On New Year’s Eve, 1968, snow fell on the revelers in Times Square. The New York Times headline ran “World Bids Adieu to a Violent Year.” Americans were hopeful that the Vietnam War would wind down; that the protests would diminish, and that America’s angry ghettos would pacify.
In the Big Apple a threatened subway strike was averted, and the 20 cent fare maintained. Two hit movies, The Sound of Music and Thoroughly Modern Millie both starred Julie Andrews. Hello Dolly and Fiddler on the Roof were tops on Broadway. 1967 had been difficult, but there was cause for optimism. Little did anyone know that the whirlwind of 1968 was about to be unleashed.
When the Viet Cong launched the Tet offensive in late January, Walter Cronkite was caught saying: “What the ---- (expletive deleted) is going on? I thought we were winning this war?”
Then came the month of March. On the 12th , Eugene McCarthy came out of nowhere to finish a close second to Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. Days later Bobby Kennedy shocked the political landscape by entering the race. The shock only grew when Sunday evening, March 31st, President Johnson concluded a speech about the war with the words: “I shall not seek, and will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”
Earlier that very same day, just a few miles away, Martin Luther King, Jr. had given the Sunday morning sermon to a packed house at the National Cathedral. “One day we will have to stand before the God of history, and we will talk of things we’ve done,” he said. “It seems to me I can hear the God of history saying… But I was hungry and ye fed me not. I was naked and ye clothed me not.”
Four days later, Martin Luther King Jr. lay dead in Memphis. Riots erupted in 110 cities throughout the land. 39 people died. 2500 were injured.
Exactly two months later, Robert Kennedy was shot.
By year’s end, 6332 American soldiers had been killed in action.
On this 50th anniversary of the year that was 1968, I ask us to pause. Not simply because you know me to be a student of history who likes to commemorate milestone anniversaries. Not simply because fifty years is a half century, and gives us meaningful perspective.
I ask us to pause at the beginning of this Jewish New Year, as Jewish Americans, because the tumultuous year of 1968 raises questions about tumultuous America today for all her citizens.
Questions that continue to challenge and haunt us ethically and spiritually. Indeed, the legacy of America a half century ago, the legacy of the 60’s in general and 1968 in particular, is so provocative and complex that I realized in composing my thoughts that I would need to do so in two parts. I share Part One this evening and Part Two tomorrow morning.
The year 1968 became a potent symbol for the decade as a whole. Jonathan Darman wrote an article about it, under the title of, "The Year That Made Us Who We Are". He argues that three critical questions emerge from that period that remain front and center in our national consciousness (or should be):
1. If Vietnam taught us to be a humble superpower, why are we still bogged down in wars?
2. If the civil rights movement truly transformed America, why is racism still so potent and why are our cities still so segregated?
3. If the feminist movement liberated women, why do women still struggle, especially in the workplace?
These questions are vital to a truly meaningful debate about America. Darman contends that, whatever the excesses of the decade may have been, the 60’s were “an era when a generation held sustained arguments over the things that have always mattered most.” How we need to elevate our national discourse to talk about the things that matter most. How we need, in 2018, to be having “a sustained argument” over the questions that have not gone away:
1. How should America project its power to the world?
2. How should America overcome its racial and ethnic divisions?
3. How should America address its economic and gender inequality?
In the space of this first sermon I can do little more than raise these most basic questions and begin a response by defining a direction, an orientation of the national soul, as it were, to what I believe matters most. This direction is suggested to me as an American, by our history, and as a Jew, by our heritage. An interweaving, if you will, of the best impulses of our national experience, with the highest teachings of our religious tradition.
After the Second World War our country sensed that only by lending a hand to rebuild a damaged world could the seeds of peace be sown. The Marshall Plan, the United Nations, the Peace Corps were these seeds. Then, and now, threats to peace were real. The Cold War tragically bequeathed us Vietnam. The War on Terrorism tragically bequeathed us Afghanistan and Iraq. The true cost of these wars is still being reckoned.
After the Second World War our country also sensed that by giving equal educational, political and economic opportunity to all its citizens could the seeds of social harmony be sown. The GI Bill (which gave my father his education), the expansion of the public university system, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act, Head Start, and Title Nine were these seeds. These seeds promised us a glimpse of a Great Society. The torch had been passed to a new generation willing to dream a great dream.
Can we, as one nation, dream those dreams again? Can we nurture the seeds whose tender shoots seem stunted and withered? Can we recover from the shattering events of a generation ago, and an election ago, to pursue the Great Society?
I imagine that if King, who would be turning 90 this year like my father, could be with us, he would be saying:
In my time there was a war going on, and in your time there are wars going on. Stand up for justice!
In my time there was poverty amid plenty, and in your time there is rising sea of economic inequality. Stand up for justice!
In my time there was de jure segregation throughout the land, and in your time there is de facto segregation throughout the land. Stand up for justice!
Can we dream of an America where #black lives matter is self-evident?
Where #me too is a relic?
Where #march for our lives is behind us?
Can we dream of an America not of high walls, but open doors?
Not of zero tolerance but maximum compassion?
Not of perks for the rich but prosperity for the poor?
Not of corporate deregulation but environmental protection?
Can we dream of an America where we can have an extended, civil discourse on the issues that matter most?
Can we dream of an America that we are proud to bequeath to our children?
More, as promised, tomorrow... I’m just getting started! For now, I conclude with a final image from 1968. It should come as no surprise to those of you who know me as a space buff. As the tumultuous and nation-searing year of 1968 drew to a close… in the predawn darkness of December 21, three men boarded a spacecraft atop a giant Saturn V rocket at Cape Canaveral. At 10:41 Eastern Standard Time, Apollo 8 broke free from Earth’s orbit. Humanity had slipped the bonds of Earth for the first time.
Early on the morning of the 24th Apollo 8 entered the moon’s gravitational field. Soon after, Jim Lovell maneuvered the spacecraft into lunar orbit, and a first look at the cratered lunar surface 70 miles below. Lovell remembers, “As we kept going, suddenly on the lunar horizon, coming up, was Earth. The moon is nothing but shades of gray and darkness. But the earth-you could see the deep blue of the seas, the whites of the clouds, the salmon pink and brown of the land masses.”
On Christmas Eve, Jim Lovell, Frank Borman and Bill Anders radioed a message to Earth, with a billion people listening in. This was their message:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,’ and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good.Borman ended with verse 10:
And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering of the waters he called seas; and God saw that it was good.
When Apollo 8 returned safely to Earth, thousands of people sent the three astronauts the same message. “Thank you for saving 1968.” Jim Lovell still looks up at the moon and remembers the moment. “When you see Earth from the moon,” he says, “you realize how fragile it is and just how limited the resources are. We’re all astronauts on this spaceship Earth… we have to work together.”
My friends; it is Yom Kippur. A new year is upon us. A new day is dawning. God sees the light. And so do we. And it is good.