For fifty years we have wrestled with the pain that seemed to all come out in that one fateful year – 1968.
Though I don’t remember 1968 very well, I grew up in its shadow and felt the residue it left.
The Tet Offensive began in Vietnam in January. The Orangeburg (SC) massacre was in February. Martin Luther King was murdered in April. Bobby Kennedy was killed in June. Democratic Convention riots in August. Black Power salute in Mexico City Olympics in October. Arkansas Evolution ban overturned by the Supreme Court in November. Elvis Presley performed If I Can Dream in primetime on NBC in December:
There must be peace and understanding sometime
Strong winds of promise that will blow away the doubt and fear
If I can dream of a warmer sun
Where hope keeps shining on everyone
Tell me why, oh why, oh why won’t that sun appear.
For fifty years we have wrestled with the pain that seemed to all come out in that one fateful year. So much was lost. American invincibility was lost in the rice paddies of Vietnam. South Carolina’s separate but equal illusion was swept away outside that bowling alley not too far from SC State College. The public school as an extension of the work of the church next door took a second hit (school prayer went away in 1963). The political parties reshuffled their constituencies.
But in some ways, the world is a better place than when I was five. 1968 caused a reaction. Some of it immediately, some arriving more slowly. The families of Mother Emanuel are showing us the ground for racial reconciliation, the Christian Learning Centers are reclaiming public schools from just across the street, and in Vietnam, the most iconic person of the tragedy of that conflict, the napalm scorched child is calling the world to Christ.
A brokenhearted Elvis Presley recorded “If I Can Dream” right after MLK was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in his adopted hometown of Memphis. But the song wasn’t released until he sang it in place of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” on December 3, 1968.
The song is certainly inspirational, and Elvis delivered it with such resolve and passion that it left his backup singers in tears. But there’s a phrase in it that had always troubled me. It goes like this: “but as long as a man has the strength to dream, he can redeem his soul and fly.”
Those I mentioned earlier, just three examples of the resistance to the racial and political turmoil that characterized 1968, would disagree. They would gently but firmly say that man can’t redeem his soul…or his culture. Only Christ can do that. And in that, as Billy Graham always said, “there is hope.”
Listen to the testimony of Kim Phuc Phan Thi, the woman from the famous Vietnam War photo, here.
Dr. Oran Smith
Senior Policy Adviser