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What lessons of ’68 are relevant today?

Among them: Issues motivate participation, and candidates can make a difference.

photo of vietnam war protest in dinkytown
Anti-Vietnam demonstration in Dinkytown
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Jim Scheibel

1968 was a transformational year – a president is challenged and does not see re-election, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated, cities burn, Robert Kennedy’s campaign ends with a bullet, young voices are repressed in Chicago, Hubert Humphrey tries to be the “happy warrior” and Richard Nixon is elected as the 37th president of the United States.

What are the similarities we notice to 2018? What lessons from ’68 might be relevant for today? Six colleges and universities (Hamline, St. Thomas, Macalester, St. Olaf, St. John’s and St. Ben’s) are convening a forum on Oct. 26 at St. Thomas to explore these questions with key participants from ’68 and students seeking a better world today.

As an organizer of the conference, I asked myself, what are the relevant messages and what did I learn?

Issues motivate participation. Heart-wrenching news reports about the war  and reports on false claims of success in Vietnam from the president led me to speak out on campus, support the resistance of the Milwaukee 14 and get people to the caucuses. I believed a country of two Americas would not survive.

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Candidates can make a difference. Gene McCarthy answered a call to put himself forward and be on the ballot, so we felt our vote and participation mattered. Robert Kennedy’s campaign added a vision that we could end the war and make a difference in the lives of the poor.

Nonviolent action counts. The Benedictine values, the pleas from King, and the McCarthy and Kennedy campaigns provided a path for change through nonviolent action.

One’s life can be a demonstration to a commitment to community. Performing alternative service at McDonough Homes shaped my life and work for years ahead. I was joined by VISTA volunteers and members of the Peace Corps in working with the low-income community for economic opportunities.

The conference, “1968 and the War for America’s Soul” is open to the public to reflect on lessons learned and relevant strategies for today. One can register here. 

Jim Scheibel, a former mayor of St. Paul, is Professor of Practice in the Management, Marketing and Public Administration Department, Hamline University. He is a former director of both AmeriCorps VISTA and the Senior Corps. 


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