Gary L. Aho: 1968: When our leaders fell to assassins
AMHERST — William Newman’s Sept. 6 column on traveling cross-country with his daughter and stopping in Memphis to visit where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered April 4, 1968, conjured sad memories of similar trips I made in 1968.
I was here in Amherst that April evening, watching TV news reports from Memphis, when I got a call from Portland, Ore. More bad news. My stepfather had died. So I flew to Portland the next day, changing planes in Chicago. As we descended into O’Hare, smoke from hundreds of fires rose to greet us. All of south Chicago seemed in flames. Rioting and looting broke out in dozens of American cities, even in moderate Portland.
King’s murder and the violent reactions to it were more in my thoughts than the funeral I’d traveled 3,000 miles to arrange.
A few months later I took another journey to the far west, this one more leisurely. My wife and I had decided to drive out to Portland, where I’d be teaching in the summer session at Portland State. Camping out with our two small children, we left Amherst at the end of May, circling south down through Oklahoma.
I wanted to show my kids Fort Sill, where I’d been stationed in the 1950s. We broke camp just north of Fort Sill early one morning — it was the fifth of June — and I turned on the car radio and caught the end of a newscast: “The senator from New York has a massive head wound and is not expected to live.”
Oh my. Robert Kennedy had narrowly beaten Eugene McCarthy in the California primaries, and then, minutes after his victory speech, around midnight June 4 and two months after King had been murdered, Kennedy was shot. He died early on June 6 and by then, driving west, we’d heard many local radio announcers commenting, stupidly, on differences between Dallas in 1963 and Los Angeles in 1968 — e.g., Texas rifles versus California handguns, and the like.
So the rest of our journey to Oregon was somber indeed, as we pondered the ways that the Kennedy brothers were positively influenced by the eloquence and example of King.
And now they were all dead, all victims of unlikely assassins, all shot in the head.
Toward the end of August, we headed back to Amherst, camping across the northern tier of states, planning to visit friends in Chicago. The windy city was then hosting the Democratic Party convention, and its delegates were joined by tens of thousands of uninvited guests, young people mainly, there to disrupt business as usual, and to protest the ongoing war in Vietnam.
Mayor Richard Daley, outraged that his city and his hospitality were being disparaged, and worried that the Democrats would move their convention to Miami, urged his police to crack heads and hundreds of protesters were injured, even hospitalized.
Daley also called out the National Guard, claiming that sharp-shooters hid among the demonstrators. His vitriolic rhetoric, the “police riots” he encouraged and the impolite reactions of the minions of Tom Hayden and Jerry Rubin led to chaos in the streets and even within the convention hall, where members of the press were clubbed by the police. There, in that divided hall, Hubert Humphrey finally got the nod. He ended up losing to Richard Nixon in November. George Wallace, the racist governor of Alabama, running as a candidate in the American Independent Party, won five states and 10 million votes. Since both Nixon and Wallace ran on law-and-order campaigns, the discord in Chicago in August 1968 played a major role in Humphrey’s defeat.
What a year — 1968.
Newman closed his column with lines from John Greenleaf Whittier on the deep sadness emanating from the lament that “it might have been.”
I agree, but now I wonder — thinking about gun violence in our own time, the seven mass killings in America since President Obama took office — about “what might become.”
Gary L. Aho of Amherst is an emeritus professor in the Department of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.