Fifty years ago students were rioting, anti-war protesters were in the streets and political and religious leaders were being gunned down. Chris Bond looks back at 1968.
Just a couple of years earlier The Beatles had been singing about life on board a yellow submarine and the Rolling Stones were paying homage to a free-spirited woman on Ruby Tuesday.
By 1968, though, the two greatest rock bands had captured the zeitgeist with songs such as Street Fighting Man and Revolution. As Bob Dylan sagely predicted, the times were indeed a-changing, though no one knew just which way the wind would blow.
Fifty years ago the world was mired in upheaval and violence. In the United States, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and then Robert Kennedy rocked a nation that was becoming increasingly polarised over the Vietnam War.
A wave of political protests swept across Europe, too. In Paris, workers and teachers joined student protests in a show of solidarity, with 800,000 people marching through the French capital demanding an end to Charles de Gaulle’s government amid anger at police brutality during the May student riots.
In Czechoslovakia, the so-called “Prague Spring” saw dozens of people killed in a military clampdown led by the Soviet Union that saw several members of the liberal Czech leadership arrested, including its then Prime Minister Alexander Dubcek.
In Britain, too, dissent was in the air. The women’s lib movement began to raise questions about the traditional roles of men and women and there were numerous anti-war demonstrations, most notably at the American Embassy at Grosvenor Square, in London.
Many historians have come to regard 1968 as a year without precedent, but how significant was it and what triggered this succession of seismic events?
Professor Simon Hall, head of history at the University of Leeds, believes it was the culmination of a decade of change and upheaval. “In the US you had the civil rights protests and the student protests and these become energised and radicalised by what was going on in Vietnam. For a whole generation of activists the war in Vietnam was seen increasingly as a symptom of something more deeply wrong with the country and that drives the desire for revolutionary change.”
Campaigners and activists at the time have spoken of the abiding “spirit of 1968” and the popular perception is that the protests and demonstrations were led by an increasingly vocal and politicised youth culture.
However, Prof Hall points out this wasn’t the whole picture. “The heroes of the Prague Spring were a bunch of middle-aged communist leaders, so it’s not just the youth. But a lot of the more famous protests were dominated by students.”
He says the media played a part in creating the enduring myth of 1968. “If you look at the Vietnam War protests, the media coverage focused on the students and the hippies because they made good pictures to put on the front pages of newspapers. But if you actually look at who was attending those anti-war protests they’re drawn from a large cross-section of the population including plenty of older veterans of earlier peace movements and plenty of people from religious backgrounds.
“So the constituents of those protests are far more diverse than the typical image we have of long-haired radical students. But they’re the ones that get most of the attention because the first draft of history is written by the journalists.”
There is debate too over the legacy of events from half a century ago. “One of the things historians have been doing over the past 10 or 15 years is challenging this idea of 1968 as being a radical moment and instead pointing out that in many ways the victors weren’t the radicals but the conservatives.
“People forget that Richard Nixon won the (1968) election and the majority of Americans were not on the side of the radicals. The appeals that Nixon made to law and order and a return to conservative values worked well.”
Prof Hall believes there are two competing narratives when it comes to what was happening, certainly in the West, at the time.
“On the one hand there’s a continuation of radical protest with the rise of the feminist movement and Black Power and gay rights, but there’s also a story of conservatives winning the war against liberals in lots of ways. It’s not a clear cut story of a turning point in favour of radicalism.”
The history of the late 20th century could have taken a very different trajectory had Senator Robert Kennedy not been gunned down having just won the California Primary in his bid to become the Democrat’s candidate for the presidency.
“Historians have been arguing about this for the past 50 years,” says Prof Hall. “If you look at the cold, hard mathematics of the nomination process it’s hard to see how Kennedy would have got the nomination ahead of Hubert Humphrey. Most of the votes weren’t defined by primaries in those days. The party machine was much more important and President Johnson controlled the party machine and he hated Bobby Kennedy and was determined to have Humphrey.
“So it looked like Humphrey had a lock on the nomination but then the other view, which gives more creed to mood and emotion, points to momentum growing behind Kennedy which could have loosened Humphrey’s grip.
“Had Kennedy won and then beaten Nixon it’s perfectly possible that things might have been different. He seemed to have an ability that other Democrats didn’t have to win over blue collar working class Americans and retain the support of liberals and African-Americans.”
There was political unrest on this side of the Atlantic, too. “There were student protests in several cities here, including in Leeds which were led by Jack Straw, and there was a big protest outside the American embassy in London at Grosvenor Square,” says Prof Hall.
There are those who believe the events of 50 years ago chime with the uncertainty in the world today. “The activists from that time have been very good at keeping the flame of 68 alive and keeping the idea of this revolutionary moment going. I would say there’s definitely a legacy in terms of the cultural and social changes that have continued to take place around women’s rights and gay rights and the rise of what’s known as identity politics.
“But I think the other legacy is this backlash. A lot of people didn’t like the protesters, they wanted a quiet life and for all this to stop. So there’s a divided legacy and one that encouraged a shift to the right.”
However, the fact we’re still talking about it suggests it has left an indelible mark. “Whenever there are new protests people always look back and say ‘is this going to be a new ’68 generation?’ So in this sense it has shaped the way in which we view what a protest is and what it should be.”
Campus unrest in Leeds
Leeds University was shut for four days by student power as demonstrations swept through Europe during the summer of 1968.
Disturbances began at the university in May, when MP Patrick Wall addressed a meeting of the Conservative Association in the Students’ Union, with hundreds of protesters outside. Afterwards university security staff tried to identify the protesters causing more unrest.
A Leeds sit-in was addressed by Jack Straw, then President of the Leeds Students’ Union and who went on to become a key Cabinet member of Tony Blair’s government.
After four days, the sit-in ended with a march to the Union building and there was no public inquiry into the action of the security staff.