Editorial Feature

1968: The Year That Changed America

A look into the events that were to shape the nation forever

1968 in America is often considered to be one of the most turbulent years of the 20th century, with several major historical events creating enough aftershock to shape the future of America and beyond for decades after. A year of triumphs and tragedies, here we explore ten events that occurred during 1968 and discuss their impact.

North Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive against the United States and South Vietnam

In January, North Vietnamese communists launched the Tet Offensive – officially called The General Offensive and Uprising of Tet Mau Than 1968. It was one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War and contained surprise attacks against military and civilian command and control centers throughout South Vietnam.

The assault stunned both the US and South Vietnamese armies, causing them to temporarily lose control of several cities, though they quickly regrouped and beat back the attacks, and as a result inflicted heavy casualties on North Vietnamese forces. While it’s thought of as a military failure for North Vietnamese forces, it had a huge effect on the US government and shocked the US public. Previously they had been led to believe by political and military leaders that the North Vietnamese were being defeated, were weak and incapable of launching such an ambitious military operation. As such, American public support for the war soon declined and the US sought negotiations to end the war.

US Marines run from enemy gunfire to board a helicopter at Khe Sanh during the Vietnam War (From the collection Getty Images)

Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee

American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was fatally shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4 while in town for the sanitation workers’ strike. The gunman, James Earl Ray, a white supremacist fled the country and over the following week, riots in more than 100 cities nationwide left 39 people dead, more than 2,600 injured, and 21,000 arrested.

King’s murder shook the nation and it was clear his impact on the USA could be felt on both sides of the political spectrum. Prior to his murder, the civil rights leader had come to accept death as part of his work, despite being known for his own use of nonviolence. King received frequent death threats, but had confronted the risk of death and accepted it as part of his philosophy, believing murder could not stop the struggle for equal rights.

Martin Luther King Jr. by James E. Hinton (From the collection of Carnegie Hall)
Race riots in Washington DC (From the collection of Getty Images)

President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968

Just seven days after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and during nationwide riots, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which was meant as a follow-up to the Civil Rights of 1964. The original 1964 act outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin and prohibited unequal application of voter registration requirements, racial segregation in schools, employment, and public accommodation.

The 1968 legislation, which was also known as the Fair Housing Act, built on this by providing equal housing opportunities and making it a federal crime to “by force or by threat of force, injure, intimidate, or interfere with anyone… by reason of their race, color, religion, or national origin”.

President Lyndon B. Johnson speaking before signing the Voting Rights Act 1964 (From the collection US National Archives)

Robert F Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles

In early 1968, New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy entered the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Just a few months later on June 5, after winning the California primary, Kennedy was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. The shooter was Palestinian-Jordanian Sirhan Sirhan, who in 1969 was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, although his sentence was changed to life in prison in 1972, where he remains today.

A freelance newspaper reporter recorded the shooting on audio tape and the aftermath was captured on film. Kennedy's assassination was a blow to the optimism for a brighter future that his campaign had brought for many Americans who lived through the turbulent 1960s.

Robert Kennedy by Bill Eppridge (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)
Robert F Kennedy campaigning shortly before his assassination by Bill Eppridge (From he collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

50,000 people joined the Solidarity Day Rally for Jobs, Peace, and Freedom in Washington D.C.

The Poor People's Campaign, or Poor People's March on Washington, was an effort to gain economic justice for poor people in the United States. It was organized by Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and carried out under the leadership of Ralph Abernathy in the wake of King's assassination.

The efforts from campaigners culminated in the Solidarity Day Rally for Jobs, Peace, and Freedom in Washington D.C on June 19. Around 50,000 people joined the 3,000 participants living at Resurrection City on the National Mall to rally around the demands of the Poor People’s Campaign. While an economic bill of rights was not passed post-campaign, some subtle changes did come out of it. They included more money for free and reduced lunches for school children and Head Start programs in Mississippi and Alabama. The United States Department of Agriculture also released surplus commodities to the nation's 1,000 poorest counties, food stamps were expanded, and some federal welfare guidelines were streamlined.

Poor People's Campaign by Leonard McCombe (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)
Poor People's Campaign by Leonard McCombe (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Protest at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago

The 1968 National Convention of the Democratic Party was held at the end of August at the International Amphitheatre in Chicago, Illinois. As President Lyndon B. Johnson had announced he would not seek reelection, the purpose of the convention was to select a new presidential nominee to run as the Democratic Party's candidate for the office.

Around 10,000 demonstrators gathered in Chicago for the convention, where they were met by 23,000 police and National Guardsmen. They were mostly made up of people belonging to the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam and the Youth International Party (Yippies) as well as groups like Students for a Democratic Society. Violence broke out after a man lowered the American flag that was at the convention, which led to police breaking through the crowd to beat the young man. The crowd threw food, rocks, and chunks of concrete at the police. Tear gas was used to suppress the protesters and so much was used that it made its way to the Hilton Hotel. Protesters and bystanders were sprayed with mace by the police and the entire event took place live on television for 17 minutes with the crowd chanting: “The whole world is watching”. The protest encouraged many Americans to come out in opposition to the Vietnam War and people demanded change.

Anti-war protests outside the Democratic National Convention (From the collection of Getty Images)
Protestors surround police car outside Democratic National Convention (From the collection of Getty Images)

Olympic Games Human Rights Salute

On October 16 at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, during the medal ceremony for African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the pair carried out a political demonstration. Smith and Carlos won gold and bronze respectively in the 200 meter race and as they turned on the podium to face their flags and hear the American national anthem, the athletes each raised a black-gloved fist and kept them raised until the anthem had finished. They were demonstrating against continuing racial discrimination of black people in the United States. Although Smith later said the gesture was not a “Black Power” salute, rather a “human rights salute”, which is reflected by the fact that Smith, Carlos, and Australian silver medalist Peter Norman also all wore human rights badges on their jackets.

The political salute was deemed “unfit for the apolitical, international forum” of the Olympic Games and subsequently Smith and Carlos were suspended from the US team and banned from the Olympic Village. On their return to the USA, both men were welcomed as heroes by the African-American community but others regarded them as “trouble-makers”. Both received death threats. It took 30 years after their protest, for Smith and Carlos, who went on to become high school athletics coaches, to be honoured for their part in furthering the civil rights movement in America.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos standing on the podium by John Dominis (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Nixon won the White House

On November 5, Republican nominee, former Vice President Richard Nixon, defeated Democratic nominee Vice President Hubert Humphrey. The result saw a shift in the political system and permanently disrupted the New Deal Coalition that had dominated presidential politics for 36 years. The New Deal Coalition was the alignment of interest groups and voting blocs in the USA that supported the New Deal – a series of programs, public work projects, financial reforms and regulations enacted in the USA after the Great Depression.
This was the first presidential election after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which had led to mass enfranchisement of racial minorities throughout the country, especially in the South. Nixon's victory marked the start of a period of Republican dominance in presidential elections, as Republicans won four of the next five elections. Nixon’s presidency is known for a start for diplomacy with China, a slow ending of the Vietnam War and an era of peace with the Soviet Union. However he is also known for corruption and the Watergate scandal, which resulted in the public losing trust in him and ultimately his resignation in 1974.

Richard Nixon by Arthur Shatz (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)
Richard Nixon by Lee Balterman (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Shirley Chisholm was the first African-American woman elected to the US House of Representatives

Initially, Brooklyn-born Shirley Chisholm resisted a career in politics despite being encouraged by her college professors to follow one, stating that she faced a “double handicap” being both black and female. For years she worked as a nursery school teacher, then went on to gain a master’s degree from Columbia University in childhood education in 1951 and by 1960 she was a consultant to the New York City Division of Day Care. Soon she couldn’t ignore her political inclinations and began a fight for equality by joining local chapters of the League of Women Voters, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Urban League and the Democratic Party club in Brooklyn.

In 1964, Chisholm ran for and became the second African-American in New York State Legislature. After court-ordered redistricting created a new, heavily Democratic district in her neighbourhood, in 1968 she sought and won a seat in Congress – the first black woman to do so. Gaining the nickname “Fighting Shirly”, Chisholm went on to introduce more than 50 pieces of legislation and championed racial and gender equality, the plight of the poor, and ending the Vietnam War. In 1972 Chisholm campaigned for the Democratic Party presidential nomination but faced discrimination and was blocked from participating in televised primary debates, and after taking legal action, was permitted to make just one speech. Still, students, women, and minorities followed the “Chisholm Trail.” She entered 12 primaries and garnered 152 of the delegates’ votes (10% of the total) – despite an under-financed campaign and aggression from her predominantly male opponents.

Shirley Chisholm by Thomas J. O'Halloran (From the collection of National Women's History Museum)

Apollo 8 became the first manned spacecraft to orbit the moon

Apollo 8 was the second manned spaceflight mission in the USA Apollo space program. It launched on December 21, becoming the first manned spacecraft to leave the Earth’s orbit, reach the Earth’s Moon and orbit it, and return safely to Earth. It took 68 hours to travel the distance to the Moon. The crew made a Christmas Eve television broadcast where they read the first 10 verses from the Book of Genesis. It was the most watched TV program at the time.

The three-astronaut crew was Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot James Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders. They were the first humans to see the Earth as a whole planet, orbit another celestial body and directly see the far side of the Moon with their own eyes, among a multitude of other firsts. The Apollo 8 astronauts returned to Earth on December 27 and their spacecraft landed in the Northern Pacific Ocean. Borman, Lovell, and Anders were named Time magazine’s “Men of the Year” upon their return.

James Lovell, William Ander and Frank Borman, Apollo 8 crew by Ralph Morse (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)
Saturn V Rocket - Apollo 8 by Henry Goskinsky (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)
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