It's hard to believe that the world--or even just our country, for that matter--can recover from times like those we're experiencing now. It's hard to believe that there might be light at the end of this tunnel. Particularly for people my age and younger (I was born in 1980), it's difficult to picture a way out of this mess that leaves our democracy intact, never mind a way out that might push us forward, and advance us a little closer toward our goal of true justice for all people. But I am a student of history. History is my friend. And I tell you, for all the dire warnings history holds for us, it also offers lessons of great comfort and inspiration.
What's most important to remember about history is that it's always with us. The present is, always and forever, the offspring of the past. We stand in a light that's colored by the prism of whatever events have gone before--and all the events that have gone before, every action and reaction by every person, humble or powerful, all the way back into the eons of our past.
If you will indulge me for a moment, I'm going to quote from one of my own works, The Restoration of All Things, a novel about the history of a religion and a culture--my culture of origin--which will be published sometime in the fall of 2021 (exact date yet to be determined).
The beginning was unremarkable. Sometimes that’s the way the biggest stories take you. You don’t sense their unfolding, the subtle layering of cause and effect, the way one history rides upon a hundred others that have gone before.
This passage comes from near the opening of Restoration. I wanted to lay that thesis out early on, and clearly, because it's such an important concept in historical fiction and in historical NONfiction. It's a theme you've seen me tinker with before, if you're familiar with my work, especially in The Ragged Edge of Night. The past doesn't just inform the present; it creates the present. The present cannot exist without the past. We are a product of history.
And so, of course, what is happening in our nation right now is also a product of history. Past events made the present moment. And I want to tell you about another time in global history, and in the history of the United States, when we faced many of the same challenges we're facing now, and how some of those challenges turned out, and why they turned out the way they did. I hope it will help you understand the present moment a little better. I hope it will bring you inspiration, courage, steely resolve, compassion for those who are fighting in the streets right now, and a passion to uphold justice at any cost. Especially if you're too young to remember the year 1968 clearly--or if, like me, you weren't yet born.
1968 was a difficult year for the entire world. The Vietnam War had been raging for thirteen years. Every country that had been involved somehow in World War II—which was most countries—was still reeling from the effects of that conflict, both positive and negative. The postwar years brought major disruptions. Economies had to find their way back onto their feet. Social roles had changed dramatically and weren’t going back to where they’d been before: Women all around the planet were insisting they remain in work forces and began seeking an expansion of their rights and liberties, even as the Western world tried to grapple with a sudden boom in population (the Baby Boom, of course) and communities struggled to figure out who was going to take care of all those kids if women insisted on working. Television became widely available, and with it, expanded access to knowledge of other places, other people, other cultures. We were becoming a more connected and more complex global society. It was no longer easy for us to deny the existence and needs of people who were outside of our families and our immediate spheres of community. People were tiring of war. Who can blame them? Socialism became popular and its proponents vociferous; the people who benefitted most from the existing capitalist system felt threatened, and began trying to control these new ideas about the ways our societies ought to function. The attempts to control the narrative and preserve power grew fiercer and more desperate, year after year, until, in 1968, nationalism ruled the day and violence became a common response from governments and other places of power.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Here are a few of the things that happened in 1968:
The Troubles began in Northern Ireland.
In France, anti-war protests turned into anti-government protests; students joined forces with labor unions and a massive strike that went on for an entire month. More than 22% of the French population joined in the strike, grinding the GDP and the capitalist system to nothing (there is only an ideological difference between 22% of workers striking and 22% of workers being unemployed due to other causes). The government of France effectively collapsed; President Charles de Gaulle was so freaked out that he fled to Germany rather than face his nation’s anger any longer. All across France, police turned on citizens with violence, which led to out-and-out, honest-to-god battles between citizens and the police in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Workers won higher wages and better protections. Then a counter-protest by a pro-de Gaulle faction inspired de Gaulle to come slinking back from Germany and hold new elections. De Gaulle threatened to unleash the military on protesters unless they settled down. Though the Gaullists won that election, the culture of France itself was changed. In subsequent elections, the character of France was pushed ever more toward the progressive end of the spectrum, with a few notable blips where more conservative thought reigned for a period of a few years (that’s always the way these things go.)
In Brazil, the police killed a student who’d been protesting to gain his fellow students better access to food. That murder sparked off a wave of anti-dictatorship protests that continued for the entire year.
That year, the Summer Olympics were to be held in Mexico City, and Mexican citizens weren’t about to let that visibility pass them by. From the summer of 1967, student and civil organizations seeking justice and greater liberties held all kinds of demonstrations across the nation, culminating in a student demonstration at Tlatelolco Plaza, where the military marched on the citizens—even paratrooping into their midst—and opened fire on them, killing so many that the exact number of citizens murdered by their own government’s military is still unknown.
Speaking of the Summer Olympics in 1968, that was the year the Olympics really got political, as South African athletes made a point to bring to the world’s attention the grave injustice of Apartheid. The Olympics Board was outraged by the South African teams’ attempts to use that platform to seek justice for their Black citizens; they banned South African teams from competition. This is where the iconic image of US athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos comes from—the image of these runners with their black-gloved fists raised in solidarity with their South African compatriots whose message was stifled by the Olympics Board. Smith and Carlos were both sent home. It was either that or the entire US team would be banned.
In Pakistan, what began as a student protest against the government’s military abuses against its own people was quickly joined by a huge variety of members of Pakistani society: blue- and white-collar workers, lawyers, even sex workers all joined mass protests, calling for the resignation of President Ayub Khan. Khan instructed his military to open fire on the protesters, killing many and injuring several hundred. The optics were not good. He stepped down shortly after.
There are more stories from 1968. Many more. Poland, Germany, Sweden, Zimbabwe (then called Rhodesia), the places we now know as the Czech Republic, and the Baltic States, Italy, Spain, Yugoslavia, Great Britain, Jamaica and several other Caribbean countries.
In 1968, the world was on fire.
And what was happening in the United States that year?
1968 was the year the Civil Rights Movement started pushing out from the South, drawing attention to the struggles Black citizens faced in Northern, Western, and Midwestern states. Issues like housing inequality, lack of access to healthcare, and inequitable worker protections on race lines were pushed to the forefront of news cycles by determined activists. And, of course, Dr. Martin Luther King was boldly refusing to relinquish his media platform. He kept speaking up and speaking out, kept inspiring more people to join the cause, and white Americans, by and large, didn’t like it. The Black Panthers and Black Power organizations formed, advocating violent protest in stark contrast to King’s methods (though, as I’ll write about later, King knew the critical value of a good photo op. Although he never encouraged his followers to react with violence, he also knew that violence sold news stories, and news stories sold the idea of civil rights to all Americans.) Three students were killed in the Orangeburg massacre, a demonstration in South Carolina which the police turned deadly. Sit-ins by North Carolina students became popular and began occurring simultaneously in dozens of American cities. High school students began coordinating mass walk-outs—first in Los Angeles, then in many other cities across the nation.
Then, of course, Dr. King was assassinated. White America lauds King now, but back then, the majority of white people hated him. I mean, hated the guy. He was very successful at bringing attention to the cause of equal rights, and back then, as today, all too many white Americans falsely believed that equality for all meant sacrificing the rights they themselves enjoyed. Equality never means going backward for anyone. It only means pulling others up to stand beside us.
After King’s assassination, dramatic protests erupted simultaneously in 115 cities across America. The police quickly turned those protests violent. Unheard people from all walks of life, from all ethnicities and backgrounds, quickly realized they had common cause with the Black citizens protesting the murder of Dr. King. That’s always the way things go. We cannot oppress one group without oppressing all others. We are one people, and always will be. Wherever one of us is denied basic rights, we all are denied.
The police escalated the violence in four cities in particular: Louisville, DC, Chicago, and Baltimore. President Johnson activated the 1807 Insurrection Act, unleashing the military on DC, Chicago, and Baltimore to quell the uprising.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
The Insurrection Act was activated by Johnson on April 5, 1968 for DC and April 7 for Baltimore and Chicago. Three days later, on April 10, Johnson passed an expansion of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, extending protection to all Americans where housing is concerned, prohibiting housing discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, gender, or religion. It may seem like no big deal now, to people who have lived all their lives under the protection of this law. It was a huge deal at the time. Absolutely monumental.
I tell you all this for one simple reason: To point out that the world has been on fire before. There are biomes on our beautiful planet were fire is a necessity. Forests and prairies require flames to regenerate themselves and spur new growth. Without fire, those biomes stagnate, sicken, and die. It may be that humanity itself is a biome that cannot grow and flourish without the periodic trauma of flames. But as in a forest after it has been swept by fire, lush new growth springs up in the scorched and barren places. A new forest makes itself from the ashes. It’s a cycle that goes on endlessly. And some forms of life, some seeds, will never sprout at all unless they are first subjected to the flames.
We are suffering now. We are frightened, angry, horrified, saddened, outraged. Bad things have already happened to many people as a result of these protests and more bad things are likely to come. But it will not all be bad. And there is a place beyond this moment in history, a place where we will see advancement, justice, growth, and good things growing up from the scorched places. We are getting there. We will get there. We know it because we have walked this road before.
Don’t lose heart. Know where we are going, know where we’ve been. And fight on.