The release of Kathryn Bigelow’s movie Detroit in August 2017, which tells the story of major race riots in 1967 in USA, has recently re-awakened my own memories of the turmoil of the struggle for American civil rights which I was privileged to observe at first hand.
I lived in the United States for a year in 1965–66 on a postgraduate scholarship at Brown University in Rhode Island. Living on an Ivy League campus as attitudes towards the Vietnam War went through a dramatic transformation, from unquestioning support for ‘our boys’ to growing condemnation of American tactics, was a salutary experience. In 1965 the whole nation seemed united behind America’s war in South East Asia; but gradually opposition to the war became noticeable and I remember witnessing a quiet (but as yet rather polite) demonstration by some students at Brown’s Graduation Day in May 1966.
By September 1967 I had moved to the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. Canada was and is very unlike the United States; but, like most of Canada, Victoria is very near the border and I often visited Seattle, the nearest US city. I also got used to watching American TV channels. CBS nightly news became a habit, providing a front-row view of the changing opinion in America.
CBS News changed its tone entirely by then. Its legendary anchor, Walter Cronkite, who had previously been intensely patriotic, began to express grave doubts about the prosecution of the war in Vietnam. I now viewed student anti-war protests that were shockingly different from those I had seen and heard in 1966. Martin Luther King had spoken out against the war in April 1967; major riots had broken out in many cities in July, and anti-war feeling had become linked to the violent civil rights protests by African-Americans.
There had been race riots in 1965–66, but they had not displayed the visceral intensity I saw by the autumn of 1967 and the anti-war mood continued to deepen. In December 1967, Victoria’s History department was flooded with applications from American postgraduates; at interview many openly admitted that they wanted a post in a Canadian university to avoid being drafted for service in Vietnam.
In 1968 one seismic shock followed another:
- in January the Tet Offensive seemed to undermine the entire military situation in Vietnam even though it was actually defeated;
- in April there was the assassination of Martin Luther King and shootouts between Black Panthers and the police;
- in June came the assassination of Robert Kennedy;
- in August, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago was marked by violent protests captured on live television.
One particular day, 31 March 1968, struck me with special force, because it was both important and somehow personal. I switched on to CBS to find President Johnson giving a speech to the nation. I assumed this was just one more in a long line of LBJ speeches about the need to persevere in Vietnam, but I was about to experience delayed shock.
It dawned on me only very slowly what Johnson’s real message was that he would not run again for the presidency. This is astonishing because Johnson was a dominant player in the political scene since 1964. He had seemed to many to qualify as a ‘great president’, whose social policies and skill in piloting civil rights legislation through Congress made him a worthy successor to Franklin Roosevelt. So, the idea that he would step down was all but impossible to take in.
Lyndon Johnson now seems both more flawed and more unlucky than I then realised. Radical protest on the streets now seems to me to have been more justified than I thought at the time; but also had more harmful long-term effects. And racial divisions in America are perhaps as deep as ever. History is not so neat and tidy as I previously believed.
- Share this article with your class, and encourage your students to give their own views on the Presidents and the importance of public demonstrations changing government policy.
- As an extension, students could reflect on whether these developments showed ‘true democracy’s action.
For more information, see Oxford AQA A Level History: The American Dream: Reality and Illusion 1945-1980 and Oxford AQA A Level History: The Making of a Superpower: USA 1865-1975.
AQA: America 1920-1973: Opportunity and Inequality
Eduqas: The Development of the USA 1929-2000
OCR A: The USA 1945–1974: The People and the State
Edexcel: The USA, 1954–75: Conflict at Home and Abroad
A Level links
AQA: The American Dream: Reality and Illusion 1945-1980
The Making of a Superpower: USA 1865-1975
Edexcel: In search of the American Dream: the USA c1917–96