before.

    1. Paula Usrey

      Thank you, Cindy. Yes, I do hope we discover the strength of our unity through the process.

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