The Legacy of A Single Year

As I have progressed through this class, the term “legacy” has been at the forefront of my mind. Vinen, who we began and ended the class with, wrote an entire book on the events of the year 1968, and even referred to the year itself as “The Thing” in many places. Vinen’s work, which explores mainly the historical and social background of the year, serves as a memoir in many ways. Furthermore, groups such as the Catonsville Nine and the Chicago Eight, and the members of each who chronicled their stories in each of their plays, clearly had a view of the future and how history would look at them. After all, we are reading and commenting on them today. However, the behavior of these groups makes clear that they do not care about what the court thinks about their actions and beliefs. The Catonsville Nine and Chicago Eight saw that their platform and circumstance was so much more than a single individual, and the potential to create a narrative which would immortalize their group. Their vision of their legacy was critical in their decision making.

We have already spoken at length about the striking similarities between 1969 and 2020, but I can’t help but wonder what the legacy of 2020 will be. Will historians such as Vinen refer to this year as “The Thing,” or even something more mysterious? Will plays be made from immortalized court transcripts from this year as in the case of the Chicago Eight and Catonsville Nine? Will literary critics 50 years from now view this year with the same reverence as the critics of the current time view 1969? Currently, the answers to these questions are hazy at best. However, the fact that we have found so many striking similarities between 1969 and 2020 should be telling. I believe that, 30 or 40 years from now, similar things will be said about 2020. Furthermore, based on the seeming 50 year cycle of these cataclysmic years, it is entirely possible that our generation will see another one. In 50 years, we just might be drawing comparisons between 2020 and 2070. I look forward to seeing how this year will be treated by history and literature as time marches on.

Reconciliation in Northern Ireland and the United States

Naturally, as this course has focused on “Bloody Conflict”, the theme of reconciliation is something which has arisen numerous times and something I have been intrigued by, so much so that I decided to write my final paper on it. More specifically, I’ve been fascinated by how religious/racial lines have often been used for division in the literature and how much gray area exists in reconciliation.

At the outset of this course, I did not have a good understanding of deeply the conflicts and division of 1968 ran. Particularly in Ireland, the stories of people like Eammon McCann brought up the notion that even after the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland was still loaded with tension. Never before had I seriously considered the idea that even after a conflict was officially or legally deemed to be resolved that so much tension could be lurking in communities. I definitely understood the concept on a personal level, such as how friends could say they forgive each other but still have bad blood, but hadn’t made the leap in my mind to understand how this type of persistent conflict and tension could exist on a societal level. I came to understand that reconciliation at a societal level isn’t always absolute. In my essay I really focused on this, delving into how personal connection is what allows for reconciliation to occur, but how focus on characteristics like religion or race can be used to divide, break down those personal relationships, and bring conflict back. In other words, reconciliation is fragile.

While a lot of the history and literature I’ve learned over the course of the semester have been valuable to me, lessons like this one that teach lessons which transcend the moment of ’68 and are just as applicable to life today and life back then had the most power for me. The past few years have been ones of serious division and as I watch Joe Biden’s victory speech after the election, I felt hope that he really could help bring our country together after a time of so much division. What this class taught me is that even if we succeed as a country in bringing down a lot of the division in our country, the job doesn’t stop there. Maintaining unity and fighting against division is a constant process, but one worth committing to.

Pick a side

Throughout the semester, we have been analyzing the events of 1968. With all that has happened, I cannot help but draw similarities to our current year of 2020. I think these two years are similar because of a few events from each. 1968 is remembered by the Civil Rights Movement, the United States Presidential election, and the Vietnam War. These three main events were so important and polarizing that it forced people to pick a side. You could not remain neutral for any of these topics because people’s lives were on the line. Citizens had no choice but to form an opinion and defend it. Did you support the civil rights movement? Which political candidate do you side with? Is the Vietnam War just? These are all questions that people had to answer and much of the population disagreed on them. For this reason, 68’ was a time where our country felt extremely divided and filled with tension. 

In a way, 2020 has been defined by three main factors too – a Presidential Election, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the COVID-19 Pandemic. This year was one of the most publicly followed elections in the history of the United States and certainly divided people between different political parties. With the emergence of social media, people were able to voice their differing opinions on a platform like never before. Secondly, the Black Lives Matter movement was sparked primarily from the murder of Goerge Floyd in May. When videos and details of his murder were released, the country erupted in protests and unrest. Millions of people came together to protest systematic racism. During this time, merely standing on the side, while others protested was no longer acceptable for combatting racism. Lastly, above all the other events from 2020, we have been living in the midst of a global pandemic. This unforeseen event that has life or death implications can be compared to the effect that the Vietnam war had on the United States in 1968. The subject matter between the two events is loosely related, but they are certainly similar in the sense that they demanded the attention of the American people. Different people hold different views of the virus, creating tension and divide amongst each other. Throughout this year, people have been forced to choose where they stand on certain topics, and this has created a culture where you need to defend and voice your opinions. With all this said, I do not think it would be entirely crazy to think that there may be a class 50 years from now that focuses on the events of 2020, just as we have done this semester with 1968. 

The End of 68

As I’ve been ruminating over the end of the course, I have been drawn back to the question from the beginning of the semester of when 68 ended. That line of inquiry leads to the questions of whether 68 has ended and when it began.

At the beginning of the semester, I think the notion of 68 as an era as opposed to a year was foggy for me, as I imagine it was for some other people as well. When I registered for this course, I wasn’t expecting to read a novel from 1925 or watch a lecture on the history of slavery in Barbados.

While I certainly don’t think 68 should be contained to a single year, I think it is possible to identify a beginning, or at least a select few contenders. I would argue that the first step in this process is deciding the geographic scope you’re considering. If you were to limit yourself to 68 in America, you might come to a different conclusion than if you focused more on the European experience or if you were to emphasize the global 68.

After consideration, I would argue that the global 68 is inseparable from the American 68 because of the central geopolitical role played by the United States in the 20th century. An analysis more focused on Europe would probably require more knowledge of the history of European socialism and communism than I have. I would leave the analysis of Europe to Vinen.

I believe that Dr. Kinyon, in the course of our discussion on the beginning of 68 many weeks ago, proposed Reconstruction as a strong contender. This seems the most logical to me. While the history of transatlantic slavery certainly informed the experience of African Americans in the 20th century, I think we would be better served to narrow the scope a little more. I think the same could be said for the beginning of 68 and/or The Troubles in Ireland. While surely one cannot understand The Troubles without knowledge of British colonialism in Ireland, the Irish War of Independence seems to me to be a stronger contender there.

Personal perspective also seems to play an important role in developing individual conceptions of the beginning or end of 68. For those who experienced 68 on the New Left and were particularly concerned with American involvement in Vietnam, the end of World War II may seem more relevant than Reconstruction. The beginning of the Cold War and the rise of the United States to fill the power vacuum left by the decline of Great Britain in the mid 20th century directly connects to American intervention in Asia.

Whether or not we can put a “beginning” pin on 68’s timeline, identifying the end of 68 seems to pose a different challenge. Because we know 68 happened, it is logical to conclude that it at some point began. Pinpointing the end of 68 is a bit more of a moving target because it requires us to decide if 68 has ended. We’ve talked many times in class about the ties between 68 and 2020. I think it’s worth wondering if the connections between 68 and 2020 more strongly support the notion that history is cyclical and that we’re in the midst of another historical swell, or if 2020 is a continuation of 68. I personally tend more toward the first position, but I think interesting arguments could be made in support of the latter.

If I were to identify strong contenders for the end of 68, I think I would list the end of the Cold War (if I had to pick a year, I’d go with either 1989 or 1991), the Gulf War (which supports the selection of 1991), or September 11, 2001. The American victory in the Cold War (I recognize some might debate the notion of victory here but I do believe that the US won the Cold War), and the military triumph in Kuwait reversed the perception that the US was not the superpower Americans thought it once was. I would argue that the uncertainty and fear perpetuated by the Cold War facilitated the social upheaval on the 60s and 70s. 2001 was a paradigm-shifting year for Americans that reshaped opinions on the role the US should play in the word. Perhaps 1991 was the end of 68 and 2001, or maybe 2008 or 2016, was the beginning of 2020.

History Will Repeat Itself

I began this semester with a blog post about how I believed history always repeats itself whenever one generation of humans doesn’t learn from the mistakes of another. This post was written in a negative light, comparing the struggles and turmoils of 1968 and 2020. However, over the course of this semester, I’ve started to realize that 1968 wasn’t all anarchy like it may seem from the outside. There are many valuable lessons that we can learn from 1968, besides those regarding protests and hatred. For example, in my essay I’m writing about fear, how establishments use it to quiet people, and how people must overcome it if they hope to gain liberty. In many ways, 1968 was instrumental in causing people to challenge the people above them, and fight for what they truly believe in instead of taking everything for granted. Fear is obviously something that will never go away, but I see in 2020 many similarities to how people reacted to fear in 1968. MLK was tired of the oppression his people faced, so he overcame the fear the system hoped to impose on him and led black Americans to a brighter future. In 2020, I see many of the same hopes with the Black Lives Matter movement. Essentially, I’ve come to learn throughout this semester that when we think about history repeating itself, we don’t have to focus on all the negative. Yes, 1968 will always be remembered for the Vietnam War, the Troubles, and a multitude of other events that shaped a generation of people. Likewise, 2020 will always be remembered for the coronavirus pandemic, police brutality, and the heated election. However, I don’t believe this needs to be our focus when we look back on these controversial years. Instead, it is very much possible to look back and remember a time when people linked arms and fought for their voice. 2020 will not be the last tumultuous year during our lifetimes, but if we take what we’ve learned this year, we will be more prepared for the next time history repeats itself.

Hayden and Inherent Biases

The following is part of my essay, in which I argue that Hayden, through his memoir, argues that the court is inherently biased. Let me know what you think!

Hayden’s memoir as well as Sossi and Condon’s play allows the reader to have insight into the inherent biases of the United States judiciary, although Hayden’s memoir contains bias as well.  The Chicago Eight trial itself was inherently biased, the outcome seemingly predetermined. Even before the trial started, the political left held little faith in the government. Hayden refers to Johnson with the phrase “sitting as a lame duck president” (Hayden et al 151). Further, leading up to the trial, the ability to obtain a permit was severely hindered by the government. Hayden describes the extensive measures taken to obtain the permit, yet the government went so far as to lie about the reasoning behind not issuing a permit. In a meeting with Deputy Mayor Stahl, the Parks and Sanitation Department and police forces were blamed for the permit, despite the fact that Hayden and Stahl were aware that Mayor Daley made those decisions (161). As Hayden describes his attempts to obtain a permit, the tone of the writing is hopeless and dark. Hayden had a right to be frustrated; despite his many attempts to legally protest, higher governmental powers refused his wishes. During the trial, there are a multitude of examples of biased interactions against the defendants. Further, the Judge himself repeatedly mispronounces the names of the defendants and Mr. Weinglass, one of the defense lawyers (41, 68, 97). Of course, an initial mispronunciation could be viewed as a mistake, but the action was repeated so frequently throughout the trial that it appeared to be intentional. The purposeful mispronunciation of a name has the goal of making another person feel inferior. Judge Hoffman, through these repeated “mistakes”, was passively showing his disdain for the defendants. Stu Ball, a defense lawyer, also experienced at length the partiality of the court. Ball was forced to temporarily give up documents with information related to the case. Clearly, this event was a “flagrant breach” of security that definitely warranted the requested mistrial (57). The Judge immediately denied the motion and did not mention the events for the remainder of the trial. Ball was also permanently dismissed from the court based on the accusation that he had laughed, despite the fact that multiple of the defendants, Hayden included, admitted to laughing (84). The Judge took advantage of the situation and further inconvenienced the defense. There was now one less lawyer on the defendant’s side, one less person to combat the systematic prejudice of the court system. A judge should be seen as impartial and above reproach, yet Judge Hoffman acts in a completely different manner. The actions of Judge Hoffman, such as the mispronunciation of names and removal of Stu Ball, caused Hayden to describe the atmosphere of the courtroom as containing “dreary oppressiveness” (218). The dejected tone in this statement allows the audience insight into how exhausting the trial was. The binding and gagging of Bobby Seale began the transformation in Hayden and also clearly shows the bias of the court. Seale’s lawyer was not able to attend the trial due to surgery, and Seale wished to defend himself.  The Judge, however, would not permit Seal to speak (33-34). After multiple attempts at exercising his constitutional rights to defend himself, the Judge ordered Seale bound and gagged (65). The Judge was easily able to deny the only African American on trial his right to free speech. Clearly, something about the governmental court system was wrong and needed fixing. This cruelty of the court is a prime example of what Hayden knew he should protest against, evidenced from his distraught mindset after seeing Seale gagged in the courtroom analyzed above. 

“The Thing”

A concept that I constantly reflect back on when looking over the literature we studied is “the thing” that Vinen mentioned in 1968. It’s a funny way to describe the tumultuous era because it is basically a way of connecting the movements that popped up around the world without actually connecting them. Yet it also apt because connecting all these movements is a tall task when even the isolated protests didn’t necessarily have a unifying ideologh. We studied the fictional tale of two young boys in Northern Ireland and were able to connect it to eight activists in America who got thrown into court together and made a mockery of the judicial system. But why did we connect the various pieces of literature that seem like they shouldn’t really have much to do with each other? Because they capture the effects of the energy and the attitude that swept the globe in ’68. They capture “the thing.”

“The thing” is a fascinating topic because it was able to capture the attention of the world. Only around 1% of American college students were activists in the spring of ’68, yet when we think of ’68 we think of the swarms of activists on college campuses. This shows how the theatrics that activists displayed as a result of their attitude worked. Regardless of one’s opinion on whether the ’68ers achieved their goals, they captured the attention of the world. They were able to deploy “the thing” to capitalize on the chaos that American involvement in Vietnam caused and the prominence of the media to draw attention to their causes and show that change needs to occur. “The thing” is so powerful because as we learned it is universal and as we witness the events of 2020 unfold it appears to be timeless.

Contrast in Battle

Northern Ireland today is a solemn place. There is a sense of a gaping wound only just barely healing day after day as you walk down the streets of Derry/Londonderry or stroll through the neighborhoods of Belfast. The pain that is felt by the residents is tangible, hanging in the air like a thick fog. If you engage someone on the street in the conversation and mention it, they’ll tell you that the tension is thick, and that they are not at peace internally. This overcast tone permeates the American culture today, yes, but the true feelings seem to be those of the fiery nature. Hearts and minds seem to be ablaze and searching for an unbelievable amount of change.

It can be argued that most Americans are searching for peace, maybe. However, the energy surrounding the current climate in the United States seems to be anything but healing from a wound. After completing this course, I have realized that the same sentiments existed in the 60s and 70s. The conflicts in Northern Ireland had an air of grief and reluctance and recognition of unifying qualities, as we saw in The Informer and Pentecost. In the United States, however, the fiery Trial of the Chicago 8 and the burning desire for change inspired by Huey Newton were fueled by anger and a “shot” at the system that is supposed to provide justice. I’m not sure why this contrast is so apparent in my mind, however I believe that the 68ers in America were fighting against each other and against a tangible government that is right in front of them, while those in The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland were battling with a government hundreds of miles away and with people who believed in peace. These are such different types of battles, and the contrast glares out amongst all of the similarities.

Misconceptions and View Points in History

I believe this course has helped me alter my perspective or at least has made it possible for me to see things from another person’s perspective. One example would be the Black Panthers. I had never been taught much about them previously, but I know that I had learned that Malcolm X had a more violent plan for gaining civil rights than Dr.King, so I think this caused me and many others to just assume that the Black Panthers were bad and violent, evil even. It seemed to me that they were trying to undermine Dr.King’s idea of non-violent protest by being violent, and that was not good, so I associated with violence. One of the biggest reasons it seemed they were seen as violent were their guns they carried around. Seeing them walking around with big guns in their hands could understandably cause misconceptions about them and their ideals, but the issue is that no one thought to ask them why they were doing it. As we learned from Huey Newton’s memoir, the guns were basically just for show. They were trying to prove a point, and trying to protect themselves at the same time if a situation occurred and it got really bad, which they had plenty of reasons to believe was possible. It’s interesting to think how the Panthers would have gone down in history, or are really still going down in history as, because people focus on how they look, rather than what they’re saying.

This idea of how people look has been an issue since the very beginning of America, and that is a big problem that we still face today. I will say it myself, and I hope many in America today can make this claim as well, and it’s this- I don’t care what the color of your skin is, I don’t care if you look different from me or even think different from me. If you respect me and my ideas, I’ll respect you and your ideas. We should be able to disagree on issues here in this country without it turning into a screaming match or riots, but that is our rights as Americans to do that as well. We have been given the freedom of speech, and many of us need to speak up and use it otherwise it is going to be taken from us and it will be too late for us to do anything about it.

I have confidence in this country. I took another English course this semester that covered the years from when America was first founded to the Civil War, and there were numerous problems at the beginning of this country, but we survived. We can see from this course that there were many problems from 1968 that are eerily similar to the problems we are facing today, but, again, we survived 1968 and we will survive this year. America and Americans have a resilience that is nothing short of admirable. One of our biggest problems we are facing today is this idea of misconceptions and differing view points, and the problem is not that they are present, but rather that we refuse to acknowledge them. We like to pretend things are alright and cannot bother us if we just ignore them. We can’t ignore the problems in this country because they won’t just go away. They need to be acknowledged and fixed. If we were all just to listen a bit more to each other, these problems could be addressed and fixed, not without a lot of hard work. If we put the work in, this country can be as great as we all know it can be.

Witnessing 1968

Looking back at everything we’ve read and discussed this semester, it’s hard for me to pick a favorite text. All the texts we read convey powerful and personal testimonies of the divisive conflicts riddling American and Northern Irish society in 1968. Reading the stories of civil rights leaders, excerpts of court trials of protesters in the US, and the historically-rooted plays about Northern Irish citizens offered me a lens into the deeply emotional effects this traumatic and tense period had on peoples’ personal lives. The witness of these authors enables us, even fifty years later, to feel some of the emotion they felt in the midst of that chaos, and it allows their stories to continue to engage and effect social change in new audiences.

What I think many of these authors give witness to is the need for a personal sense of solidarity to overcome violent divisions. The Troubles, the U.S. civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War protests all grew violent because people refused to build relationships and truly encounter the “other.” When oppressive systems continually deny people their rights, frustration and a loss of hope provoke the oppressed to turn to violence as a last-ditch effort of calling attention to their struggles and prompting an immediate reaction from the larger society. Most of the texts we’ve read, however, affirm that violence is not the answer to violence. From the agape love promoted by MLK to the “Christ in each of us” that Marian recognizes in Pentecost to the revolutionary suicide that Huey P. Newton espoused, an overarching theme of the texts is the call for solidarity–the ability to look beyond yourself and commit to the common good—that enables us to fight injustice while bringing about reconciliation and community in times of conflict.

At the beginning of the semester, I didn’t understand how a whole course could be devoted to two nations’ experiences with a single year. Why learn so much about 1968? Was it really that special of a year? After reading all the texts from this class, I understand the significance of this tumultuous year and can see why it matters today. I think it’s crucial to recognize that remnants of the conflicts of the 60s often still exist in 2020—Northern Ireland is still grappling with its violent past and the wounds left by the Troubles, and this summer woke white America up to the undeniable persistence of systemic racism in our nation. These texts, then, are not just historical literature. They offer us insight into how to deal with modern conflicts, showing us how both violent and nonviolent responses to conflict have played out in the past. The overarching messages of justice and a love that overcomes division by recognizing the humanity of the opposing side, however, are timeless. Drawing on these texts gives us a framework for contextualizing conflict and finding a path forward to reconciliation, even today.