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1968: The Year That Rocked Our World

1968: Revelation

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

Jimmy Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix. — Elliot Landy/Redferns/Getty Images

WILLIAM P. LEE, 57

Reader from San Francisco

One day two of my schoolmates, offspring of North Beach beatniks, invited me to my first psychedelic happening. Jimi Hendrix, John Mayall’s blues band, and Albert King shared the bill. In the cavernous stadium interior of the old Winterland ice rink, the 300 or so concertgoers danced freely throughout the arena, often with their backs to the bands and the massive light show. Nothing had prepared me for any of this, and especially not for Jimi Hendrix, three feet away, eyeball to eyeball.

“He’s faking it,” I thought. “He can’t play.” But then he sang—“Foxy Lady” and “Purple Haze”—pausing to croon that soon-to-be-world-famous signature line, “Excuse me while I kiss the sky,” and then he did.

In that moment Jimi challenged everything about me. I was a straight kid who was going to go to college and become middle class. I looked at this guy who was so weird and odd, and it made me start to think, “Who am I?”

He seemed to be whispering to me, “Young brother, check it out. Check it all out.”

FRANCES MOORE LAPPÉ, 64

Writer and hunger/poverty activist, Small Planet Institute

Nineteen sixty-eight is the year I decided to find out why people were hungry in the world. My intuition was that food is the most personal, yet universal thing we have—it connects us to the earth, it’s about rituals of sharing, it’s what we give ourselves every day. The experts were telling us that the population problem was the cause of hunger. But were we really out of food? Did we really have to throw some people out of the lifeboat? The truth was that we were feeding a third of the world’s grain to livestock, and with very little return. It was about policy, not scarcity. I wanted to put fliers all over campus, saying, “Wait, we made this mistake—we can unmake it!” That became my first book, Diet for a Small Planet, in 1971. Now my work has come to be about how we transform the planet and ourselves. We don’t believe it’s okay to rob people, or starve them, steal their water or make their air dirty—so why do we go along when corporations or governments do it?

Read more of this interview with Frances Moore Lappé.

TOM NUGENT, 61

Reader from Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan

I was in Rhode Island, in my seventh and novitiate year of Roman Catholic seminary. We spent 30 days in October in retreat, using the spiritual exercises of Ignatius Loyola. Our isolation was almost total. Only the news of the Red Sox’s loss got through.

On April 5 we were allowed TV privileges because Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot. They let us watch the riots. On the first day home in June, I awoke to news that Bobby Kennedy, my great hope for an end to the Vietnam War, had been killed. In August, two of my best friends stood on opposite sides of a barrier at the Democratic National Convention—one a protester who asked me to join him, the other an Army lieutenant assigned to the National Guard.

In early September I returned to the seminary. That first night we were to start the year in chapel at 7 p.m. I entered late, looked at my classmates deep in prayer, and felt that we would never be ready to minister to our generation since we were so completely separated from it. More than that, I knew I could not pray in silence when I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs.

I left the next morning and never looked back.

MARY JANE THURSTON, 59

Reader from Lakewood, Washington

Nineteen sixty-eight brought me an awareness of the bigger world and the diversity of it. The year before, I’d graduated from a high school in a small, rural Montana town and moved to a large city in a nearby state to seek out who I was. It was awesome. It was the first time I heard black men speak “jive” and hear one refer to his black car as “skin-colored.” I’m sure my mouth was open and my jaw was reaching the floor, but I loved it. I met people who raised snakes and fed them live mice. I had a friend use a potato and a needle to pierce my ears. I wrote letters to the editor about equality and met with small groups to talk about “changing the world.”

I began my search for spiritual truth and went to temples, churches, spiritual gatherings, and meditation meetings. Everything felt fresh and full of brightness and love. This search brought me to the “hippie” movement, and I fell more deeply in love with a hope for mankind and its potential. Forty years later I have not lost hope.

MICHAEL MEDVED, 59

Anti-war activist and campaign worker for RFK

One of the great myths is that the country was all gloom and doom and everybody was marching in demonstrations, rioting in big cities, chanting “Make love, not war.” My aha moment came during a hitchhiking trip through Virginia in the winter of ’68. It was a time when the image of the South was In the Heat of the Night—big-bellied sheriffs and everybody mean, racist, and crude. I found myself in a café in rural Virginia in the middle of the night, and had the most delicious piece of pecan pie. The café was extremely well integrated—it was like half and half. I was looking for the seething racism, except these black guy customers were joking with the white waitress, and there didn’t seem to be any seething racism there. What that told me is that there is a real America out there that is far more happy, functional, optimistic, loving, and blessed than the media images ever suggest. —As a junior at Yale in 1968, Michael Medved was a committed anti-war activist, traveling to California to campaign for Senator Robert F. Kennedy and later co-chairing the Vietnam Moratorium Campaign. In the mid-1970s he wrote the best-selling What Really Happened to the Class of ’65, which became the basis for a weekly TV series. In the ’80s and ’90s Medved established himself as a movie critic, as co-host of PBS’s Sneak Previews with Jeffrey Lyons, and as chief film critic for the New York Post. At the same time, he began moving to the right politically, a shift that he describes in his 2005 autobiographical book, Right Turns: From Liberal Activist to Conservative Champion in 35 Unconventional Lessons. Medved, 59, now hosts one of the most popular radio talk shows in America, The Michael Medved Show on KTTH radio in Seattle. His website is www.michaelmedved.com.

SONIA SANCHEZ, 74

Black Studies teacher and activist

I was teaching Black Studies classes at San Francisco State. It was a Wednesday, when I was home from school, and the doorbell rang, and it was my landlord with two men. One of the men took out something that said “FBI.” He said, “You’re teaching Du Bois, Garvey, Wright, and Hughes!” I said, “Of course I am. You can’t teach black literature without them.” I stood there, and it was like when you’re traveling in a foreign country and you’re trying to get people to understand. He started screaming, trying to order the landlord to evict me, and when my big, beautiful dog showed up, he left. But it hit me: What I was doing was an epic thing. When the course was announced, people were sitting on the floor and the windowsills, sitting outside the door in the hall, and you could hear a pin drop. It was that kind of silence that said, “Here I am, ready to hear what no one has taught me before, to begin my passionate affair with myself and my history.” —A poet, activist, playwright, and teacher, Sonia Sanchez, 74, was a major figure in the Black Arts Movement in the late ’60s and ’70s. She formed a writers’ workshop in Greenwich Village, attended by such poets as Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) and Larry Neal, and later organized a group of young poets known as the Broadside Quartet. Her early works helped create a distinctive voice in Black Arts uniquely addressed to an emerging urban audience. Author of 16 books, she was awarded the Robert Frost Medal in poetry in 2001. She retired from Temple University in Philadelphia and now is at work on three books.

GARY HART, 71

Volunteered for the RFK presidential campaign

In spite of horrible events and setbacks, the world doesn’t stop. Problems still have to be solved; we go back and start again. —In 1968 Gary Hart was a volunteer for Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign; he served in the U.S. Senate (D-Colorado) from 1975 to 1987 and is currently Wirth Chair professor at the University of Colorado at Denver and a distinguished fellow at the New America Foundation.

Read more of this interview with Gary Hart.

JOSEPH A. CALIFANO JR., 77

Domestic policy aide to the Johnson administration

That year I learned just how deep the racial division was in this country, how deep the racism. I also learned that out of even the worst situation you can find a way to get something good. We’d been unable to pass the Fair Housing Act—a simple law that just said that whether you’re black, white, yellow, green, purple, you can live wherever you have enough money to buy a house—for three years. After Dr. King was assassinated, the president said, “We will at least get this. We will get this law passed finally.” And we did. —As senior domestic policy aide to the Johnson administration, Joseph A. Califano Jr. experienced the events of 1968 from a White House vantage. He later became secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in the Carter administration. He is now chairman of the National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse—which he founded in 1992—at Columbia University. His latest book is High Society: How Substance Abuse Ravages America and What to Do About It (PublicAffairs Press, 2007).

JOHN KAY, 64

Steppenwolf founder and vocalist

In the fall, on the heels of the success of “Born to Be Wild,” we released “Magic Carpet Ride,” and we performed for the first time in Honolulu. And we noticed, among all those Hawaiians, a group of a dozen who had no hair, and it immediately came to mind that they were military. And so later we talked to some of them, and they said, “Yeah, we’re back from Nam. We’re on leave, and we came to hear you play because we have your music. We take it to the bush, even when we’re on patrol after the Vietcong.” And from that time on, even though we were not in favor of the war, we were not opposed to the guys who, unlike those of us having a good time stateside, were over there hoping to get home in one piece. —With the release of its self-titled debut album in 1968, Steppenwolf catapulted into rock ’n’ roll superstardom. The band’s first single, “Born to Be Wild,” which reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, introduced the term “heavy metal” to the world. To date, Steppenwolf has sold more than 25 million records and been awarded eight gold albums. Band founder and vocalist John Kay continues to make music as John Kay and Steppenwolf. In 2004 he formed the Maue Kay Foundation, which supports individuals and organizations engaged in the protection of wildlife, the environment, and human rights.

ELVIN HAYES, 62

Houston basketball star

When the University of Houston squared off against the No. 1-ranked UCLA Bruins in the Houston Astrodome on January 20, in the first televised regular season NCAA basketball game, it was dubbed the Game of the Century. Defying skeptics, the game drew 52,000 fans and became a worldwide broadcast extravaganza, transforming college basketball into the lucrative sports television franchise known as March Madness. For Houston star Elvin Hayes, the showdown with UCLA’s Lew Alcindor [now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar] was a defining moment.


I was from Rayville, Louisiana, and in my neck of the woods a black person’s name didn’t even get in the paper. But after that game, the “Big E” was there. I ended up being the college player of the year. The game opened up so many doors. Black athletes were more highly recruited in the conferences in the South. Willie Wilson is now the coach at Rice University, a school that forfeited the game to us every year because we had an integrated team. It’s strange to see how things were and how things are, and I think it’s due to that game.

KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR, 61

UCLA basketball star

There was a lot of change going on. I couldn’t go to college in the southeast of the United States, let’s say at Duke or Vanderbilt or other schools like that, because at that time they were not accepting black athletes. Being a black athlete meant that you kind of had this desire to show up the segregated school. I think that having the basketball season really was a great distraction. Basketball ended up for me being an oasis of calm where the world did proceed according to things that were predictable and acceptable. Everything else was out of kilter. —Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the star of the UCLA team that played the University of Houston in the first nationally televised NCAA basketball game, known as the Game of the Century, on January 20, 1968. Abdul-Jabbar was drafted a year later by the Milwaukee Bucks, snagged the 1970 Rookie of the Year award, was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1975, and won a record six Most Valuable Player awards. The NBA’s career scoring leader, he was known for his “Skyhook” shot, impossible to block when he put his seven-foot-two-inch body between the defender and the ball. The author of several best-selling books, including On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance, Abdul-Jabbar has also been a basketball consultant and motivational speaker. He writes a blog for the Los Angeles Times. His website is www.kareemabduljabbar.com.

“If you take the game of life seriously, if you take your nervous system seriously…you must turn on, tune in, and drop out.”

—Timothy Leary, The Politics of Ecstasy

RAM DASS, 77

Helped start the psychedelic revolution

In 1968 I was in the frontlines in consciousness. I had given up my Western trip and shed my ego, who I thought I was. I found a whole new place in myself, and I thought, “If I can bring this back, if I can transmit it, then I’d bring the peace of the East back to the West.” I would be what I called a spiritual activist. But when I came back from India, I was seen as a turncoat in the revolution. I’d ditched the psychedelic revolution because we didn’t know what we were doing with the spirit with psychedelics. I realized that with psychedelics all I did was go up and down. I wanted to get to planes of consciousness, be in the world, and also be in my soul. And so, when I came back from India I wasn’t angry. I was loving. Lovingness, that’s a revolution, but it wasn’t the revolution that was going on. —Along with his friend and fellow psychologist Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert launched the psychedelic revolution in the early ’60s: first with the Harvard Psilocybin Project and later at a private estate in Millbrook, New York, where celebrities, artists, and musicians experimented with LSD. In 1967 increasingly disenchanted with psychedelics as a path to spirituality, Alpert traveled to India, where he received instruction from guru Maharaj-ji, who gave him the name Ram Dass, which means “servant of God.” In 1968 he returned to the States to teach the spiritual method and practices he had learned in India. Today, Ram Dass lives in Maui, where he continues his teaching. His website is www.ramdass.org.

NEXT: INSPIRATION>>

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