Deborah Hearn Smith: A cautionary tale: Is 2018 another 1968?

June 22, 2018

HearnFifty years might seem like ancient history; however, the events of 1968 are worth a new look as 2018 unfolds.

In 1968, the nation had navigated through some seismic changes. The late ’50s and ’60s ushered in a new order. The movement toward equal citizenship rights for all had been the result of a long-fought battle. African-Americans and women were demanding to be heard on multiple issues. Civil rights legislation had passed and an unpopular war raged on. The hope and dreams of many had been symbolized by two men—Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy—who were both tragically shot down in 1968.

What followed was war in the streets of major cities and the breakdown of civil discourse. The accumulation of the unrest came to a head in the Democratic convention that summer. The breakdown in trust in the system has its roots in that event.

In 1968, I was an idealistic college student who believed in a political system in which participation was the responsibility of every citizen. I did not take lightly the road my forefathers had taken to get to this point. The men in my family had served in both world wars in the segregated army without voting rights. We suffered the ultimate loss when my cousin one year my senior was killed in Vietnam.

I was determined to honor their sacrice by my participation. This is the motivation that found me at the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 1968 in Chicago. I was a volunteer organizer for the Hubert Humphrey campaign. My assignment was to work the crowd in advance of Humphrey’s appearances to ensure the media reports of his support set the desired image.

What an experience! I was an eyewitness to the riots in the streets. I stood in the fray as the police and the protestors met, with violent consequences. I still remember the horror and great sadness I felt as the democracy of the textbook clashed with the reality of the streets.

The lesson of the experience is so very relevant today. The root cause of the tragic events of 1968 was the lack of listening with compassion to the opposing view. We stopped talking to each other. The battle lines were drawn and violence escalated. The nation turned brother against brother. Law enforcement was used to quiet protest, with tragic consequences resulting in the death of four college students at Kent State University in 1970.

So here we are 50 years later, the summer of 2018. We have once again gone to our corners to shout at the other side. Listening is a lost art. What is the core of our disagreement? In 1968, it was the perception that gains of one group of citizens would erode the power of the other. Is that at the core of the discord still? Do we believe the American pie is not big enough to share?

Once again, as in 1968, students are rising up to be heard. The big question is how the establishment will receive them. Will they be heard or, like in 1968, be faced with an uncompromising world? Have we as a society grown to understand it is unhealthy and dangerous to shut down communications?

The result of the breakdown of communications led to death and destruction in 1968. That was a heavy price to pay. How much will it take in 2018 to correct our path?

Can we talk? Will someone listen?•

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Smith is former CEO of the Girl Scouts of Central Indiana.

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