This is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Many others will be writing about his contributions and quoting his speeches. Rather than writing about this remarkable man, I am going to blog about a year in the life of Laura; specifically, 1968. I have a lot of memories of the 60’s; the race riots, and the civil rights movement, growing political controversy and the beginning of mistrust of those elected to political office . I started high school in 1966. We were still emotionally battered from the loss of JFK, and scarred by the ongoing war in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. (USA troops were deployed starting in 1965) The Watts Riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles took place the summer of 65 as well; the year before I started as a freshman at Hayward High.
Names such as Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, Abby Hoffman, the Chicago Seven and so many more fueled my newly forged feminist, liberal soul. (yes, even in my teens! My family has always been proactive and politically oriented. More on that in future Reminiscences 😉 ). Conversations were fueled by the heated rhetoric on TV and newspapers, giving me an uncomfortable sense of history in the making. We talk about the hatred and steamy vitriol that is spewed out from politicians and “ordinary” folk in our “modern” 21st century, but I look back on 1968 with sadness at the level of violence and lack of understanding in those days too.
In late January of 1968, The Tet Offensive began. The war in Vietnam couldn’t be pushed to the back burner any more, and war protesters became frustrated and angry. One of the saddest horrors perpetuated by my generation is it’s mistreatment of returning troops. The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress website has this to say, “…In many cases, upon their return from the war, Vietnam veterans were shunned by the civilian community and labeled “warmongers” and “baby killers.” (My italics) Many Vietnam veterans were forced to conceal their involvement in the war, so as not to be ridiculed but, in doing this, they lost any available cultural support so essential for adjustment for re-entry into civilian life.”
At my high school, we spent a lot of time talking about lighter things too. The Beatles were increasingly “fab,” our vocabulary also consisted of words like boss and neato and far out, and skirts were getting shorter by the minute. In 1968 we were just beginning to wear pants at school, but they had to be dressy, and they could never be blue jeans!
Drugs were just beginning to ‘bud’ in the downtown neighborhoods. Bad boys or the military were the only ones that had tattoos, and we had a perfect make-out spot behind the “Pink Castle,” right next to a cemetery!
We took ‘modern dance’ as a P.E. option, (Joan and I ‘danced’ to Walk Right In and Elvis’ Suspicious Minds. We were not given a choice, or the opportunity, to take shop instead of Home Ec. Backpacks were unheard of for school use, and no matter how liberated we were, it was still great to have a boy walk you to class and carry your books!
Haight-Ashbury was becoming the go-to district of nearby Berkeley, populated by a growing hippie population. Free Love was rampant, and the afterglow of The Summer of Love was still prevalent. Yet when April 4th came around, the contentment and teen spirit I felt for my world was crushed by the devastating death of MLK Jr. Gunned down at a Memphis TN motel, race riots and protests broke out in most big cities in the US. In Oakland, a few days later, a shootout between the ‘fuzz’ (AKA ‘pigs’ or ‘leos’) and the Black Panthers took over the streets. It was headline news in papers, the news and the radio for days. As a tribute, in part, to MLK Jr. the President signed the Civil Rights Act into law on April 11th.
My world was spinning out of control. Fears of my male friends about having to fight in an unpopular war made dating tensions high. I had volunteered to work at the campaign office for Bobby Kennedy’s run for the presidency. It was my first political volunteer endeavor, and I loved it, even though most of the time I was just stuffing envelopes! The year of school was winding to a close, and plans were being made for summer; beaches in Santa Cruz, cruising on East 14th Street, and taking vacations. All our plans came to a grinding halt on June 5.
On a campaign visit, Bobby Kennedy, the favored heir to his brother’s Camelot, was shot in Los Angeles. Again, we watched as television coverage brought reality right to our living room. Bobby’s campaign headquarters had clusters of people standing in stony silence, their grief too profound to even be expressed.
Our school seemed crushed in spirit and devoid of the typical red-blooded passions of youth. The Youth International Party, whose members were commonly called Yippies, found many young people eager to follow their anti-authoritarian platform. That movement created a massive problem at the August 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. The Chicago Seven brought headlines across the country, and we were hard put as youthful Americans, to know what path to take, what group to believe and what steps to take for our own futures.
We became careless, and experimental in these days before serious STDs, and as the year ground to a close, a kind of unsettling apathy settled over high school. We still found time to go to dances, to hang out at the movies, buy albums, visit the beach and take day trips to San Francisco for Bill Graham’s concerts. But we had lost something even more profound and costly than our innocence; we lost our faith in “the system,” and in our government. The draft was coming up in the near future, and a new amendment to the constitution was in the offing. The 26th Amendment would lower the voting age to 18, and I voted for the first time in 1971 when I was 19. I have not missed an election since!
I still harbor very mixed feelings about my high school years, and 1968. Many formerly enjoyable things seemed trivial and pointless during that time. We created a generational persona which came to be called such things as “The Love Generation,” or “The Flower Power Generation.” We were curious and experimental, jaded and desperate for answers. But we were never boring, never predictable and never quiet!
However you feel about the 1960’s, if you were a teen or young adult during those years, the memories are powerful and mixed. What were you doing during those years?