Fifty-two years ago, as a newly-minted college graduate, I realized I was living in a different America. It felt uncomfortable.
In 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, separated by very few months. Riots spread throughout the United States in major cities in response to the hateful killing of King, a civil rights icon. Hopes for a better future vaporized after the murder of Kennedy as he was gathering momentum in his run for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Prospects for victory in Vietnam diminished after the Tet Offensive started in January 1968. Public support of this war and trust in our political leaders substantially weakened as Americans wondered if this Southeast Asian conflict was worth the cost in lives. Strife on college campuses became more and more strident and aggressive.
A major fatality of the ill-conceived Vietnam War was an alarming fraying of public faith in the policies and veracity of political, military and academic leaders. The culture that I had grown up to respect and admire was falling apart before my eyes.
I was 23, striving to become adult in my behavior and attitudes. The foundation of our country, one that drew my immigrant grandparents to its shores and potential, was unstable and splintering.
As hard as I tried to drum out the discordant noises filling the public discourse in 1968, I could not ignore the discontent and disillusion.
I hark back to the classic song, “What’s It About Alfie,” performed so eloquently in 1966 by Dionne Warwick. The lyrics touched my generation: “What’s it about, When you sort it out Alfie, Are we meant to take more than give, Or are we meant to be kind?”
The Democratic National Convention in Chicago symbolized the chaos roiling our nation. Young counterculture and anti-war protesters descended upon Chicago and wreaked havoc that stretched the ability of law enforcement agencies to control. Injuries were suffered by 500-plus protestors, 100-plus other civilians and 152 police officers.
And the American watched the mess and conflict on national TV. The optics could not have been worse for the adults supposedly in charge.
Fast forward to 2020, a year infected by the novel coronavirus and continued killing of blacks by police throughout the country. Add to the dark cloud of uncertainty and fear driven by a virus that has claimed nearly 115,000 lives in our nation and revealed the specter of an incompetent president whose empathy is skin-deep.
The killing of George Floyd, a black man, by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25, 2020, has sparked a flood of protests throughout the U.S. Some have turned ugly with property destruction in its wake. In a few cases, including in Washington, DC and Buffalo, NY, peaceful protesters were injured for unclear reasons.
The tone and content of conversations among white people have changed, prompting a painful look at conscious and unconscious bias. Confederate monuments are facing removal, if not destruction. Names of Army posts, particularly in the south, may be changed, viewed as commemorating the exploits of Confederate generals.
The upheaval seems effective. Political leaders, except the president, and military officers are eager to remove the stain of racism.
Both the pandemic and the reaction to Floyd’s killing have revealed a schism between the haves and the have-nots. Economic and medical inequality have surfaced like a cloud-burst. COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on African-American families due in part to economic inequality: blacks working in hospitals, nursing homes and grocery stores have faced greater exposure to the disabling virus than whites able to work well-paid jobs from home.
Though 2020 is five-and-a half months from coming to a merciful end. I believe that our current social and political turmoil is equally as disruptive to our norms of fairness and decency, as was the case in 1968. While the assassination of Dr. King struck like an earthquake, with the murder of Sen. Kennedy feeling like a severe aftershock, I think that the horrific death of George Floyd may have the same effect on our collective soul-searching.
We cannot ignore our nation’s diminishing reservoir of decency and compassion.
We cannot escape the continuing blemish of racism.
We cannot retreat into our tribal connections and forget those not so fortunate to enjoy a network of professional and personal support.
We cannot be blind to inequity.
We cannot chase away our better angels.
We cannot underestimate the power of “us,” instead of “me.”
The years 1968 and 2020 seem awfully similar; 52 years brought changes, but not enough.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.