How Should We Remember 1968?


From the State of Nature Blog/One Question Website, May 2018

To mark the 50th anniversary of the events of May 1968, we asked:
How Should We Remember 1968?

Responses from: Lewis Gordon, Rachel Harrison, Francoise Verges, Daniel Gordon, Max Elbaum, Robyn Spencer, Gabriel Rockhill, Stephen Milder, Sarah Lincoln, Eric Mann, Ron Jacobs, Nadia Yala Kisukidi, RA Judy, Leo Zeilig, Catherine Samary and Stephen D’Arcy. For the full symposium, go here.

How Should We Remember 1968?

By Max Elbaum

In 1968 millions poured into the streets across the globe inspired by dreams of a better world. The U.S. was no exception.

In the first four months of that tumultuous year the Vietnamese Tet offensive ended Washington’s hopes of victory in Southeast Asia and forced incumbent President Lyndon Johnson to abandon his re-election bid. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated and Black uprisings erupted in more than 100 cities. Flames reached within six blocks of the White House; 70,000 troops had to be called up across the country to restore order.

These jolts punctuated a decade of Civil Rights organizing, antiwar protests, cultural ferment and youth rebellion that opened up the sharpest racial political polarization in the country since the Civil War.

That polarization centered on injustices woven into the underlying structure of U.S. society:

  1. The pattern of expansion through violence and war stretching from the genocide of Native peoples through “manifest destiny” to the imperial project then bogged down in the jungles of Vietnam.
  2. The embedding of racism into the political economy of the U.S. from the “original sin” of racial slavery through Jim Crow to the violent opposition to racial equality symbolized by the murder of Dr. King.

The massive scale of the 1968 upsurge against war, racism and the system in which they were entrenched indicated that there was hope of achieving the “Revolution of Values” that Dr. King called for. That the oppressive structures of a racist imperial power were not the only strands of U.S. history: there was a democratic counter-tradition stretching back to the period of abolitionism and Reconstruction which showed its power once again in the Black-led Second Reconstruction that defeated McCarthyism, ended Jim Crow, and opened up the space for freedom movements in every community of color, Second Wave Feminism and Gay Liberation.

The backlash against these gains has held the initiative in U.S. politics since that hope-filled time. But a look back at 1968 from the vantage point of today’s moment of Trump-led racist authoritarianism tells us that this country urgently needs another Reconstruction – and we can make it happen if people of conscience pick up the 1968 torch.

Max Elbaum has been involved in peace, anti-racist and radical movements since joining Students for a Democratic Society in Madison, Wisconsin in the 1960s. The third edition of his book, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che, with a new foreword by Black Lives Matter Co-Founder Alicia Garza, was just released as part of Verso Books 1968 Series.