NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

April 15, 2013

These were the darkest days I can remember

As I See It
Robert Campbell

---- — I opened the newspaper this sunny day in April looking for news to coincide with the weather. Headlines precluded that happy thought, however: North Korea’s president was racheting up his vitriol with nuclear threats, six Americans, including a young female diplomat, were killed by Afghan militants as they traveled to donate books to students in a school in the southern province of Zabul and lastly, a reminder that on this day, 45 years ago, April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. It struck me like a punch in the gut — 1968 was a tough year!

For those of us in our “twilight years,” remembrances of what was happening in our country are stark and horror-filled, but for at least two generations not yet born, they represent only footnotes in a history book. It was a tragic year, perhaps one of our worst since the founding of our country.

That year saw a continuation of the Vietnam War. What had started in 1960, the last year of Eisenhower’s presidency, with a handful of military advisers, became a full-blown war with over 100,000 U.S. troops fighting a phantom enemy by 1968. Who were the enemy, why didn’t they wear uniforms, why didn’t they stand and fight a “fair war”?

By 1968, we were still six years from ending that long war, “declaring victory” and leaving. Richard Nixon had promised in 1968 that he had a “plan” to win the war, but the military had other plans that included an eventual 500,000 troops in the waning days of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. Today, in retrospect, it seems strange to think, just like a “Twilight Zone” episode, we are reliving the past, especially when you consider that the Afghan War is now our country’s longest war.

I remember vividly hearing that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn., where he had gone to lead a march in sympathy with striking garbage drivers. The year had marches in many cities against discrimination and the war. There was a general feeling that somehow, we were losing our way.

Several days later as King was being buried in Atlanta, I traveled to Philadelphia to meet our local sales representative for some business calls on customers. After a morning visit to Scott Paper we drove to Wilmington, Del., to have lunch with a purchasing agent at Hercules and lunch at the Hotel Dupont. As we sat over lunch trying to talk about business, but consumed with other domestic issues, we heard shouting and sirens outside the hotel.

It was suggested that we leave town immediately! We drove out of the garage and were confronted by hundreds of teens running, shouting and throwing stones at cars. This was their response to King’s assassination by what turned out to be a white man. We sped up trying to avoid hitting anyone. Several rocks hit the side and back of the car, but luckily nothing hit the windshield. We doubled back to Philadelphia, where I caught an early flight back to Newark, N.J. What was happening to our country, I remember thinking?

It was only two months later, shortly after midnight June 5, 1968, that Robert Kennedy was shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after winning the California and South Dakota primaries. We watched his speech late that night when he ended it with, “And now, it’s on to Chicago” and his party’s presidential nomination. His run ended in a hotel kitchen where he was shot in the head. Chicago’s convention became the focus later that year for one of the worst riots in our nation’s history.

There is no need to ask me, “What were the darkest days you remember?” The year was 1968! I shudder to think of what is happening today, not only with the Afghan War, but of political inaction. Nothing good is coming out of Washington, D.C., it appears, as senators and representatives seem totally incapable of placing the nation’s interests first and foremost.

To paraphrase the poet and philosopher, George Santayana, “If good men do nothing to correct evil, they are doomed to the future.” I’m afraid we are in a repetitive mode, but hopefully and prayerfully it will not be as bad as 1968.

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Robert D. Campbell, an essayist from Newburyport, prefers humorous themes, but this 45th anniversary proved overwhelming in its scope.