On Display at Smith Library: 1968 – Fifty Years Later

by Andrew Fair – Evening Reference Librarian

To many historians, anniversaries are important.  To the rest of us, with the possible exceptions of birthdays and wedding anniversaries, maybe not so much!  The selection of a range of years to emphasize can sometimes seem arbitrary.  Picking 2018 as a marker does provide us the significant anniversary of the end of World War I.  We will soon reach the 100th anniversary of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month and mark the centenary of 1918 on 11/11/2018. Going back another 100 years takes us to 1818 and the bi-centenary of the first publication of Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley, recently celebrated by Trae Middlebrooks in his blog posting and with a display in Smith Library.

Going back fifty years takes us back to 1968 – spoiler alert – a memorable year for lots of bad reasons.  In many ways, it was a year full of hate.  But twelve months of violence and discord started and finished with book-ends of hope.  Following the end of World War II, the state of Czechoslovakia was occupied by the Soviet Union, imposing communist rule on an unwilling populace.  In January 1968, hope was promised when First Secretary Alexander Dubchec tried to loosen the restrictive grip that the Soviets held over the Czechs.  What became known as “the Prague Spring” became an experiment in social reform, as the Czechs started to resist their oppressors.  As we will see, it was not to last.

Events in the Vietnam War were ever-present during 1968.  January saw events take a savage turn for the worse with the start of two bloody engagements, including the battle of Khe Sahn and the Siege of Hue, ending six and three months later respectively.  At home in the US, as well as in major capital cities around the world, protestors were ramping up opposition to the war.  In early March, French students in Paris were arrested after protesting the Vietnam War.  Strikes followed, culminating in riots in May and ending with the election of Charles de Gaulle as President of France.

At home, the violence continued.  In April, Revd. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, TN.  American cities burned and riots followed all over the country.  Two months later a bullet took the life of Robert “Bobby” Kennedy.  The younger brother of slain President John F. Kennedy, Bobby was himself campaigning to be president when he was assassinated in San Francisco.  Bobby’s death would clear the way for Richard Nixon to become US President in November ’68, defeating Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace.



Held in Mexico City, the 1968 summer Olympics, were memorable for both sporting and political reasons.  In the men’s high-jump, American Dick Fosbury demonstrated for the first time a revolutionary new way of going backwards over the bar, so creating the “Fosbury flop”.  Bob Beamon smashed the world long-jump record, with a massive jump of 26’ 6”.  But the headlines around the world were grabbed by Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medalists in the 200 meters.  Gold medalist Tommie Smith (pictured center) and bronze medalist John Carlos (pictured right) raised their black-gloved hands on the medal podium following their race, in solidarity with the Black Freedom Movement.  Their heads bowed, it was a symbol seen all over the world.

Oscar-winning movie titles in 1968 reflected tensions in American society.  Rod Steiger won best actor for his portrayal of a prejudiced policeman in the film In the Heat of the Night.  Katherine Hepburn won best actress, in another movie dealing with relations between races, in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?  Three other titles released in ’68, all stood out as being very different: The Graduate; 2001: A Space Odyssey and Bonnie and Clyde.

The Czech liberalizations begun with such hope in the “Prague Spring” in January ’68 were abruptly quashed in August, when Russian and Warsaw Pact forces invaded Czechoslovakia, with tanks and soldiers rolling back all the freedoms won since January.  The Czechs would not become free again until after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.


So, where was the book-end of hope to close out the violence and aggression of 1968?  On Christmas Eve, Apollo 8 mission astronaut William Anders, took a photograph from the far-side of the moon that was to become one of the most iconic pictures of the twentieth century.  Titled “Earthrise”, the photo shows planet earth suspended in the blackness of space, with the moon in the lower foreground.  This one photo showed mankind the fragility of our place in the cosmos, and that it was possible to see an “earthrise” in a fresh and different way.

You can find (and check out) the materials mentioned in this post on display on the main floor of Smith Library.