Column: Forget generalizations, remember own history

It was a year of assassination, war, riots and protests—a year many historians feel was a turning point for America, both politically and culturally. It was 1968.

Much like what happened in 2007 when baby boomers marked the 40th anniversaries associated with 1967, such as the “Summer of Love” and “Sgt. Pepper’s,” we can expect more retrospective glances this year as the 40-year mark is observed for the tumultuous year of 1968. These will take the form of documentaries, essays and film montages on the news shows, which will include thoughts on how the turmoil of 1968 still affects our political and social landscape.

Such observations will rub the broad national touchstones of the era. These markers of time are well known: the Tet offensive in Vietnam and Walter Cronkite’s doubting moment; LBJ removing himself from consideration for re-election; the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy; the rioting at the Democratic Convention in Chicago; the rise of psychedelic rock music; the ignition of widespread social movements; and more.

While such efforts to chronicle 1968 can be informative and interesting when in capable hands, they may also leave one dissatisfied by offering an incomplete view of history. With this, the expected programs and commentaries will have much in common with the history textbooks used in schools that engage in sweeping generalities, lack connectivity with the reader, and repel students from studying history.

I believe history is personal. For it to resonate with a person, it has to be presented in a way to make the images of the past more than mere flickering shadows packaged like fast food and force fed to us. Such slick presentations make the changing world of 1968 seem uniform.

It wasn’t.

A glance through a 1968 Groveport Madison High School yearbook, for example, reveals something interesting in photos of the students. None of the boys had long “hippie” hair. The girls’ hairstyles seem to reflect the early 1960s, or even the late 1950s, as opposed to the “flower power” era in which they were living. The athletes still wore letter sweaters. Cheerleaders’ skirts were longer than the mini-skirts that were in fashion.

It’s like there was a cultural delayed reaction in the small town Midwest to the times that were shaping the country elsewhere. From my own memory, it seems like the times we refer to as “the ‘60s” didn’t reach Groveport Madison High School until the early 1970s when I was a student there. It was then one saw the guys growing shaggy long hair and girls daring to bare their knees wearing mini-skirts. It was then one could see t-shirts on the students in the classrooms instead of button down shirts. It was then one could hear rock music making its presence felt. It was then people seemed to become politically minded and more willing to question authority.

I remember as a freshman in 1971 that one “radical” upperclassman led a protest of some cause I can’t remember and rallied a dozen or so students to walk out of the cafeteria with him. Once outside, no one knew what to do and the teachers just sort of herded everyone back into the building. Even so, the students were exhilarated because they felt they had done “something,” no matter how vague it was.

As 2008 progresses, think about 1968 in your own terms. What was your world like then? What does 1968 mean to you? What does it still mean to you? If you are younger, think about how 1968 was a time, like all other times, of real flesh-and-blood people living their lives the best they could and consider that one day you, too, will be able to remember a time 40 years ago.

Don’t let others interpret your history. Make your own.

Rick Palsgrove is editor of the Southeast Messenger.

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