Memory  /  Comment

Misremembering 1968

Fifty years later, the legacies of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy still loom large.
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library

The year 1968 was momentous. Abroad, the Vietnam War raged on, while at home the civil rights movement marched on. Amid the violence and protests and sweeping change, the United States elected a new president and sent a man to orbit around the moon. Before the year’s end, the country would lose two important progressive figures, each struck by an assassin’s bullet: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. This year marks the 50th anniversary of 1968, meaning the U.S., and the world, will have numerous commemorations about these events, all deserving serious contemplation. And yet, Americans risk misremembering 1968. The events of that year as they relate to race and politics still live on in American public memory and policies, in ways that we continue to fail to understand.

Public memory is how a nation remembers its past. It’s shown through acts of commemoration such as the dedication of statues, presidential proclamations, or national holidays. Memory can bind together the citizens of a nation through symbolism and pageantry. Conversely, it can also gloss over the legacies of important figures and moments. The deaths of King and Kennedy loom large in any misremembering of 1968. Though the two men had minimal interaction in their lifetimes, and what relationship they had was complicated, their assassinations during the same year marked a turning point. They occurred just prior to the rise of a staunch conservative ascendancy and liberal division that have continued to saturate American politics. King’s death left a hole in the moral leadership of the American left, while Kennedy’s death was the end of the optimism that defined the “Camelot”-style politics of the 1960s. For Americans to properly talk about what the nation is missing without those two figures would mean to fully reckon with the myriad of ways the United States has failed to uphold King’s dream and has ignored the words of Robert Kennedy’s campaign for president.