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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Seeking memories of ’68

Fifty years have passed since 1968, that apocalyptic year. The focus of this column and the next will be 1968 and, more generally, the ’60s. Bert Etling, editor of this newspaper, has authorized me to invite you to share your recollections and reflections on that year and decade. He’ll publish a selection of them. Submit them online to betling@rosebudmedia.com.

The decade was largely shaped by two phenomena — a huge demographic bulge of young people and the two political realities they couldn’t ignore, the Civil Rights movement for young blacks and the war in Vietnam for all of them. By 1968, the 76 million children born between 1946 and 1964 represented 38 percent of a national population of 201 million (compare with 25 percent of 320 million in 2016).

In 1989, Howard Schuman and Jacqueline Scott published an article in the American Sociological Review titled “Generations and Collective Memories.” It reported the results of their 1985 survey of age cohorts in which they asked a broad sample of adults what world events over the past 50 years were especially important to them. The leading responses for what they called the Baby Boomer cohort No. 1 (those born from 1946 to 1954) were the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassinations of JFK, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., political unrest, protests and riots, the walk on the moon, risk of the draft into the Vietnam War or actual military service, social experimentation, sexual freedom, drug experimentation, the Civil Rights Movement, the environmental movement, the women’s movement and Woodstock. Schuman and Scott also said that the “key characteristics” of that cohort were “experimental, individualism, free spirited, social cause oriented.” Compare those findings with those they reported about the Post-World War II cohort (born from 1928 to 1945). Memorable events for them were sustained economic growth, social tranquility, the Cold War and McCarthyism, and the key characteristics were “conformity, conservatism, traditional family values.”

I was born in 1939, and I see now that I was on the cusp of those two generational cohorts, with all the memories of both but with the key characteristics of the elder. The first presidential vote I cast was for Richard Nixon. What I came to share with the Boomers was a commitment to change, but exclusively at the political, not the personal level. By 1965 I was working full-time to support a family of five.

It was the Civil Rights movement that drew me into political change, but my transition from accepting segregation as normal (how could I not, given when and where I grew up?) to advocating for racial justice wasn’t abrupt. The first crack in my consciousness was when 6-year-old Ruby Bridges enrolled in the William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans in November 1960, the first school desegregation in my home town. She had to be escorted by federal marshals past jeering mobs of mostly women. You can experience how striking those widely disseminated images were by viewing on-line Norman Rockwell’s painting that ran in the January 1964 issue of Look magazine (http://www.scottmcd.net/artanalysis/?p=818).

The decisive year for me was 1964, when the national Civil Rights organizations took on the State of Mississippi in a summer of coordinated voter registration drives. The losses were high, most prominently the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in Nashoba County. My first wife, also from New Orleans, and I agreed to return to the South after my final year of graduate work at Harvard and do what we could.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Daily Tidings every Saturday.

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