I just finished watching all four parts of the CNN documentary series 1968: The Year that Changed America. It takes viewers through each season of that pivotal year, the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, the assassinations of MLK and Bobby Kennedy, the Vietnam War and the anti-war protests, a tumultuous election, and in its most electrifying episode, “Summer,” the “police riot” and rebellion outside of the Democratic Convention in Chicago.
This article in the New York Times, about the uprisings in Paris in May of 1968, similarly makes the case that generations of societal change came about as a result of a relatively short period of upheaval, in which two factions faced off day and night and “words were set free.” Young French radicals were in turn inspired by the Cultural Revolution in China, as were other national liberation and class struggles around the world. Even from a great distance of time and space, I grew up hearing about the Naxalite movement, a Maoist insurgency in the late ‘60’s that polarized my own family in West Bengal.
Arguably, my generation has benefited the most from the rebellions of the 60's, especially from the Civil Rights Movement but also from the anti-war and Women’s Liberation movements. Without any memory of what life was like before or during these upheaveals, we nevertheless grew up with certain expectations about how the world should be and how we should be treated within it. The assertions that all of us have civil and human rights and that society and government should be a reflection of just values, that diversity is something to be celebrated, and that people need to keep fighting for their rights until they are won, and even an expectation of peace, were wrenched out of a fierce struggle between the old guard and those people, especially youth, who saw another way to live.
More directly, my family’s fate was shaped profoundly by the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, an outgrowth of the Civil Rights Movement that ended national origin quotas and opened up immigration from non-white countries. Growing up in the 1970’s, many of us brown immigrants lived through the growing pains of the country’s changing demographics, perhaps witnessing white society pass through the stages of mourning from denial to acceptance, however briefly. Maybe as children we were the only one, or one of a few, in our schools and neighborhoods, or maybe we were part of an ethnic enclave, but there is no denying that our presence here has changed things, for ourselves and for the country.
Maybe because we’ve taken so much for granted and sacrificed so little, the prevailing ideas in my generation about our ability to cause lasting societal change have been marred by cynicism, fatalism, individualism and helplessness, a feeling that nothing ever really changes and we can only expect so much. My generation was the backlash generation, the generation that would be the counterpoint to the counterculture of the 60’s. We came of age during Reagan and the Cold War, during the fall of the Soviet Union and the re-emergence of religious fundamentalism as a dominating force in society. We have lived our adult lives in the shadow of 9/11. The conservative movement, now a fascist movement, has been making its comeback since 1968 and has culminated in the election of Trump and Pence. Watching the footage of Richard Nixon and George Wallace in the CNN documentary felt especially eerie and prescient. The social change that came out of the 1960’s was so powerful that it has taken the right 50 years to rebuild its forces. Their aim now, what is meant by Trump’s threat to Make America Great Again, is to permanently undo the progress of the 60’s.
This is a call to my generation, and everyone living under the hard-won struggles that the generation before us took on. We can’t keep taking these rights and freedoms for granted. Everything that we hold dear we have to fight for again, and fight harder, because fascists have learned their own lessons from the 60’s and have perhaps learned them better. What the re-examination of 1968 reveals to us, fifty years later, is that there was a time when millions of people took responsibility for making history and broke through the limits of what they were told was possible, and this changed the world for the better.