Posted also in Truly Open Hearts and Minds
A Sermon by Mel Harkrader Pine
New Year’s Day 1968 was a Monday, so I reported to work at 11 p.m. in the newsroom of the Philadelphia Daily News. I never got used to working nights, which I did for a couple more years. But I loved my job.
I loved my job because it put me, just 21 years old, at the center of history’s first draft. Through a combination of luck, aptitude, interest, and a good work ethic, I was a newspaper copy editor. Most young people interested in journalism want to work out in the world tracking down news sources and details. I loved the inside, where we put it all together, working against long odds. All night long, I smoothed out wording, challenged details, rearranged articles, and worked in the interest of the people who would buy the paper and…have to read the stuff we worked on.
Three colleagues and I processed every word going into the news pages and wrote the headlines. Shortly after we finished at 7 a.m., the presses would begin rolling on the first edition, and some 250,000 copies would eventually be printed and distributed. It was perhaps the most meaningful work I could hope for at that age, and with my limited academic credentials.
New Year’s Day 2018 was also a Monday, but, retired now, I had no job to report to. When I’m not reading about the world and binge-watching murder mysteries, I’m still trying to do meaningful work, like writing and delivering sermons and organizing for Better Angels, working to decrease political polarization.
That New Year’s Day 50 years ago and this last one have a lot in common other than both being Mondays. Each one introduced a year in highly divisive times. 1968 turned out intensely sad, which is why I chose the song I did, written and recorded in that year, to set the tone for the sermon. Let’s hope that 2018 turns out happier.
I do have moments of despair about the current binary extremism, but as I’ve researched, thought, and jogged my memory about 1968, I’ve realized that maybe what we’re going through today isn’t so different, and maybe there is ground for hope. So come with me as I re-live some of 1968.
It’s always tempting — and misleading — to trace major historic trends to one event, but certainly a catalyst to today’s conflicts was the presidential election of November 2016. Similarly, a catalyst for the societal tensions of the 1960’s was President John Kennedy’s decision to send 400 Green Berets to Vietnam in a secret operation in May 1961 and President Lyndon Johnson’s repeated subsequent decisions to escalate U.S. involvement there.
But the roots of the war in Vietnam go back to French colonialism in the 19th Century, and the roots of today’s conflicts here in the United States, and those of a half century ago, go back maybe to the compromises at the nation’s founding, half slave and half free states.
On January 5, 1968, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Yale chaplain William Sloan Coffin and three others were indicted on charges of conspiracy to encourage violations of the draft laws. A jury later found Spock, Coffin and two of the others guilty, but the convictions were eventually overturned. I’m not fond of the way the word “privilege” is thrown around today, but there’s no question that 50 years ago the “universal” draft and the Vietnam war were wrecking balls for the lives and the families of the less privileged, white as well as brown and black.
On January 23, with no direct connection to the Vietnam war, North Korean patrol boats captured the USS Pueblo, a US Navy intelligence gathering vessel, and its 83-man crew. It was a major embarrassment for the U.S. and almost a year of deprivation and torture for the crew. They were not released until December 22. The ship itself was never returned and remains a tourist attraction in Pyongyang.
And the bad news of January 1968 was not yet over. On the 31st, the North Vietnamese launched what would become known as the Tet offensive, taking its name from the holiday marking the Vietnamese new year. Almost 70,000 North Vietnamese troops applied unprecedented pressure to the cities in the South. They even overran and held the U.S. Embassy in Saigon for more than six hours.
The Tet offensive contributed to making 1968 the costliest year of the war as measured by U.S. service members killed — 16,899, or almost 30% of the war’s total fatalities. It was much costlier for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops, not to mention civilians, but it was a turning point in how the war was perceived outside Vietnam as well as by the troops fighting. Every night, we watched video footage from reporters embedded with U.S. combat units under siege.
Vietnam is known as the first television war, but its strong still images still haunt many of us. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the famous photo of the little girl, naked, running from a napalmed village. But this is the image that turned my stomach even more. On February 1, during the height of the Tet offensive, Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan casually executed a handcuffed Viet Cong prisoner. Loan went on to lose a leg in the war and to open a pizza restaurant in Burke, Virginia.
On February 7 came one of the most famous quotations from the war. Speaking about the embattled city of Ben Tre, an unnamed U.S. major said: “”It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”
Meanwhile, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was becoming more disillusioned and depressed. He was still intensely disliked by many white Americans. One rewrite-man at my newspaper, who would later become a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, showed me a photo he kept in his wallet. In it, Dr. King was shaking hands with Gus Hall, president of the American Communist Party, in what appeared to be a busy auditorium. What more proof did I need, he asked me, that King was a Commie?
Dr. King also was concerned about a growing trend toward militancy in the black power movement and the Black Panther Party. Plus, he had gradually come to see the escalating war in Vietnam as inseparable from the cause of justice at home. He began to talk more about his death. On February 4, two months before his assassination, he preached a sermon at his Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta containing what amounts to his own eulogy. After his death, he said:
I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody… that I tried to love and serve humanity,. Yes, if you want to, say that I was a drum major for peace… for righteousness.
Amid all of this came the presidential primaries. Richard Nixon was dominating the Republican vote, and the sitting president, LBJ, was widely expected to go all the way. There was one peace candidate early in the year — a mild-mannered and decidedly un-charismatic senator named Eugene McCarthy. Supported by thousands of hard-working students who had become “clean for Gene,” McCarthy on March 12 achieved the unthinkable in the New Hampshire primary. He came within 230 votes of defeating Johnson.
Just four days later, a more charismatic but more moderate Democratic senator, Robert Kennedy, entered the race. Fifteen days after that, on March 31, we witnessed another unthinkable development on our black-and-white TV screens. At the conclusion of an address to the nation about the war, President Johnson said these words:
I have concluded that I should not permit the presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year.
With America’s sons in the fields far away, with America’s future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world’s hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office — the presidency of your country.
Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.
The next morning, a Monday, in West High School in Phoenix, Roger Fritts, later to become a Unitarian Universalist minister, was taking a history test — 40 multiple-choice questions. At around Question #30, this is what his teacher had written:
I am typing this test Sunday evening with President Johnson giving a speech on TV. He has just announced that he will not run for reelection. Out of unparalleled joy and happiness, I give you the next five questions Free.
Before I leave the month of March, I need to note one more unthinkable, one that didn’t become public for more than two and a half years. On Match 16, the same day that RFK joined the presidential race, American soldiers killed roughly 350 to 500 unarmed civilians in what became known as the My Lai Massacre. It’s beyond the scope of this sermon to dive deeper into that incident, except to say that a helicopter pilot and his crew spotted the devastation and ended it.
Bless the persons of principle in troubled times.
On April 4, I arrived for work early and in a daze because I had heard the news and knew it would be a rough night. Dr. King had been killed while standing on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis. I hoped I didn’t get the main story to edit that night because I didn’t know how I could process those dreadful words, Earlier in the evening, Robert Kennedy had willingly taken on a much tougher job even though he had until then held Dr. King at a distance. We didn’t have cell phones and internet services to keep up aware of breaking news wherever we were, so RFK knew what most of his audience didn’t when he walked into a campaign rally for him at 17th and Broadway in the heart of the Indianapolis ghetto., Here’s what he said:
Rioting broke out after Dr. King’s assassination in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, Newark, Washington, and many other cities, but Indianapolis was not one of them.
Just two months later — June 4 — was the California primary, which Robert Kennedy won. Around 3:30 the next morning, as we processed that news from the wire services, the phone on the copy desk rang. A staff member who was home told us to turn on the TV. We learned that way that Kennedy had been shot and went back to the teletype room to get the details. He died about 24 hours later.
Two months elapsed between the height of the Tet offensive and the murder of Dr. King and two more between King’s death and the assassination of Senator Kennedy. It was already a dreadful year, and we were just half way through it.
No wonder we thought it was gonna rain today.
It was the revered Unitarian Ralph Waldo Emerson who coined the phrase “the shot heard round the world” for a hymn that was sung at the dedication of the Concord Monument in 1836. In some ways, the Tet Offensive was another shot heard round the world. Anti-war protests, along with pro-socialist sentiment, went global, largely led by college students. Wikipedia gives “Protests of 1968” its own 3,000-word article.
In France, student leaders linked up with trade unionists to protest capitalism, consumerism, American imperialism, and traditional institutions. Strikes involving 11 million workers, more than 22% of France’s population, lasted two weeks. President Charles de Gaulle secretly slipped away from France for a few hours, but he returned and called for Parliamentary elections, which he then won.
I won’t attempt to detail the events known as the “Prague Spring” in Czechoslovakia except to note it was an attempt to loosen Russia’s control and was heavily suppressed.
In the U.S., the civil rights and black power movements gained momentum…and what we then called “backlash.” In March, students in North Carolina organized a sit-in at a local lunch counter, which spread to 15 cities. In East Los Angeles, students from five high schools walked out of their classes to protest unequal conditions. They inspired walkouts at 15 other schools.
In the sports world, in the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, African-Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos took the gold and bronze medals in the 200-meter race, Smith in world-record time. In a gesture that stunned the stadium and the world, during the Star Spangled Banner, they raised their fists in a black power salute. This photo was front-page news in just about every U.S. newspaper. Little noticed was the silver medalist, Australian Peter Norman, who wore a human rights badge — also against Olympics rules — in solidarity with Smith and Carlos and to protest his own nation’s racist past and its continuing repercussions.
Richard Nixon, of course, won the Republican nomination that year and went on to the presidency. I’m sure you’ve heard many times the story of the Democratic Convention in Chicago, won by Hubert Humphrey but only after a police-and-yippie riot outside and tumult inside the hall. CBS Correspondent Dan Rather was roughed up by convention security guards as he tried to conduct an interview. This man, Richard Daley, was the old-school mayor of Chicago. As I watched the proceedings on TV, with Senator Abraham Ribicoff on the dais criticizing what he called “Gestapo tactics” by the police outside, the camera caught a close-up in the audience of Mayor Daley whose lips clearly were shouting a two-word insult beginning with “F” and ending with “U.”
Finally, a symbolic end to the year. On December 12, Robert Kennedy’s widow, Ethel, gave birth to their 11th child, Rory. Today, at age 49, she makes documentary films that center around social issues.
So what is the spiritual lesson from all of this? What comes to my mind is a simple line from Psalms:
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me…
We have been through difficult times before. Sometimes we despair over the present and forget how far we’ve come from the past. We may each define the “thou” in the Biblical quote in different ways — God, Nature, the Buddha Within, the Inner Light, Progress, the Long Arc of the Universe — but it’s what we lean on in order to fear no evil.
And our faith helps us toward building a better world. Please rise and join in singing hymn number 121. We’ll Build a Land.
Copyright 2018 © Mel Harkrader Pine