December 3, 2008

The Year of Revolt

1968—when cities burned, leaders were assassinated and upheaval was the word of the day—is the focus of a history course for today’s college students

By Helene Ragovin

Daniel Mulholland clearly remembers 1968. He arrived at Tufts on August 22, the day after Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia, putting a brutal end to the Prague Spring.

Police and demonstrators clash in Chicago on August 28, 1968, during the Democratic National Convention. Photo: ©Les Sintay/Bettman/CORBIS

“I’d just been hired,” he says. “I was very excited when I got here—there was a leaflet posted up on Ballou Hall from the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] chapter of Tufts—the title, I remember it vividly, was ‘Ain’t Gonna Work on Maggie’s Farm No More.’ ” He laughs. “That SDS chapter lasted about 20 minutes.”

Forty years later, 1968 has become one for the history books, and Mulholland, a professor of history, is teaching a class about that year for sophomores and juniors who were born a good 20 years after that tumultuous time.

It was the year that saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy; the Democrats’ riotous convention in Chicago; a student occupation at Columbia University; the Viet Cong’s Tet Offensive; increasing anti-war protests; the emergence of the Black Panthers and the election of Richard Nixon.

But the point Mulholland stresses to his students is that “the 1960s were not exclusively an American phenomenon—it was a global manifestation.”

Indeed, social and political turmoil were shaking societies all over the world. In addition to the Soviet clampdown in Czechoslovakia, the Cultural Revolution was getting under way in China; student and worker protests were verging on revolution in Paris; the “Troubles” began in Northern Ireland; the Middle East was grappling with the aftermath of the Six-Day War. The Mexico City Olympics—whose most famous image became the “black power salute” of African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos—were preceded by the Tlatelolco massacre of students and other protesters by the Mexican military. A secessionist war continued in the Nigerian region of Biafra, epitomized by images of starving children with bloated stomachs.

This is not the 1968 some may have expected—the ’68 of the Beatles’ White Album and the TV show Laugh-In and the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. When the students start the class, Mulholland asks them for their impressions of 1968. “They’re too shy to say, but what they’re thinking about is sex and drugs and rock-and-roll,” he says.

“Prague and Paris are not the first things that come to their minds,” he says. “Even in ’68, I don’t know to what extent the popular consciousness [in America] was aware of what was going on elsewhere in the world. Apart from Vietnam, the public was probably not paying much attention to China, France, Latin America, Czechoslovakia.”

A Worldwide Movement

Yet it’s impossible to separate what was happening in the U.S. and around the world, Mulholland says. The social currents and ideologies that fed the various “rights” movements that flourished in the U.S. in the ’60s—civil rights, the women’s movement, the farm-workers movement on the West Coast—were also nourishing similar movements elsewhere.

“The civil rights struggle, and ‘black power,’ as it was developed by 1968, was very influential in other parts of the world,” Mulholland says. “The IRA [Irish Republican Army] first took up civil rights, and then armed struggle. In Quebec, the French movement there was … motivated by the U.S.

“And it kind of echoes, ideas rattle back and forth: American radicals were invigorated by what they thought looked like the anti-bureaucratic, ‘pure’ revolution of the Chinese, and the proletariat Cultural Revolution. The Black Panthers financed themselves by selling Mao’s Little Red Book,” Mulholland says. “It was not influence going either just one way or the other; it was rocking in every direction.”

Paris erupted in riots in May 1968, as students protested social injustices. Photo: © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

According to Mulholland, 1968 was not a “watershed” year in a historical sense. In recent history, for example, 1989—the year the Berlin Wall came down and students stood defiant in Tiananmen Square—would be more deserving of the term.

That year “shifted the whole scene, but 1968 did not—it was part of a continuum,” from the murder of John Kennedy in 1963 to the U.S. exit from Vietnam in the mid-seventies, he says. The civil rights movement, which informed so many of the events of 1968, began more than a decade earlier, and was furthered by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The events of 1968 were also fueled by fortunate economic circumstances. “What made ’68, what made the ’60 s possible in general, was an unprecedented period of economic prosperity and growth, from the post-war period that lasted until 1971 or so,” Mulholland says. “And what that meant, whether in Europe or the U.S., was that for the first time, kids had money. Kids having money made possible the existence of a youth culture that we now take for granted.”

Obama, Palin and 1968

The legacy of 1968 is mixed. Some events that looked momentous at the time proved less significant in the long run, Mulholland says.

“What looked like a genuine class revolution in France in May of 1968, initiated by students but then picked up by millions of workers”—he pauses, and then sighs—“Deflated.” He laughs. “Yes, DeGaulle was indeed forced to resign and retire the next year, but the kind of wonderful, inventive, playful, utopian aspects that had been shown in May of 1968 didn’t go anywhere. In the U.S., we had Nixon instead of Johnson—how was that an improvement?”

One of the lasting results of the late ’60s was the gradual spread, worldwide, of an awareness of human rights issues, born from the U.S. civil rights movement, Mulholland says. In this country, the result is the lasting influence of the civil rights movement and the women’s movement.

“The legacy of 1968 is Barack Obama,” Mulholland says, “and, in its own silly way, Sarah Palin.

“They say that if you remember the ’60s, you really weren’t there,” Mulholland jokes. “I really wasn’t a ’60s person—I had small children to take care of at the time—so I do remember the ’60s.” And, he says, 2008 has, for the most part, seen changes for the better. For example, the America of 1968 was a place where it was not shocking to hear racial slurs uttered in public.

“America is a different country than it was 40 years ago,” he says. “In some respects, a better, nicer country.” And that could be the direct legacy of 1968.

Helene Ragovin can be reached at

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