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Brad Byrd In-Depth: How 1968 changed America

50 years ago marked a year that changed our lives. The year of 1968 saw the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, riots in the streets, the turmoil at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and the controversy of the Vietnam War.

Brad Byrd talks with Dr. Robert Dion, the chair of the University of Evansville Department of Law, Politics, and Society, about the turmoil during 1968 and how it changed America.

Transcript of interview:

Brad Byrd: "Welcome to In-Depth. 50 years ago. 1968, a year that changed our lives. As relevant today as it was then. Consider this - two assassinations, riots in the streets, an incumbent president so politically taxed he would not seek re-election. And the turmoil of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. You think today's wall to wall coverage is rampant? Consider what we went through then. I'm joined tonight by Doctor Robert Dion -- the chair of the University of Evansville Department of Law, Politics and Society. Dr. Dion good to see you. There are so many 'what if's in that year of 1968… almost the start of a domino effect for society. Share that with us." 

Dr. Robert Dion: "Well, you know, nobody expected that LBJ would decide not to run. He shocked the world. He tucked in at the end of a speech about Vietnam that he would not seek the nomination and would not accept the nomination of his own party as an incumbent president. And so he threw a lot of turmoil into that race. A couple days later, Bobby Kennedy, his former attorney general said, “I’ve decided to jump in.” this was after New Hampshire, so, who knows? Johnson could have run. Bobby Kennedy could have lived. McCarthy could have done better - had a more organized campaign. But we live today with the results of the turmoil and the uh changes that were wrought by that really remarkable year."

Brad Byrd: "And the entire - to put it into perspective - the entire breadth of the 1960’s culminated in 1968. But this really started, in my humble opinion, with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. And that led to a bigger presence in Vietnam, poverty was suddenly an issue - primarily that Robert Kennedy brought up. And of course what Dr. King was fighting for - civil rights. The speech in Indianapolis, Robert Kennedy was urged don’t make that speech - don’t go into this predominantly black neighborhood. But he did. What happens next?"

Dr. Robert Dion: "He had remarks prepared. He was campaigning furiously in Indiana, because he needed to get a win on the board for his new campaign. It was just days old at that point. And Indiana is not necessarily the most friendly place for him, so he was spending money and time. He was campaigning all over the state that day. And he found out on his was from Muncie to Indianapolis that Dr. King was indeed dead. And the locals told him, “Don’t do this.” And he said, “I need to speak to that, uh, that crowd.”  And he extemporaneously spoke to them in some very revealing ways about his own feelings about the murder of his brother. And people noticed later and they still do that we’re the only major city that didn’t erupt into violence that day, and a lot of people attribute it to Bobby Kennedy’s personal testimony." 

Brad Byrd: "And Robert Kennedy in that last shot that you saw, speaking to that Indianapolis neighborhood was wearing the same overcoat that John F. Kennedy had had. He was still extremely tied to JFK, but he had suddenly come into his own." 

Dr. Robert Dion: "And he wasn’t much to talk about his brother in personal terms like that but he did that night. And I think that really helped to, to make the crowd listen. The other thing as well is that he, he uniquely had a connection to the black community. He toured the South. He talked about poverty. He was an ally, especially in ’68 to the civil rights movement. And I think he was able to speak in ways that - let’s be fair - that Gene McCarthy probably couldn’t and some other national leaders." 

Brad Byrd: "And Dr. King and John F. Kennedy - this was not originally an easy alliance… this was a long road. Dr. King had been wanting civil rights to be put on the table in a legislative way for at least ten years. And John F. Kennedy was resisting that.. just to have Dr. King at the table, primarily because of the election of 1960… what was the turning point on all that? That brought not only JFK to that speech he gave in 1963 that he wanted civil rights legislation, but then Bobby Kennedy?"

Dr. Robert Dion: "Well, it's a remarkable for all of us that leaders are risk averse, and they need to be prodded. They need to be prodded by their own party, their own fellow party members, but also by citizens. Citizens of all stripes can come forward and press and push and insist that something happen." 

Brad Byrd: "How relevant is that today?" 

Dr. Robert Dion: "I think a lesson that we can all learn. If not for the August 28, 1963 March on Washington that really ramped up the pressure. I think the assassination of President Kennedy helped to provide and impetus. The country needed some sort of resolution, and so they pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 64 which was very heavy lift. It almost didn't pass. And I'm sad to say in a week for now, we'll be marking the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act which itself was passed in the act of an assassination, and the country said we need to do something to atone for this terrible loss." 

Brad Byrd: "And throughout all of this, Vietnam ... when those original troops, and John F. Kennedy sent the advisers in. Robert F. Kennedy ... most politicians wouldn't have done this ... but he told crowds in 1968 we made a mistake here. With that being said, we pick our presidential nominees much different now than what happened in 1968. There were primaries, but there were also the backrooms." 

Dr. Robert Dion: "You better believe it. It's a different world. On the ballot that year in May of '68, Indiana was Roger Branigin running as a favorite son. He was our Indiana governor, the Democratic governor, and he was a stand-in. And that was the practice in many states. We have to remember back then before '72, most states didn't have primaries. So the delegates who showed up to national conventions were part as a retinue of a party boss, a leader who was there to wheel and deal on the floor of the convention." 

Brad Byrd: "Many ways this blew up on the streets of Chicago during the Democratic Convention. Hubert Humphrey didn't run in a single primary." 

Dr. Robert Dion: "Not a one." 

Brad Byrd: "Not a one, and here you see. I remember the phrase 'The whole world is watching.' What did that do for our psychic? Did that change us forever in some ways?" 

Dr. Robert Dion: "The country was afraid, and it's not just America. If you looked at France, France descended into martial law conditions and strikes and worker uprisings and deaths. It was really just a raw time. I tell my students I don't wish that on anybody. I don't think we want to revisit those times, but Chicago was tough. You know, people are fond of saying that the Democrats who were beating up the yippies in the streets ... the police who were beating up the yippies were Democrats and so were the yippies." 

Brad Byrd: "Mayor Daley." 

Dr. Robert Dion: "Yes, the Democrats inside the room were yelling at each other. Mayor Daley was yelling at Abe Ribicoff in ways that I can't repeat, and it was tough time. The country was being torn apart, and it didn't get much better in '72 because we went to Watergate. It was really ushering in a new and unpleasant time." 

Brad Byrd: "Alrighty. Dr. Robert Dion from the University of Evansville, thank you so much for being with us tonight, and people should care about what happened 50 years ago. That may seem like an eternity away even for young people who weren't around at that time. What a valuable lesson it was. Thank you so much, Bob. We appreciate it." 

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(This story was originally published April 5, 2018)


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