Charles Dickens, at the start of A Tale of Two Cities, his novel of the French Revolution, portrays 1789 as a magical year that crystallized “the best of times” and “the worst of times” within itself. Living through 1968 in America felt like this, though “the best” was concentrated in the year’s first half, and “the worst” in its last. “The best” of 1968—indeed, the whole idea of “1968”—lay in the fusion of the mass movement against the Vietnam War with cultural currents that had flourished and grown all through the 1960s. The clichés that our mass media used to describe them—“the counterculture,” “sex, drugs, rock-and-roll,” “the greening of America”—for once conveyed something real. The uncanny feeling of “1968,” of what it was like to be here then, was that somehow, maybe for fifteen minutes, all these pretentious labels were real.
In America, the cauldron that overflowed in ’68 had been boiling for years before. I think it started in the late 1950s, when the small, student-run civil rights movement started stopping traffic on street corners, in bus terminals, in front of department stores. Their crucial idea, which they themselves may not have fully grasped, was doing politics in the street. Street life gradually took on a new meaning, a new gravity and depth. Early in the sixties, street fairs came from nowhere and throve everywhere, in cities all over the country; everywhere they revealed a thickness and richness of street life that nobody had thought was there. This surprise upgrading of the street was the back-story behind the great sixties street romances of Jane Jacobs, of Paul Goodman, of Motown’s “Dancing in the Street.” Our real “urban renewal” was that Americans came to recognize their city streets as public space, as the heart of democratic life. Without anybody planning it, the streets of the sixties became the greenhouses where both our antiwar movement and our counter-culture grew.
The early months of 1968 unfolded a series of thrilling moments. First, Senator Eugene McCarthy dared to challenge President Lyndon Johnson, made a trenchant analysis of the war, and then, in early primaries, did remarkably well. Then Robert Kennedy finally entered the presidential race and spoke with a horizon far wider than McCarthy’s; he addressed not only the war, but what was wrong in the country as a whole, and how the whole of American society was falling apart. Martin Luther King, Jr., wasn’t running for office, but trying to lead a Poor People’s Campaign; he made the connection clear between America’s racism, its exploitation of workers, and its imperial destruction of large parts of the world. What made early 1968 such a thrill was that these great men were acting heroically, taking risks, stretching themselves; that they were not only telling the truth, but telling complex truths that didn’t fit easy formulas; and that truth was pa...
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