Good old days = A bad memory - Keith Roulston editorial
Part of the reason the “old days” seem so golden is that time is a wonderful anesthesia.
I was thinking about that the recently when I heard that a parole board had recommended that Sirhan Sirhan, who had assassinated Robert F. Kennedy, should be released from prison. A column by Lawrence Martin in The Globe and Mail also helped bring back the grim reality of the 1960s, a time often celebrated these days as rosy days of peace, love and rock ’n’ roll.
Watching what’s happening in the U.S. today, there’s a sense of unreality – that what we’re seeing can’t really be true. It’s a sensation that people my age have experienced before – in 1968.
Few alive today remember those turbulent times. Successive U.S. governments had attached huge importance to defeating the Communists of North Vietnam who were trying to reunite their country. In 1968 the U.S. sent more than a half-million military personnel to Vietnam, many of them conscripted whether they wanted to go or not.
The Black Lives Matter demonstrations of last year pale beside the racial turmoil of the 1960s. At the beginning of that decade it was still hard to vote in most southern states if you were Black. There were separate washrooms, and separate (and usually inferior) schools. In 1960, when four African American college students sat down at a lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, they were refused service. It began years of efforts to get more rights to Blacks.
Still, many southern jurisdictions used phony excuses to deny the right to vote to Blacks, the most infamous being asking Blacks registering to vote how many jelly beans were in a jar as proof of their literacy. The climax of the effort to register Black voters took place when Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis and other civil rights leaders, took part in a 54-mile march of 600 supporters from Selma, Alabama to the state capital at Montgomery in 1965. When the marchers were viciously attacked by state troopers, scenes of that violence on their television screens convinced many Americans to support the civil rights movement.
Ironically, it was Lyndon B. Johnson, a President from the southern state of Texas, who passed the Civil Rights Act which overturned many southern states’ segregation efforts. Johnson had succeeded John F. Kennedy when he was assassinated in 1963. But Johnson went along with army leaders who wanted more troops in Vietnam. That led Robert F. Kennedy (“Bobby”), who had been Attorney General in his brother’s cabinet, to declare he would run against a sitting Democratic President for the Democratic Party’s nomination.
The spring of 1968 climaxed a time of continuing shocks. On April 4, King was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. With his death, new fears arose. King had always advocated non-violence but other Black leaders were impatient with this approach. Would there be more violence?
Things didn’t look hopeful when disturbances broke out in more than 100 U.S. cities immediately following King’s murder. For those of us in southwestern Ontario, the most shocking was the riot in Detroit where whole sections of the downtown were set afire. The flames could be seen in Windsor.
Meanwhile Kennedy gained support to become the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee (seeing his situation, Johnson had already said he would retire). On June 5, 1968 Kennedy won the California primary, pretty much sealing the nomination. After the celebration he was shot by Sirhan as he exited through Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel’s kitchen.
As Martin writes, more lives were lost than Kennedy’s that night. He had pledged to bring U.S. troops home from Vietnam. With Kennedy’s death, Richard Nixon won the presidency for the Republicans and continued the war, and thousands more Americans died (and many thousands of Vietnamese). Bitter divisions between pro-war and anti-war fac-tions continued to divide Americans for years.
So, chilling as the current state of affairs south of the border is, a little perspective shows that there have been terrible divisions before. New restrictions imposed to make it harder to vote in some states, for instance, pale by comparison to the days of segregation.
Still, we like to think we have progressed, but often find out we haven’t. When Nixon’s election workers broke into the Democratic campaign offices leading up to the 1972 election, he dodged impeachment by resigning. Republicans as well as Democrats were ready to punish him. Would that today’s Republicans were as ready to reject former President Donald Trump’s efforts to deny and overturn his 2020 election loss.