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1968: The Year That Rocked Our World

1968: Anger

In this pivotal year, the nation staggered through
12 cataclysmic months. We know them well.
We were there.

Antiwar Demonstrator

Anti-war demonstration in Chicago. — Lee Balterman/Time-Life Pictures/Getty Images

TOM HAYDEN, 68

Helped lead the anti-war protest at the Democratic National Convention

I never feared for my life during the attacks. I think it must be like a soldier in a war zone. Your adrenaline is so high that you’re not thinking those thoughts. I’m being clubbed and slugged; I was gassed. The gassing seemed perpetual. The officers seemed to be just wantonly beating people. It was without boundaries. I was arrested twice in two days. I don’t know if my body or lungs could withstand it today. When you’re young, the body seems to want to survive. —Tom Hayden was co-founder of the Students for a Democratic Society, and one of the organizers of the anti-Vietnam War demonstration outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. Now a writer and researcher, he teaches sociology at Pitzer College in Clairmont, California, and is a member of the editorial board of The Nation.

HOWARD BINGHAM, 69

Photographer

I was a contract photographer on assignment for Life magazine, covering things happening around the Democratic convention. One evening there was a big rally at Grant Park. The crowd was walking toward Michigan Avenue, and police started to push the crowd into the windows of this hotel, and a lot of people got hurt. They were just hitting people and acting like savages. I had covered a lot of different events and had always been my own thinker, a neutral character. But at that moment if I’d had a gun I wouldn’t have minded going to jail. I don’t think I took any pictures of that event after that. It was a lasting moment, and very hurtful.—One of America’s pre-eminent photographers, Howard Bingham has captured some of the most important events and personalities of the past four decades for publications such as Life, Newsweek, Look, and Ebony. His career got a boost in the early 1960s when he became a close friend and unofficial photographer of Cassius Clay (after 1964, Muhammad Ali). He never took photos of Clay inside the ring, but when Clay became a lightning rod for black politics and the Vietnam War debate in the late ’60s, it was Bingham who was often there to get the shot. He was there, too, with the Black Panthers, who would allow only Bingham to photograph them for a Life magazine story. In 1968 Bingham captured the tragedy of rural poverty in Mississippi in another showcase piece for Life, and covered the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

MARK RUDD, 60

Student leader of the Columbia occupation

“Our young people, in disturbing numbers, appear to reject all forms of authority…”

—Grayson Kirk, Columbia University president, two weeks before a student takeover of the school

All of us grew up either in the civil rights movement or watching it. It was on television, and what got communicated was the notion that what an individual does can actually make a difference. So we used that organizing model—education, one-on-one engagement, confrontation. Closing down Columbia University over the war and over its institutional racism served as a model for others and helped build that movement. My friends and I developed a theory that what had happened at Columbia not only could be replicated on many other college campuses, but also could be replicated in the society as a whole. I really thought a revolution was possible in 1968. I staked my life on it. I think I had too much of a eureka moment. —Twenty-year-old Mark Rudd became the poster boy for student rebellion on April 23, 1968, when, as chairman of the Columbia University chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), he led the eight-day occupation of university buildings in protest of the school’s relationship with the military, including a military research consortium known as the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), and Columbia’s plans to build a new gymnasium in a city park between itself and nearby Harlem—despite protests from the mostly African American community there. Rudd later helped form the Weathermen, an SDS splinter group that advocated armed revolutionary struggle. In March 1970, following an explosion at a Weathermen bomb factory in the West Village, Rudd went underground in a flight from the law that lasted seven years. Today, he is an outspoken critic of the turn to violent struggle by the New Left in the late ’60s.

CHARLES SIMIC, 70

Poet laureate

I remember standing on Seventh Avenue and Sheridan Square in New York City when an anti-war demonstration came down the street. Huge, passionate crowd. I grew up in Belgrade during World War II, with bombs dropping, then the aftermath. I’d never seen anything like this—the freedom of being angry, being out in the streets and saying so—and nobody shoots you. Back then, it mattered. We saw Vietnam War footage on TV every night—black-and-white, graphic, and frightening. Helicopters, gunships, shooting each other down, hundreds of small figures running, some in black pajamas. They were hit, then they fell. You knew you were seeing people dying. We don’t see Iraq. But when truth is hidden, it doesn’t vanish—it just comes back later on. And you pay for it. —Charles Simic is a poet, translator, professor emeritus, and 15th poet laureate of the United States.

Read more of this interview with Charles Simic.

JEREMY LARNER, 71

McCarthy speechwriter

I was scraping out a living and had two children, and all of a sudden I was traveling all over the country as a speechwriter for [Senator and presidential hopeful] Eugene McCarthy. On an average day I’d be awakened at 6 a.m. in some strange hotel and we’d get the bus out to the airport. There on the plane would be a bunch of reporters, waiting for the draft of the McCarthy speech I’d written the night before. I would sit down next to McCarthy, and he would go over it, and I would rewrite it. He was reserved and thoughtful, ironic, and he regarded people who got excited about too many things as fools, which would have included me and many of his followers. He was the opposite of the pandering politician. He just wanted to put the issue of the war before people. You had the feeling that you were helping to save the country. I think, as it turned out, that might have been exaggerated, but we were certainly making history. —An award-winning journalist and novelist, 31-year-old Jeremy Larner was recruited as principal speechwriter for Senator Eugene McCarthy early in 1968, and he worked on the anti-war candidate’s campaign through the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. His account of his travels with the McCarthy campaign, Nobody Knows, was published in 1969. In 1973 he received an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for The Candidate, which starred Robert Redford. Larner continues to write fiction and poetry; he is also working on his memoirs.

KEVIN PHILLIPS, 67

Strategist for Nixon's presidential campaign

The greatest moment of that year was sometime around 1:30 or 2:00 on the morning that was technically after the election, when it was clear that [Richard Nixon] won, and I was free to exhale. It was the start of what ultimately turned out to be a career in writing books, and I guess I’m glad it worked out the way it did. But I could think of a hell of a lot that I sort of wish could have evolved differently from a national standpoint, maybe even things I’d have liked to have done better.
Kevin Phillips was a 27-year-old wunderkind working as a senior strategist for Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign in 1968. But after the election, his name would be associated with political genius. He was credited with devising the famed “Southern Strategy” that pushed the Republican Party to develop its base in the more conservative Sunbelt. That year he had a book deal riding on the success of that strategy, which explains his relief when Nixon won, he says. Phillips insists that strategy was not designed to exploit antiblack sentiments among white Southerners, but those whites did become a reliable Republican voting bloc. And the conservative groundswell Phillips predicted in his influential 1969 bestseller, The Emerging Republican Majority, eventually led to the election of Ronald Reagan and Republican dominance for a generation. These days Phillips has been a harsh critic of the Grand Old Party in such books as American Theocracy, accusing it of extremism, irresponsibility, and greed.

JULIAN BOND, 67

Chairman of the board of the NAACP

In Georgia, in 1968, the Democratic Party chairman handpicked a delegation to the presidential convention that was overwhelmingly white in a state that was 25 percent black, and he picked people to go who were pledged to vote for George Wallace, an Independent Party candidate. Think of that! So the fight over rules by Southern blacks in Chicago helped the democratization of the Democratic Party, and the Republican Party, too. —Julian Bond, longtime civil rights activist, has been chairman of the board of the NAACP for the past 10 years. But in 1968 Bond made history in two ways. First, as a Georgia state assemblyman (elected in June 1965, but not seated until January 1967; his fellow assemblymen voted to keep him from taking office because of his anti-war views), Bond led a challenge delegation from Georgia to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Unlike the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s famous challenge delegation to Atlantic City in 1964, led by Fannie Lou Hamer, Bond’s was successful. Second, Bond was nominated to be vice president, the first time an African American was nominated for that position. (At 28, he was too young to meet the criteria.) In 1971 Bond became the first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center and continued in public office as a Georgia state senator. In the 1980s he narrated PBS’s Eyes on the Prize series. Today, he teaches history at the University of Virginia.

LARKIN WARREN

Writer

I was reading Marcia Davenport’s novel The Valley of Decision; on August 20, I’d reached the chapter where Davenport (once the real-life lover of Jan Masaryk, Czechoslovakia’s doomed World War II-era foreign minister) wrote of the Nazis invading Prague in 1939. I tried to imagine what it would feel like if my country was invaded. Suddenly, my father called out, “Quick, come look at this!” Television news—more Vietnam, I thought. But that wasn’t it. Given the book I still clutched in my hand, the black-and-white images on the screen were eerie. Five thousand tanks from Warsaw Pact countries rolling into Prague, coming to stamp out the country’s fledgling attempt at democracy. Standing there, I felt like a kid who’d fallen out of a tree and landed hard—scared, and not quite able to catch my breath. Later I’d hear the term “Prague Spring” and understand that what we’d watched was the end of it. —Larkin Warren is a freelance writer based in Bethel, Connecticut; she last wrote an essay on grief for AARP The Magazine.

DAVID KEENE, 63

Chairman of the American Conservative Union

“People coming to Chicago should begin preparations for five days of energy-exchange.”
— Abbie Hoffman, Revolution for the Hell of It

I was a law student at the University of Wisconsin and the editor of the first student conservative journal, and so I had credentials from the National Review to cover the Democratic convention. One night I was going under a police barricade and managed to rip my trousers down the back. So I sent someone to get me some safety pins, and I said, “I’ll wait right here.” And as I was waiting, the police came around the corner and the kids came out of the park, so I was right in the middle when it hit. I certainly didn’t like these people’s ideas, but watching all that was upsetting. Still, we knew from a political standpoint that they were committing suicide. We knew that our movement would benefit from everything that was going on. We didn’t know how fast it would happen, but we had a sense that things were going to be moving in our direction, and moving relatively quickly. —As national secretary of the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), David Keene was instrumental in building the eight-year-old student organization into a powerful political movement whose ranks included many of the conservative activists who would later take over the Republican Party and usher in the Reagan era. After the YAF, Keene served as a special assistant to Vice President Spiro Agnew and as a campaign adviser for Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Robert Dole. He is currently chairman of the American Conservative Union and a columnist for The Hill.

NEXT: COURAGE>>

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