Spring is commencement for many colleges, and no doubt we will have a spate of celebrities and politicians exhorting the graduates in political-correct speak.
The cover of Time magazine showed an aerial view of a black protest movement, probably Baltimore, with the boldened “2015” struck out and with “1968” in its stead. Nope. I was an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., in 1968, which has been dubbed by historians as a turning point in American history — a watershed year.
College harkens back to nostalgic times, usually. When I skipped on to campus in the fall of 1967, I came with a wardrobe of shirtwaist dresses with coordinating hairbows and dainty shoes. To exit the only women’s dorm, coeds had to don a raincoat if wearing shorts or pants. If we missed curfew during the week (10 p.m.), or on weekends (midnight), we were dunned late minutes and could be grounded. Shorthaired males in coats and ties brought a corsage to us for football games.
That December, I crooned on my date’s shoulders by the stage as Otis Redding belted out “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.” His plane went down after that concert, and the Motown sound pretty much soon after.
Spring semester saw the beginnings of the Vietnam anti-war protests with students picketing the ROTC and throwing Dow Chemical off campus when it came recruiting. Johnny Cash sang patriotic songs under an American flag to support the war while a few radical students burned their draft cards. While I was listening to the chancellor of Columbia University in a panel discussion, he got a call and left the stage — his administration building was being taken over by students demanding an end to all research pertaining to industries that were linked to the war. In Berkeley, the Free Speech movement led to protests and takeovers of buildings as the leaders demanded an end to paternalistic practices.
Much to the chagrin of many parents, our proactive chancellor immediately abolished dress codes and hours, and allowed students to move off campus. Student health started dispensing birth-control pills in keeping with the “free love” movement that was emanating from San Francisco.
Then in April of my freshman year, just down the road in Memphis, Martin Luther King was assassinated. Immediately, all hell broke loose on the myriad nearby black campuses, with campus rioting and buildings set afire. The city became eerily quiet as tanks and national guardsmen rolled down the streets and surrounded our nervous campus among others.
Because the voting age had been lowered to 18, presidential candidates and political newsmakers arrived in droves.
Sen. Al Gore Sr. pranced on a white horse. William Kunstler, who was defending the Chicago Seven, popped by. Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver was on the lam from Cuba hiding out on the Fisk campus, it was reported. The campus chaplain led a candlelight peace vigil to the Capitol building downtown. Aspiring vice president Spiro Agnew (later to be elected and resign in disgrace) came to promote Nixon, while Democratic candidate Bobby Kennedy drew an overflow crowd in May talking about “powah to the people.” In June, he too was assassinated. Bob Dylan was singing “The Times, They Are a Changing.” And change they did.
My parents reluctantly allowed me to do a semester abroad in ’69 where “The Movement” — as European protest was dubbed — was in full swing. Amsterdam was the heart of the hippy movement, Carnaby Street in London the Mod movement. I got into some tear gas by running into a young communist Labor protest in Rome (it was still the height of the Cold War) and couldn’t cross the Seine in Paris when students there decided to strike. Everywhere people angrily denounced America because of Vietnam, while paradoxically congratulating us for landing men on the moon. Bell-bottoms and clogs and impossibly short dresses and boots replaced the sorority girl look. When I returned home, all the boys had hair down to their shoulders; strobe lights, psychedelic music, and more than just booze floated around the frat houses.
Classrooms were alive with debates, particularly in the popular philosophy and poli-sci courses. It would have been unthinkable to have “safe spaces” for those offended by debate, as is the practice in college classrooms today. Our only social media was the classroom or dorm room.
So is 2015 a flashback to 1968? Hardly. Today the technology of cell-phone videos is spotlighting white police brutality toward black male suspects while the technology of body cameras may be part of the solution. Bad cops? Boot ’em. They were around beating up white protestors outside the Democratic convention in Chicago and at Kent State. It’s power gone amuck. Racism? Certainly prejudice and fear of a subset of poor, undereducated often black youth who turn to violence out of directionless lives exists.
But when for seven years we’ve had a black president and attorney general, in places where police brutality has occurred often blacks are the mayor, police commissioner, or prosecutors, the paradigm of the ’60s doesn’t wash. For that analogy, let’s make it about being “right on” with “power to the people” by scrapping expensive failed government programs and discoursing honestly instead of pandering to political correctness.
Len Bourland can be reached at [email protected].