There are years that simply seem to drift by, each with their unique ups and downs, of course, but overall just sliding into history without making much of a ripple on the Richter Scale of time.
Then there are years that explode like earthquakes, not only etching their stories on the wall of eternity but smashing right through it.
This has been such a year, and we’re only a bit over halfway through.
Which brings to mind another tumultuous, history-shaking, wild bull of a year, 1968.
In all, 1968 was much like 2020, but without a global pandemic and with better music.
The nation changed in 1968. America fractured along social, political and racial lines and in time the breaks healed, albeit imperfectly. The fractures of 2020 have yet to even begin to mend.
In 1968 we were sharply divided over the war in Vietnam. Today a war of a different sort divides us, this one against an enemy we can’t see, touch or feel. Todays divisions are wide, but not as deep as those of 1968 and seem to be based on a wave of anti-intellectualism and general distrust of science that has gripped a segment of our population.
We were split then, as now, along racial lines. But where today the cry is “Black Lives Matter,” then it was “Black power.” The message is the same, it is time to end racism and discrimination in America and the world. But while the Vietnam War ended in the 1970s, the battle for racial equality goes on. The symbols of the struggle then were John Carlos and Tommie Smith, raising black-gloved fists during the playing of the national anthem during the Mexico City Olympics. Today the names repeated over and over are those of victims like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Cities burned because of protests in 1968, as they have in 2020, with accompanying views of police clashing with demonstrators, setting off tear gas and wielding batons. Then those clips of urban unrest were confined to a few minutes on the nightly network news, while today with the benefit of the 24-hour news cycle, not to mention social media, we can watch them over and over, ad nauseam, ad infinitum.
There was a presidential election in 1968, as there is now, but unlike 2020 there was no incumbent. Lyndon Johnson announced in the spring he would not run again. He had grown weary, it seems, of hearing daily chants like “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” from anti-war demonstrators.
Then as now, however, there was a definite split between left and right. The 1968 campaign featured a former vice president, as ours will, but then both candidates had once been the nation’s second in command — the GOP’s Richard Nixon and Democrat Hubert Humphrey. Nixon was the conservative, law and order candidate, while Humphrey was portrayed as weak on law and order, as well as communism.
We lost heroes in 1968, both to an assassin’s bullet. Martin Luther King Jr., was killed in April in Memphis by James Earl Ray, while Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who may well have been the Democratic presidential nominee in 1968, was murdered in June in Los Angeles by Sirhan Sirhan.
The deaths jolted the nation, delivering yet another slap across the chops to an already reeling populace. No one of that prominence has been murdered in 2020 but we have lost heroes, like Rep. John Lewis to cancer and the hundreds of health care workers who have been killed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
I was a child of 15 in 1968, but even to my adolescent sensibilities it appeared the nation was ripping itself apart at the seams. Today, at way more than 15, I have the same fears.
But 1968 finally ended, and the world didn’t. The great ship of state sailed on, despite having nearly been swamped the previous year. Sadly we still face many of the same issues now that we did then, more than a half century later. We are not the same country we were then, but neither are we the country we need to be.
COVID-19 will eventually be brought to heel and the world will proceed with its so-called “new normal,” but we must make sure that normal does not include racism, discrimination and our seeming unwillingness to compromise, or even to simply agree to disagree.
For the moment the pandemic is raging on, the presidential election is beginning to heat up and we are months from ringing 2020 into the history books. But lest you think all you can do is hang on for the ride, think again. Each of us can be kind, generous, loving, accepting and understanding, doing our part to mitigate some of the craziness we have endured thus far during this most unforgettable year.
In his address to the 1968 Republican convention in Miami Beach, Nixon concluded his acceptance speech after becoming the nominee with the words “the long dark night for America is about to end.”
The turbulent year of 2020 has brought us into another long dark night, but rest assured, dawn is coming.