Turmoil and Change
It was the year of the Tet Offensive, My Lai, and the birth of the Khmer Rouge. The country reeled: LBJ announced that he would not seek re-election, MLK was gunned down in Memphis, RFK was killed in Los Angeles. And all year, the protests raged—against the war, against racial injustice, against gender inequality. There were hunger strikes, sit-ins, walk-outs, violent protests after MLK’s murder, the Miss America protest, street demonstrations, and a police riot at the Democratic National Convention.
A half-century later, 1968 still resonates. For this issue of the Bulletin, we turned to members of the Class of 1968 for their memories of that remarkable time.
Read reflections from:
The Children’s Crusade
March 31, 1968. A bunch of us were sitting on couches and on the floor in a TV room in Erdman watching President Lyndon Johnson’s speech. It was an ordinary speech for its time, outlining plans for the war in Vietnam—a possible decrease in bombing, an increase in troops. It was the same old rhetoric, by the same old Washington guard, and we were all dispirited until toward the end, when Johnson said, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”
There was silence in the room. We stared at the screen. As if planned choreography, two or three people stood up and moved closer to the TV, still staring, to make sense of what we had just heard.
Some of us had been working for our anti-war candidate, Eugene McCarthy, and our immediate thought was that the way was clear for him to win the Democratic nomination for president and stop the misguided and hated war in Vietnam. We took some credit for shaking up Washington and President Johnson with our organizing and protesting.
We had been in Milwaukee for spring break, Lessie Klein, Cathy Sims, maybe Jean Farny, and me, from Bryn Mawr, and Joe Dickinson and Peter Scott from Haverford. We had dressed non-hippie conservatively (it was called Clean for Gene) and rung doorbells in South Milwaukee for McCarthy, with mixed results.
Some people dismissed us, some discussed the issues, and one red-faced man shouted at me, “I fought a f*****g war. Get out!”
In a Milwaukee hotel lobby, I had struck up a conversation with a tired reporter for the Washington Star, Haynes Johnson. At 37, he seemed kind of old but sympathetic to our youthful enthusiasm. He introduced us to some Life magazine reporters and photographers who followed us for hours and filed a story on the Children’s Crusade, as college students working for McCarthy were called.
We saw high school classmates drafted, some of whom didn’t return. A man’s fate hinged on his birth date, which determined where he stood in line to be drafted.
The country was divided over the war. The Class of ’68 was at the start of the huge post-World War II baby boom, so we had power in our numbers. We challenged norms related to dress, mores, and politics and did it with fun and flair. Our era became the first in which older people wished to be younger, rather than younger people yearning for the privileges of adulthood.
We were motivated by a dubious and heartless war, by the destruction in Vietnam, and by the dishonesty of our government in undertaking and maintaining the war.
We saw high school classmates drafted, some of whom didn’t return. A man’s fate hinged on his birth date, which determined where he stood in line to be drafted. We saw friends move to Canada, go underground, dangerously feign illness, or live with unsettling uncertainty and anxiety about their future. I went home to Maine for vacation with mini-skirts and a button from the Philadelphia Anti-Draft Union that said, “Girls Say Yes to Guys Who Say No.” My mother was no end embarrassed.
Then on April 4, Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot, and the cities exploded.
Right after graduation that spring, we headed to California to canvass East San José. From there, we visited Joe’s parents’ friends in Santa Cruz. As we pulled into the driveway, the family ran out to tell us we had a phone call. It was Haynes Johnson, still in touch with us, calling from the hotel where Bobby Kennedy had just been shot. I thought then and still think that Haynes reached out to us at that moment to feel in touch with our generation and with the strength and honesty we were bringing to our struggling country.
Later that summer we stopped our cross-country trek home to work in Kentucky. We each had a county to organize, in support of the local McCarthy infrastructure. Bobby Kennedy had visited there earlier in the spring, and there was still considerable loyalty to him.
As the year wore on, the traditional political hierarchy asserted itself, and McCarthy was left out of the process. The war dragged on for four more years. Still, we felt we had provided a disruptive presence in many social, political, and economic areas and that our presence ushered in movements for positive change in civil rights, women's rights, and politics.
The last time I visited Bryn Mawr for a class reunion, the common rooms where we used to congregate had been turned into bedrooms. I wondered where the undergrads would find kindred spirits to work with on the never-ending task of improving our political system.
Finding Meaning in Study
What is my most vivid memory?
It was the liberating feeling of being immersed in meaningful study. That provided a respite from our daily dinner conversations with a son who was trying to decide whether he should become a conscientious objector in solidarity with campus-wide demonstrations by students and faculty.
Teach-Ins and Social Change
I had grown up in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, and so social change and advocacy and action were not new to me. However, because I am the daughter of Civil Rights leader Whitney Young (graduation speaker for our class), I also knew I had to be careful about what I did or said. I had no desire to embarrass or endanger my father.
Interestingly, the war became the issue that intrigued me and that ended up being useful to my father, who had to walk a fine line on that issue. He was a World War II veteran and wanted to be careful not to demoralize the many Black men serving in Vietnam. Nor did he want to damage the ties to President Johnson that were bearing fruit in the War on Poverty, which was built in large part on what my father had framed as a Domestic Marshall Plan for American cities. So my views on the war became daddy’s proxy.
What the College did that was important then, and I think should be part of the agenda today, is create “Teach-Ins” on the war. These were happening on campuses everywhere, and we also had very activist faculty both at Bryn Mawr and Haverford. After dinner we would, either in classrooms or “smokers,” convene to learn from our faculty about the history and impacts of the war. And I learned. And so when my father was asked about the war, as he was once by Under Secretary of State McGeorge Bundy, he spoke of what I thought and had learned at the College. He even let me “share” my views directly with the undersecretary who, some 20 years later, agreed that what I had learned had been right.
I learned the power of being informed, of not shooting from the hip, of having evidence. I think our student-activists today need to do the same. It is hard to try to be balanced—that is a daily struggle for me right now. But if you put real proof or really credible sources in front of me, I will have to pay attention.
Fighting Hate With Love
What is my most vivid memory?
How powerless I felt to make any difference in what was going on and how alienated because I was not an activist. I believed that the violence and rhetoric of violence would only aggravate the situation, but I did not know how to speak out or what would bring people together. Some of my best and longtime friends are from my class/dorm. I think we are like veterans who survived a war together. There is a close bond that keeps bringing me back to Reunion.
What did I feel were the most effective efforts for change of the day?
I only knew violence was not the answer. I sensed that the peaceful marches of Dr. King were the right direction. The idea of conquering hate with love appealed to me.
How do I think those days shaped who I am today?
My search for who I am and what is my role on this earth at this time was kickstarted by my experiences at BMC. Our class reunions where intelligent women shared honestly what was happening in their lives and their experiences of the culture helped direct my search. Now I have found my calling as a member of the Baha'i Faith. We are working toward world peace and the oneness of humanity. The Baha’i teachings promote the agreement of science and religion, the equality of the sexes and the elimination of all prejudice and racism. I am at peace, and there is still much to accomplish.
More Work To Do
The request from the Bulletin to reflect on our experiences as the Class of 1968 (that’s Great ’68, BTW) began to stir my memory, but the real catalyst was a New Yorker piece by Louis Menand, “Lessons from the Presidential Election of 1968,” (Jan. 8, 2018). Reading his reminiscences of the events of March 1968 brought that time back to life for me: “He’s not running!” The joy mixed with disbelief as we heard that LBJ had taken himself out of the presidential race. We were stunned. Suddenly we had hope that the country might right its course on Vietnam and that we could be part of that change; I remember marching against the war with a Bi-College group and being spat upon and heckled by the crowds in Philadelphia.
Then two very public and tragic assassinations occurred, in rapid succession. I never identified as politically active, but it was impossible to ignore the shaken state of society. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, assassination on April 4, 1968, followed only two months later by Robert Kennedy’s on June 6, shocked everyone and led to more unrest during the months leading up to the political conventions, which in their turn brought more disturbing events. The country was in turmoil, and as seniors, and then graduates, we were loosed into a volatile world, reeling from these successive blows. When Robert Kennedy was shot, I was at home with my parents for a few days after graduation before heading to New England for my first job. I remember waking up that morning and my father telling me that Bobby Kennedy was dead. I couldn’t believe it, not another assassination, not so soon after Dr. King. What kind of world were we heading into?
I never identified as politically active, but it was impossible to ignore the shaken state of society.
Those of us born in 1946 mark the leading edge of the Baby-Boom generation. Today people disparage Baby Boomers for our apparent privilege and blind optimism. Yet the political climate of our college years formed us as challengers, leading us to question authority, which had presented such clear evidence of malfeasance and tragedy. It also encouraged us to care about and become involved in matters of politics, society, and culture.
I believe we have made a difference, and we still have work to do.
We've Been Here Before
What is my most vivid memory?
I spent the five years after graduation working full-time to end the war—so many demonstrations, protests, marches, strategy discussions, horrifying news broadcasts, friends jailed and killed, hard decisions. A trip to Cuba in July 1969 to meet with representatives of the Vietnamese NLF (Viet Cong) stands out as particularly vivid in my memory.
What did you feel were the most effective efforts for change of the day?
Tough question, likely never to be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. My take is that a spectrum of dissent is required to get our government to change policies. We don’t have direct referendums on particular issues, so a vote on “should we be fighting in Vietnam?” never happens. People choose their dissenting effort based on their personal moral beliefs, their sense of urgency, how they evaluate the risks they think they might face, how they value what they think they might lose, and other factors. Their decisions range from simply talking to friends about what they believe, to signing petitions, boycotting, marching, civil disobedience, and more. My sense at this point in my life is that all are necessary and, sadly, that decorous dissent is never quite enough.
How do you think those days shaped who you are today?
A lot, but on the other hand, I was shaped by my parents and experiences long before my late 1960s experiences. Today, I have a sense of déjà vu as I look at our lawless leadership—we’ve been there before, which is discouraging, but also means it’s solvable—with a lot of effort.
Margaret Levi ’68
When I arrived at Bryn Mawr in September 1964, I was already a member of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). I had joined the Johns Hopkins University branch when a senior in high school. I was already a seasoned volunteer for the Northern Student Movement (NSM) Baltimore tutorial program, had attended the 1963 March on Washington where I heard Martin Luther King give his “I Have a Dream” speech, and had done organizing in the Baltimore ghetto for SDS-ERAP (Economic Research and Action Project).
It was hardly surprising that I quickly became an activist at Bryn Mawr and participated in the founding of its SDS chapter. Given that I was the only one available Christmas break, I represented Bryn Mawr at the December 1964 SDS meeting in NYC. I.F. Stone, the famous muckraking journalist, gave a talk there about what the United States was doing in Vietnam. I went back to Bryn Mawr and helped organize—with other students and several faculty—the College’s participation in the March on Washington to end the war in the spring of 1965. As I recall, more than a third of both Bryn Mawr and Haverford attended.
At the conclusion of the demonstration, the president of SDS, Paul Potter, asked me to chair one of the plenaries. I’ve heard a similar story from other women, but it happened for sure to me: the men booed me, an 18-year-old girl, when I called everyone to order. Back at Haverford, my close male friends warned me that I should modify my outspoken style if I wanted to attract a boyfriend. Bryn Mawr did not shield me from such variants of the rampant sexism of the day!
Those are some of my heroic stories. Fast forward to my senior year: We had been fighting against the war my whole college career. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., were assassinated, and Bobby Kennedy was soon to be. The years that were to be the most fun of my life proved to be among the most dispiriting as we railed without seeming success against war, poverty, racism, sexism.
But I learned a lot! My academic training was superb and prepared me to be the scholar I became. My political schooling also proved to be superb, teaching me patience and perseverance, giving me a moral compass that guides my actions and commitments to this day.
Margaret Levi ’68 is director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) and a professor of political science at Stanford University.
Want to Hear More?
At Reunion 2018, the Class of 1968 is sponsoring a panel discussion, “Activism in the 1960s and Today,” with Kit Bakke ’68, Barbara Carey ’68, Marcia Young Cantarella ’68, Jacqueline Hubbard ’68, and Liz Schneider ’68.
The panel will be moderated by Maratea Cantarella ’89.