1968: A Transformative Year in History & Culture


Some have said that we are living in a time of uniquely tumultuous political and social change. Heated debates around the environment, gun rights, freedom of speech, and women’s rights; rising tensions in  foreign policy and diplomacy; and mounting global terrorist violence all have come to define our world today. For the first time in recent decades, we have seen more women, people of color, and children take to the streets to voice their causes, and some point out that bipartisanship has never felt more pronounced. Yet, history teaches us that such politically- and socially-charged moments are not new, and that current history-in-the-making often carries reverberations of what has come before.

One such past “moment” was 1968, when the Vietnam War, civil rights movement, and counterculture movement converged with other tragic events to result in one of the most explosive years in American history. Race riots, antiwar protests, and assassinations shook the nation—both highlighting existing divides and forging platforms for enduring change, which still echo today. In response to these pushes and pulls, 1968 also saw the flourishing of new modes of expression in the arts, creating a unique popular culture grappling with the needs of its time.

A Timeline Reflects a Nation

Here’s just a sampling of some of the cataclysmic events of 1968:

[Library of Congress] A soldier stands guard in a Washington, D.C., street with the ruins of buildings that were destroyed during the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., April 8, 1968.
January: North Vietnamese launch Tet Offensive (January 31)

February: Kerner Commission Report released (February 29)

March: Chicano Student Walkouts (March 5–)

April: Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated (April 4); Hair, the musical premiers on Broadway (April 29)

June: Robert F. Kennedy is assassinated (June 5); Poor People’s Campaign march (June 18)

August: Richard Nixon is nominated as the Republican presidential candidate (August 8); Democratic National Convention protests turn violent (August 26–28)

September: Women’s liberation groups lead Miss America Beauty Contest protest (September 7)

October: African American athletes give black power salute at Mexico City Summer Olympic Games to bring attention to the U.S. civil rights movement and protest Apartheid (October 12)

November: Yale begins admitting women for the first time in its 300-year history (November 14); Beatles release The Beatles (The White Album), their ninth studio album (November 22)

December: Apollo 8 launch (December 21)

Enduring Implications

Some of these events were great losses that would impact communities, political life, and incite new legislation. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, was a critical turning point in the civil rights movement, particularly away from nonviolence with the spotlight moving to more militant civil rights groups like the Black Panthers. Its immediate aftermath saw demonstrations across 110 cities nationwide, many turning violent and lethal. King’s—and later, Robert F. Kennedy’s—assassination would create impetus for the Federal Gun Control Act of 1968, the first major national gun control legislation.

The year also saw critical turning points in the Vietnam War and popular support for the war. The outcome of the Tet Offensive, launched against South Vietnam by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces in January, dramatically impacted anti-war activism. Although U.S. and South Vietnamese forces emerged victorious, the offensive convinced many in the United States that the war was unwinnable.

[Ralph Morse/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images] Scene from the 1968 production of the Broadway musical Hair.
There were marked shifts in the performing arts, as well. New films of the year—including Barbarella, Funny Girl, and Lion in Winter—depicted American women in powerful roles, reflecting the efforts and concerns of the women’s liberation movement. Stage productions like Hair related the 1960s counterculture experiences of the time and pushed the boundaries of what was “acceptable” in music and in language. But before Hair introduced rock and roll into the Broadway musical, and perhaps influencing its reception, were bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones—who launched the “British invasion”—and native artists like Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan, who transformed the American music scene with their innovative style and protest-driven lyrics.

In the sciences, the launch of Apollo 8 on December 21 took astronauts further than anyone had gone before, broadcasting never-before-seen views of the Earth and Moon. These iconic images of our planet, as seen from space, transformed the way we thought about the universe. This mission was also the first to orbit the Moon and the first to map Venus.

All of these events, and many more, were the result of deep social shifts years in the making—in perceptions around freedom of speech, in the civil rights movement towards economic rights, in what it meant to be a woman or a person of color in America; around expression and what was scientifically possible, and many more. 1968 did not happen in 1968 alone, and it did not end in 1968; in many ways, this year permanently changed how Americans view the role of their government and their roles as citizens in American society.

For ABC-CLIO Solutions subscribers:

Many of our Solutions databases feature engaging content to help students get a better grasp on the important events of this period.


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