Two words on the radio news hit me--Recreate 68. Why would I want to recreate the scariest year I can remember?

Becoming a teenager is a universal acne festival of junior high anxiety. Ask around. If you can find a person who would like to relive being thirteen years old, I'll be amazed. Most people I know believe Hell, if there is one, is being trapped in junior high for all eternity.

Becoming a teenager in 1968 compounded the personal angst and turmoil with a sense that the world was also going straight to Hell. Do not pass Go with your handbasket. Do not collect $200. Only Walter Cronkite kept the whole world from total conflagration.

  • From January 1968 on each evening's CBS news about the Tet Offensive was bad.
  • In March the appearance of segregationists presidential candidate George Wallace led to rioting in Omaha.
  • Three weeks before I turned thirteen, Martin Luther King was assassinated.
  • Five weeks after my birthday, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated.
  • Another two months, and Soviet tanks were rolling into Prague.
  • Then the next week protests and rioting began at the Chicago Democratic Convention.

The Omaha riots brought racial tension closer to my little world than ever before. When an Omaha Central High School basket ballplayer was arrested just three days before the 1968 state tournament for suspected possession of gasoline bombs, the Nebraska School Activities Association moved the Class A tournament from Omaha to Lincoln. The tournament has remained in Lincoln for forty years. I'm endebted to Prairie Bluestem for the citation confirming my hazy memories of that time.

1968--I hadn't figured out the secret of life. I could barely manage the combination for my hall locker at Millard Lefler Junior High. The whole thing was going up in shattered glass and smoke.

I began attending the youth group supper meetings at my church in the late winter of 1968. In fact, I learned about Martin Luther King's murder from the church custodian who chatted as he mopped the foyer before one of those suppers. Waiting with me was Phoebe. She befriended me, and showed me the routine for the group meetings, for which my shy and nerdy self was grateful. I'd never met anyone like Phoebe. She was different, but nice.

The other church group kids soon informed me that Phoebe was a "feeb," and a "retard," and taught me to shun her. Guilt for my rejection of Phoebe mixed with my desperate need for peer acceptance to amp up my anxiety. In the forty years since, I pray we have all become more tolerant and compassionate, and slower to use insulting labels.

From a different viewpoint, one might understand 1968 as a year full of hope, promise, change, and empowerment. At thirteen I didn't understand the hippies in San Francisco any more than the Soviet tanks in Prague or Mayor Daley's Chicago. I didn't fit in with the youth group kids who could play "Sunshine of Your Love" on the church organ after choir practice.

What of the "Recreate 68" on the radio news? From the Recreate 68 coalition's website:

The 1960s were a time of profound, positives [sic] social and political change in this country. The civil rights movement ended legal segregation and broke down barriers to the full participation of African Americans in American life (still yet to be fully achieved). Other movements followed that achieved the same for women and for other oppressed communities of color. That in 2008 the two leading candidates for the Democratic nomination for President are an African American man and a woman¬something unimaginable at the start of the 60s¬is a direct result of the changes brought about in that decade.

Those changes were eventually codified in law. But they were brought about not by political “leaders,” but by mass movements of people who demanded that America live up to its own democratic rhetoric, by grassroots movements that forced the system to respond to their demands, and opened up new political space for ordinary people to participate in the decisions that affected their lives.

© 2008 Nancy L. Ruder

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