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Revisiting 1968 at the History Center

A lot happened in 1968, and, unfortunately, I missed about half of it. I spent the first five months just doing nothing at all, really, lounging about, growing eyes and kidneys and lungs.

Captain Kirk's actual insignia patch from "The 1968 Exhibit."
MinnPost photo by Max Sparber
Captain Kirk’s actual insignia patch from “The 1968 Exhibit.”

A lot happened in 1968, and, unfortunately, I missed about half of it. I spent the first five months just doing nothing at all, really, lounging about, growing eyes and kidneys and lungs. I did manage to make it out in May, but seem to remember none of it. But, then, they say if you remember the 1960s, you weren’t actually there.

Fortunately, the Minnesota Historical Society opened an exhibit this past weekend called, simply, “The 1968 Exhibit,” although it could have been called “The Year Pretty Much Everything Happened.” It was a preposterously busy year, and so the exhibit does what it can, which is to break the year down into months and list whatever epochal event happened that month, which always seems to be about 10 or 15 events. And it’s too much, man. We Americans nowadays scarcely seem capable of handling one big event every six months or so without having a nervous breakdown. What would we do with a month like April, 1968?

It’s one of the months I missed, so here’s a brief recap. Let’s see … Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, leading to nationwide rioting. Black Panther Bobby Hutton was killed in a shootout with Oakland police. Apollo 6 was launched into space. Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The Red Army Faction set off bombs in Frankfurt. Both “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Planet of the Apes” opened in theaters. Oh, and “Hair” opened on Broadway.

Pretty much any single one might have your typical American nowadays seated at the side of the road, head buried in hands, shaking and sobbing. Especially “Planet of the Apes,” which, let’s face it, was a lot to process. And this was just one month! There was so much ahead, including the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, the shooting of Andy Warhol, feminists protesting the Miss America Pageant, a notoriously politically fraught summer Olympics, the release of the White Album and “Electric Ladyland,” the Zodiac Killer, and Apollo 8 seeing the dark side of the moon.

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That’s a partial list of events, by the way.

It’s no wonder that so much of what is on hand at the museum seems to be an externalizing of madness. There are a lot of ’60s clothes, as an example, and they are a riot of pop-art patterns and eye-dazzling color. I wear some pretty noisy clothes nowadays and sometimes get the feeling that strangers see me on the street and wonder if I might not be a circus clown. My stuff is pretty tame in comparison to what was passing for couture in 1968, and the stuff is hard to look at straight. One imagines that to somebody dosed by acid, the fashions of the ’60s might have people looking like living, breathing cartoon characters.

This is, by the way, the first — and I imagine only — History Center exhibit that has a joint on display. It is, we are assured, not real, which also seems very ’60s. How many adventurous Midwestern youths were sold grass shavings and paprika? How many were sure they got high anyway? 

Some of what the museum has gathered for this exhibit is genuinely amazing, depending on your tastes. They have, for example, the actual Olympic torch from the summer Olympics. They have the actual uniform insignias worn by Captain Kirk, Dr. McCoy, and Lieutenant Uhura from the original “Star Trek” television series, which, in my world, is a bit like finding a reliquary containing bones from St. Peter. There is a space helmet from our missions to the moon, which is a bit of a melancholic thing to see just now. In a year of enormous unrest, we nonetheless managed to strap some very brave men into eggshells of tin, put massive quantities of explosive fuel on their back, and somehow both blast them off into space and get them home safely. Nowadays, the shuttle program has just ended, and there’s nothing really set to replace it yet. We did these things, as Jack Kennedy said, because they were hard. They expanded our sense of what was possible, what could be achieved by mere humans. We were no longer bound by the confines of this small planet. We could leave Earth.

It’s no wonder that “2001” had as much impact as it did. Let’s face it — this is not an easy film, having a strangely protracted structure, glacial pacing, deliberately monotone performances, and a long, ambiguous ending. But those final frames of the film, the extraordinary image of the Star Child in orbit around the earth, presented the same sense of possibility that the Apollo mission did. Perhaps, it said, we small humans are just partway along our evolutionary path, mired in an experience that is just one step removed from the cavemen, but capable of becoming something greater than we are now.

A few days after the shooting of Martin Luther King Jr., I think I would have needed that message. Especially as 1968 was also the year that the Southern Strategy found it’s greatest triumph — the presidential campaign of Richard Nixon. This exhibit maps out just how effectively Republicans made use of racism to make their way into office — one of the most startling artifacts of 1968 is a signed pick handle from Lester Maddox, the 75th governor of Georgia and a virulent segregationist. Maddox had once defended his whites-only restaurant against a civil-rights demonstration with a gun, and with his employees brandishing pick handles. Then he offered signed copies of those pick handles as souvenirs.

A signed pick or ax handle from segregationist Lestee Maddox
MinnPost photo by Max Sparber
A signed pick or ax handle from segregationist Lestee Maddox

Nixon was subtler than Maddox, but his campaign was based around creating a sense of a “real” America — white, suburban, and working- to middle-class — that was under siege by lunatic outsiders, and whose voices and values were being ignored. This was self-servingly the voice of privilege defending itself — these supposedly lunatic outsiders were, in fact, groups that had been marginalized, impoverished, and kept out of the halls of power. But rather than address the very real complaints that were being voiced, Nixon fanned the fears of those who were afraid of change, and so cobbled together enough of a majority to take the presidency. He managed to pull in just 43.5 percent of the votes, muscling Minnesota’s own Hubert Humphrey, who attracted 42.7 percent of the vote; Nixon’s supporters demonized Humphrey as a socialist.

And this is where the exhibit suddenly becomes the most melancholy. Because here were are, 40 years later, and where is our Star Child? Instead, we are looking at a presidential campaign in the next year that may as well be the 1968 election, with the same, now utterly preposterous, cries of socialism, and the same technique of cobbling together a slim majority by placating single-issue voters and playing up hatred for America’s minorities for having the temerity to demand equal opportunity and equal rights from the country that guarantees exactly that.

Have we really grown so little in almost a half-century? And, worse still, our fashion sense has grown so timid. If I can’t have progress, and I can’t have space travel, at least give me some decent costumes.