Can a single cataclysmic event, or series of such events, ever cause really fundamental change in society? Will the Women’s March on Washington movement, for example, continue its political activism through and beyond the 2018 midterm elections? Will the #MeToo movement be the catalyst that finally levels the playing field for women in the workplace? Will the young people motivated by the Parkland school shootings achieve the kind of reasonable gun control that so many older generations have tried and failed to?
The power of the Parkland shooting survivors seems to some like a force that will endure far beyond the next election cycle. Unlike all the previous student “uprisings,” the Parkland protesters are also active participants in the social media of the information age. No long hours at mimeograph machines producing flyers to hand out at rallies. At a Princeton Reunions forum last week on the Evolution of Journalism, a panelist noted the recent taunting of 18-year-old David Hogg, one of the Parkland students, by Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham. The Fox commentator had said that Hogg “whined” about his rejection by some of his top college choices. As the panelist noted, Hogg’s response in a tweet to his 800,000-plus followers was essentially “so you’re going to bully a teenager. OK. Here are the top advertisers on Ingraham’s program.” At that point Ingraham quickly apologized, and went on vacation.
Now there’s a force to be reckoned with. But for how long? And how effective will it be?
I will take a long look at one of those series of cataclysmic events — the spring of 1968 — in depth below. But first some historical perspective, beginning a few years before. It speaks to a question raised about any student movement: How much of it is genuine political and social concern, and how much of it is youthful energy and exuberance, possibly also mixed with a dose of testosterone?
In the fall of 1965 students across the country were beginning to appreciate the war clouds gathering over Vietnam, and what it might mean for the country and for them. Princeton was still known by some as the “northernmost southern college.” Robert S. Mueller of the Class of 1966 would proudly declare his political affiliation in the class yearbook: Republican. He was most certainly in the majority. (I could find no class poll that year of seniors’ political preferences, but in its 10th Reunion year 55 percent described themselves as conservative or middle of the road, 38 percent called themselves liberal.)
At student protests mounted across the country, Princeton’s small band of left leaning students found themselves as curio pieces held up as an example of how pervasive the student protest had become — as in so broad a movement that even Princeton, that bastion of conservatism, now had a branch of the Students for a Democratic Society. Soon enough, the mid-1960s equivalent of a Facebook posting was created: a 10-foot-long, orange and black banner proclaiming “Even Princeton.” The “v” was written in an oval of a peace sign.
In late 1965 the Daily Princetonian reported on an anti-war “march on Washington” attended by 40,000 people including more than 30 Princeton undergraduates, parading under that “Even Princeton” banner. As the Princetonian quoted one of the organizers of the Princeton contingent, the banner “was very popular. People cheered and applauded, and many ran forward to shake hands with us. One alumnus told us he had ‘never been so proud of his school.’”
And the Princeton SDS organizer added, in an aside that could only be appreciated in its fullest by the all-male readership of the undergraduate paper, “the girls wouldn’t leave us alone.”
It’s fair to say that the participants in any social protest movement are influenced by circumstantial realities as well as the sheer idealism of their goals. Looking back at the student newspaper’s reporting of the “Even Princeton” banner’s appearance in the 1965 peace march, you realize the value of contemporaneous reporting. As we mark the 50th anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination and the cavalcade of cataclysmic events preceding it, we can turn to several such accounts.
One was the Reunions issue of the Daily Princetonian, distributed on Friday, June 7, 1968, a little more than two days after the shooting. Fifty years later, in fact, as the Class of 1968 gathered for its 50th reunion, a speaker at a class forum quoted from that issue. I couldn’t find anyone in the class who could recall the exact parts quoted, but since I had a lot to do with the issue’s production, and have recently re-read it, I hope that one section would have been mentioned. It was an unsigned editorial, which must have been written by me, since I was a one-man band, that said, in part:
“The loss of Robert F. Kennedy is a great one. For college students and for young people everywhere the loss is especially bitter. Bobby Kennedy, like his older brother, had an appeal to youth that few politicians — or, indeed, few men — could ever match. But his appeal hardly was limited to young people. He was admired by people from all walks of life — especially those economically depressed or racially oppressed. They will feel greatly the events of this week.
“Today there is a need for Americans to feel concern — not for one isolated madman or, perhaps, one group of conspirators — but rather for the future of their country. For if there is one madman, there are millions like him; if there is one conspiracy it is a conspiracy of millions. The problems of this nation belong to all the people and the grim warnings made at the time of the death of Martin Luther King are worth repeating — and worth heeding.”
And there was a year-in-review article that ended with this:
“The year is over now for Princeton, but many of the problems and issues remain unresolved; there will be plenty for students to become involved with when they return to the campus.”
There was another issue in the air at that time, unmentioned in the RFK-infused Reunions issue. That was the military draft. At that point it was already clouding the future of, yes, even Princeton students. In 1966, Robert Mueller’s year, the person named “most decisive” in the class poll was “Hershey,” a reference to the director of the Selective Service System, Lewis B. Hershey. In the history of the class written for its class book, graduating senior Landon Y. Jones (now a Princeton-based editor and author) wrote that “it may have been stuffy in the ivory tower, but every time we stepped outside we felt a draft.”
After the Reunions issue of 1968 was printed, the paper issued a special edition: “You and the Draft — The Daily Princetonian Guide to the Selective Service System.” In addition to offering strategies to upperclassmen contemplating the imminent loss of their student deferments, there was also talk about a bill for a draft lottery that would ease the concern for some but intensify the pain for unlucky ones who drew a low number.
How this Reporter Got On Board The RFK Funeral Train
Another relatively contemporaneous account was a memoir written by me in 1988, 20 years after the events, when I gathered my thoughts and re-read the accounts in the Daily Princetonian, which I was editing at the time, of the “Princeton spring” and the climactic events of the first week in June, 1968. That spring ends with an unforgettable train ride from New York to Union Station, with images seared in the mind and reinforced by several recent publications and exhibits (see cover caption).
Re-reading that memoir now refreshes my memory about our view of Bobby Kennedy as a hero (the Princetonian had endorsed Eugene McCarthy over Kennedy just days before the assassination), and how — even then — we were less than sanguine about the student protest movement’s long range effects. The account below ends with some sobering thoughts from the Princetonian as we returned to campus in the fall of 1968, just months before the nation elected Richard M. Nixon president:
My column below originally appeared in U.S. 1 on June 1, 1988, and began with a flashback to 1968.
It’s that time again: a Princeton Reunions is coming up, it’s an election year, and we’re about to have presidential primaries in New Jersey and California. In the middle of a warm night that is more summer than spring, at about 4 in the morning, I am awakened by my father, who for some crazy reason is up and watching television.
“You better watch this,” I remember him saying. “Bobby Kennedy has been shot.”
Twenty years later I couldn’t care less about presidential politics (I can’t remember the last candidate I liked enough to vote for), Princeton Reunions (I’ll skip this year, thanks), or even Bobby Kennedy (we know now, and we suspected then, that the guy was no saint). But I am fascinated, I have to admit, by the incredible roller coaster that we all rode 20 years ago. What a year, 1968, to be the editor of a daily college newspaper. I pulled my bound volume of the 1968 Daily Princetonian out of the basement and charted the events of the year.
As we started, Lyndon Johnson was president. Bobby Kennedy was telling friends he didn’t dare run against the incumbent; Eugene McCarthy was alone on the campaign trail; Martin Luther King was about to intensify his campaign for civil rights for “Negroes,” as black people were politely called back then; the Vietnam War still looked like one we might win; and — at Princeton we lived in an all-male environment in which a major issue of “student power” was a change in the parietal rules so that we could entertain girls (sorry, but that was the polite word back then) in our rooms until after 7 p.m. on weeknights and past 11 on weekends.
That was where we stood in January of 1968. Then things began to change.
In February of that year, some campus politicos were talking about whether or not Robert Kennedy would be on the New Jersey primary ballot. A few days later the Princeton chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society performed its first work of “guerrilla theater,” a morality play with a strong anti-ROTC theme.
A Princeton classmate of mine, writing an open letter to the university trustees, proclaimed: “Though you may reject student power, student power may in turn reject you.”
In March the Daily Princetonian noted the death of the Young Democrats on campus. Their energy, it seemed, had been spirited away by the SDS. That wasn’t so bad, we wrote on the editorial page, but “it’s the system that so badly fails its purpose that gives us pause.”
March, 1968, brought with it the temperamental winds of politics, Eugene McCarthy finished a close second to LBJ in New Hampshire — his success prompted formation of a Students for McCarthy group, which listed among its supporters Margot Einstein (Albert’s daughter) and Dick Colman (the Princeton football coach — imagine that! — who later ran as a McCarthy delegate in the New Jersey primary).
A day later we ran a story on a newcomer to the presidential race: Robert F. Kennedy. A few days after that a student journalist corralled former Oregon senator Maurine B. Neuberger, and quoted her predicting that Kennedy would overtake McCarthy and that, in any case, “Johnson is losing the country.”
Less than two weeks later Johnson announced that he would not seek re-election. In an editorial, we opined that “today there is hope again in America and ironically the credit for that must go, not solely to McCarthy or Kennedy, but also to President Johnson.”
All that was action enough to keep student editors on their feet and out of their classes for weeks on end. Four days after Johnson’s announcement, however, we had another story to tackle: Martin Luther King was assassinated.
The Princetonian carried the story the next day in a two-column box at the bottom of the front page. The banner headline that day was “Trustees weigh abolition of parietals” — thinking about those girls again.
By the next week, we realized the King story was one that deserved bigger play. Rioting had broken out in cities across the nation, and even in Trenton — “Negro youth shot to death,” read one headline from the Princetonian. A day later the newspaper reported that the university had announced a three-fold increase in the number of black students admitted.
Clearly the newspaper had no shortage of stories to cover. The trustees issued a major announcement on parietals. But instead of abolishing them altogether, they merely revised them, allowing students to have female visitors until 10 p.m. on weeknights and 2 a.m. on weekends. At the Princetonian, we denounced the decision as a travesty, and predicted that “students may now be forced to try other channels to achieve recognition of basic student rights.”
That debate might have continued for weeks but for the news of the sit-in and takeover at Columbia University. Among the several hundred Columbia students occupying the office of Grayson Kirk and his fellow administrators were two reporters from the Princetonian, who stayed on the scene for more than a week, filing voluminous stories by telephone back to Princeton. A headline on May Day raised the big question for Princeton: “Could it happen here?”
But even the Columbia story paled in comparison to what was being reported in the national press. On May 8 the Princetonian reported that Kennedy had scored a win over McCarthy in the Indiana primary. In that same issue, the senior class recorded its annual poll. In the category of “most likely to succeed,” the winner was the Viet Cong.
In the next to last issue of the spring, we printed our endorsement for the Democratic Presidential nomination: “Mr. Kennedy sports a fine record in the Senate, but his statements in Indiana, the recent revelation that he ordered a wiretap on Martin Luther King’s phone while Attorney General, his thirst for power, and his almost fanatical desire to make the ghost of John Kennedy the next White House occupant — all lead to the conclusion that Robert Kennedy has less intellect, courage, and personal integrity than one of his Democratic opponents: Eugene McCarthy.”
I have vague memories of stumbling through some final examinations, and then heading home to the relative calm of upstate New York for a few days of rest before returning to Princeton to put out one more edition of the paper — the annual Reunions issue. On the day I was scheduled to return I was awakened early: “You better watch this. Bobby Kennedy has been shot.”
Even that issue of the paper, normally a rehash of prior editions, turned into a frenzied effort. Would the P-Rade be canceled or wouldn’t it? It was. I drove to Trenton to get Associated Press photographs of Kennedy, and then to someplace out near Hopewell, I recall, to get them engraved for printing.
In the midst of all that, a call came in from the Kennedy campaign. In planning the funeral Ethel Kennedy had thought of the college students, and wanted some college editors to be part of the press corps covering the funeral, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, and then the train ride to Washington for the burial.
On Saturday I went into New York and, as promised, got press credentials. From the church service we were transported — I can’t remember how — to Penn Station. As I walked to the special train that would carry the body of the senator, his family, his campaign staff, and the press, I recall passing a television camera. Back in upstate New York my parents watched in amazement as I suddenly walked by. To this day they can’t get over the fact that I covered the Kennedy funeral and never told them in advance. If I had known I was going to be on television I might have.
The train ride encompassed all the phases of death, from denial to acceptance. In the beginning, as it passed slowly through New Jersey, the mood was salubrious. Reporters and political operatives who had been working on adrenaline during the frenetic Kennedy campaign were still charged up: talking politics, quarreling, laughing, drinking, talking politics.
Sirhan Sirhan had killed the candidate but the campaign lived on. Gradually, though, the mood changed. The Kennedy family, led by Ethel [visibly pregnant], came through the train and greeted everyone individually.
Then our attention turned to the scene outside the train. All along the way crowds stood in silence along the tracks. By the time we got to Maryland, the train was hours behind schedule. The crowds had only grown thicker in that time. I have memories of old people waving hankies, of others holding American flags, of a huge throng of Boy Scouts, probably representing scores of troops, standing in formation in a field alongside the tracks, all saluting as the train lurched by.
If I had to guess the number of people along the tracks, I would say in the millions. Perceptions, though, were cloudy. As I look back over the spring of ‘68 from the vantage point of 20 years, I can’t believe how quickly some things happened — that King, for example, was shot just four days after Johnson withdrew or that Kennedy’s campaign lasted only 80 days.
The train ride, though, seemed to last forever. The rollercoaster ride of 1968 continued, as well. The Chicago Democratic convention, which I helped cover as a summer intern for Time magazine, turned into a police riot. The people of Prague, Czechoslovakia, were run over by Soviet tanks.
When it was all over, though, nothing really happened that surprised us or that especially heartened us. The events of early June, 1968, had taken a lot of vinegar out of everyone. Back on campus in September, we ran the following editorial in the Princetonian:
“Prague is quiet now. The tanks are still there but the passive heroism is over. Chicago is quiet now. The hospital in McCarthy headquarters is closed. Columbia too is quiet.
“Martin Luther King is dead. Robert Kennedy is dead. The feeling of last spring is dead too. Then, the students in the streets of New York had toppled Johnson. Then, McCarthy and Kennedy appeared to have a chance of giving new direction to the country. Then, something new appeared to have been born in Czechoslovakia, in France, in New Hampshire, and at Columbia. But no more. Humphrey, Johnson, Nixon, Wallace, Daley — they live.
“And those of us who were here last spring at Princeton, those of us who were in the forefront of the movement which led to the spring’s demonstrations, we go back to building better bars and more erotic light displays. Welcome home.”
A 2018 Epilogue
So what do the events of a half century ago tell us about where we are headed today?
It’s easy to be cynical, as even we undergraduates were in the fall of 1968, already burned out, perhaps, by the unpredictable and emotionally draining events of the day.
And we saw that rise and fall of political and social energy rise and fall on more than one occasion in that era. On May 4, 1970, four students were shot to death on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio, when National Guard forces opened fire on a crowd of protesters. The reaction around the country was immediate, and deafening. Here’s what Roger Angell wrote in the New Yorker magazine dated May 16, 1970:
“Perhaps the most astonishing thing about last week — surely the most critical week this nation has endured in more than a century — is that its agonies and bitterness could yield, just a little and at the end, to a stubborn hope. Only the very young are capable of such a quick and deep swing of emotions, but the week belonged to the young; they provided its victims, its rage and energy, most of its history, and all of its sense of a future reopened.
“. . . More than 400 colleges and universities across the country were closed by student strikes or by faculty decision . . . Last week there appeared a new national campus, which will be kept open, now and for months to come, at all costs. The size of its enrollment (voters, legislators, statesmen) is not yet known, but it is clear that most of its curriculum will be in the hands of our college students. Trained to complexity, accustomed to examining difficult and disconnected phenomena and searching them for patterns and connections, they have drawn the conclusions that the rest of the American people must now understand if this last opportunity is not to be lost. . . The war must be ended now.”
What a defining moment! I must have been caught up in the same emotional wave. I vividly recall a conversation I had with Champ Clark, my boss at Time magazine almost a year later. The first anniversary of Kent State was approaching and, as reporters in Time’s Chicago bureau, I reminded Clark, we would be asked to cover the potentially explosive commemoration. Rich, he replied, this will be the quietest week ever in Kent State history. He was right. The wind was gone from the sails of that movement.
The fires burned again briefly after the Vietnam War escalated into Cambodia. But not so many years after that the nation elected Ronald Reagan president, not exactly a campaign centered on young people. And when the U.S. expanded its military activities in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan again, why did we see no marches on Washington? Where was that “Even Princeton” banner? Gone and forgotten, like the days of the draft are now just a memory in the age of the all-volunteer army and its for-profit defense “contractors.”
Today it’s easy to be cynical about the current movements that have risen from the ashes of the 2016 election. But it would be a mistake to dismiss all the efforts of the 1960s protesters, or the young people mobilized after the Kent State shooting. They did not overturn the world order in a day or even a year as some had hoped and dreamed they would. But they did move the needle. Those 50-year-old images taken from and of the RFK funeral train are faded but enduring.
The other evening I heard some heartening words from Michael Robertson, a professor at the College of New Jersey whose book, “The Last Utopians,” has just been published by the Princeton University Press. Admitting that dystopians seem to have the upper hand these days, Robertson nonetheless sees the value in even limited scope utopias, such as a food cooperative, or temporary utopias, such as the Occupy Wall Street movement. My guess is that the Never Again movement started by the Parkland school shooting survivors has some of those same utopian characteristics.
If he were addressing a graduating class today, Robertson said, he would tell the graduates to “dare to be utopians. Dare to do the impossible. Go out and create a transformed future in the here and now.”