1968: Discussing a year that reshaped America

Where were you in 1968, if you were around at all?

I was 10 years old. I knew big events were happening from the stories in the Lexington Herald and flickering black-and-white images on the evening news. But I was busy discovering the fields, woods and creeks near my home in rural Fayette County.

For many people a few years older than me, though, 1968 was the year that shaped the rest of their lives.

Watching television news last fall, Doris Wilkinson, a University of Kentucky sociology professor, heard then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rebuking Russian officials about their invasion of Georgia by saying, “This is not 1968.” Suddenly, Wilkinson started thinking about how, in so many ways, 1968 changed everything.

That year marked the height of the civil rights and anti-war movements, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the beginnings of the women’s movement and a top-to-bottom questioning of America’s status quo. Overseas, there was the Prague Spring, when Czech students challenged their communist rulers in that country’s first step toward freedom.

“Change was an ingredient in the air without having to utter the word,” Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson’s thinking about 1968 led her to organize a symposium Monday at UK’s W.T. Young Libarary with help from the Kentucky Humanities Council. She and seven other UK faculty members spoke about that year and how it changed them — and America.

Thomas Janoski, a sociology professor, noted that 1968 produced much that was healthy, such as an awareness of civil rights for minorities and women and the rise of participatory democracy. But there were bad things as well: The rise of drug abuse that shattered lives and filled prisons and a media culture that glamorized violence, celebrity and shock value.

Two of the most interesting stories of personal change came from history professor Ron Eller and political science professor Ernest Yanarella.

Eller described being the first member of his West Virginia family to go to college, thanks to a scholarship. His political consciousness was shaped by the assassinations and the culture of violence that caused them. And he became aware of the negative — and erroneous — views mainstream America held about his native Appalachian culture.

Appalachian culture wasn’t the problem, he realized. “It was their economy, the political system that created poverty for their communities,” he said. He spent the next 40 years studying Appalachia — “How the system works and how it doesn’t work. For whom the system works and for whom it doesn’t work.”

Yanarella attended the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 as a Eugene McCarthy supporter and student journalist. The violence that erupted there, which he mostly blamed on Chicago police, made an indelible impression.

It was a defining moment for his generation, Yanarella said, just as Barak Obama’s election may be seen as a defining moment for the generation of students who were sitting in the audience Monday afternoon.

“There is a basis for hope,” he said, as he clicked to the final slide of his PowerPoint presentation. It showed an election-day celebration last November in Chicago, and a smiling police officer autographing a young woman’s Obama T-shirt.

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