We survived 1968. We can survive 2018.

A year of Trumpian racism compels a look back to where we were 50 years ago.

CREDIT: Getty Images
CREDIT: Getty Images

As soon as the clock on my wall ticked the final second, I flipped the calendar to a fresh page. Good riddance, 2017. It was, as Queen Elizabeth said of 1992, an annus horribilis, one that I won’t ever look back on “with undiluted pleasure.”

It’s been a year filled with the racist outbursts of a temperamental man ill-suited to occupy the Oval Office. As New York Times columnist Charles Blow described it, the president has demonstrated repeatedly throughout 2017 “the degree to which he is openly hostile to people of color,” a tendency he may have carried into the new year with possible racist attacks on the grand jury investigating his campaign’s potential collusion with Russia.

While I expect still more demeaning diatribes from the White House in the months ahead, I’m excited by the dawn of this new year. More than any year that I can easily recall, I’ve looked forward to the arrival of 2018.

As a black American, 2018 is packed with historic symbolism, fueling my optimism that better days are ahead. This year marks the 50th anniversary of 1968, arguably one of the most traumatic years in our nation’s history, filled with war, riots, assassinations, political upheavals, and social unrest.

As a black American, 2018 is packed with historic symbolism, fueling my optimism that better days are ahead.

But 1968 was also a pivotal year, serving as the springboard for the political, social, and economic advancement of black Americans. No other year in the nation’s history was as important in securing the legal protections that had eluded previous generations. If you think things are awful now — and they are, indeed — revisiting 1968 and reflecting on its 50-year milestone provides the spark of hope in these dark, sunken times.

This point is vividly illustrated in “A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond,” one of the permanent exhibitions at the the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. A display marker notes:

The year 1968 marked a turning point in the African American freedom movement. The struggle for African American liberation took on new dimensions, recognizing that simply ending Jim Crow segregation would not achieve equality and justice. The movement also increasingly saw itself as part of a global movement for liberation, involving anti-colonial revolutions in African nations and youth-led counter-cultural uprisings in Europe and the Americas.

Though few recognized it as such at the time, 1968 was an inflection point for a nation fraught with ominous concerns about world-threatening events abroad and at home:

  • North Korea captured the USS Pueblo, sparking a year-long standoff with the regime.
  • War raged in Vietnam, with nearly 17,000 Americans killed in the deadliest year of battles; meanwhile, opposition and protests to U.S. involvement ratcheted up following the Tet Offensive, a massive surprise attack by the North on 36 major cities in the South, and media reports of the My Lai Massacre of about 500 women, children, and old men by U.S. forces.
  • Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, sparking days of violent and deadly riots in Detroit, Newark, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.
  • Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, brother of the slain president, was assassinated in Los Angeles, sparking more violent protests and rioting across the nation.
  • White segregationist George Wallace, the Alabama governor with a long record of opposition to civil rights, mounted an unsuccessful third-party run for the White House in a campaign that resembled Donald Trump’s successful appeal to white nationalist fears and anti-establishment messaging.
  • Police brutality was on public display at the Democratic National Convention, as Chicago Mayor Richard Daley sicced the cops on Vietnam protesters, indiscriminately beating the crowds in the streets and spraying tear gas over the news media and medical personnel at the scene.

To be sure, it wasn’t an easy or comfortable year to have lived through. In the words of longtime newspaper columnist Jules Witcover, 1968 “was truly a watershed.” In his 1997 book, The Year the Dream Died: Revisiting 1968 in America, Witcover offers a harsh assessment: 

It was a year when the sensitivities and nerve ends of millions of Americans were assaulted almost beyond bearing, and the hopes of other millions were buried beneath a wave of violence, deception and collective trauma unmatched in any previous January through December in the nation’s memory.

Witcover’s description could just as easily apply to 2017, the year I’m so happy to see end. Indeed, looking back with a half-century of hindsight, I hear an echo of the newspaper headlines of my youth in today’s daily tweets from the White House.

Of course, this historical analogy is facile and overly sweeping. Yet, it is actually the source of my optimism and hope for this coming year. Having survived the turbulent ’60s — and 1968 was without question the worst of those years — I’m confident of the precedent set by our nation, certain that we will endure and prevail over the trials of today.

What’s more, I believe we’re poised for a great progressive resurgence in a sort of Newtonian correction to the excessive and overbearing Trump administration. Conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post agrees, noting that “We came through 1968 without country and democracy intact. It’s within our power to do the same in 2018 — and to remember we’ve been through worse times, if not worse presidents.”

Fifty years ago, the United States changed itself, breaking free from steadfast adherence to legal segregation and lawful racial discrimination. The last of the great civil rights laws of the 1960s, the Fair Housing Act, passed Congress and President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law, prohibiting racial discrimination in the selling or renting of housing based on race. Previously, Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a set of laws that forbade discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in hiring and ended unequal application of voting rights.

With those legal protections in place, the United States took slow, awkward (and still incomplete) steps toward establishing a more perfect union, bringing its African American citizens closer to their dreams of full citizenship.

For me, this is personal. I was born and raised in the segregated South and came of age during the 1960s. A telling incident of how far my black contemporaries and I have come may be gleaned from an embarrassing family story. As it has been repeatedly told — I only vaguely remember the incident — sometime in the early ’60s, my younger brother, George, and I were turned away from a donkey ride in a shopping mall parking lot.

Other kids were riding the animals; we begged our parents to let us ride, too. Exactly what was said by the teenage white attendant, my parents never repeated. The upshot was clear, however: He wasn’t going to let us ride. “The people who own the animals don’t want colored people riding them,” my father, obviously humiliated and embarrassed, said in a matter-of-fact voice as we returned to our car. “Only whites.”

“The people who own the animals don’t want colored people riding them,” my father said.

My brother George wasn’t satisfied with that response and offered a compromise in the imperious voice that only a child can imagine. “Well, we can come back tomorrow,” he said. “We can wear false faces. Maybe then they’ll let us ride.”

As the family version of this story goes, Momma lost it right then at the mere thought of her little ones hiding behind plastic masks for a ride on a funky donkey. Her tears ignited my brother’s and mine, and provoked my Presbyterian preacher father into a rare flash of anger. “You’re not wearing any false faces, and you’re not riding the damn donkeys,” he said. “So forget it. This never happened.”

By the end of the ’60s, that story was a hilarious showstopper at family reunions, birthday parties, and holiday meals. The cultural revolution that took place during the 1960s, culminating with the end to legal segregation in 1968, had paved a path for my access to better schools, job opportunities, and upward mobility that was never possible for my parents or grandparents. I’m only one of the millions of African Americans who can look back on the 50-year-old tree of progress that was planted in 1968.

But our work is incomplete. While there’s been measurable improvement among the black middle class, a wedge grows between it and the black poor, who face seemingly intractable challenges of institutional racism, police abuse, increased incarceration, inadequate housing, and limited health care. And the comparison of life opportunities between black and white Americans continues, in many instances, to be worlds apart.

But I’m encouraged and believe change is coming — for the better. The recent showing of black political power in Virginia and Alabama statewide elections suggests the coming of a blue wave of resistance when voters go to the polls for November’s midterm elections.

Progress in politics is a process — slow at times, difficult and painful at others, but the process continues unabated. Having lived and survived the turbulence of the ’60s, I’m fortified for the challenges that lie ahead in 2018. Better yet, I’m sprinting toward them with outstretched arms.