Top Ten Tragic Events During the '60s
I have written often of the 60’s, that strange, exciting, turbulent decade in our history in which I came of age. When the decade began I was a naïve twelve-year old without a care in the world. When the decade ended naivety was in my rear-view mirror and my eyes were permanently pried open by the realities of the modern world.
It began on an incredible note of promise. A young, vibrant President urging citizens to contribute to the world, to make a difference, to summon up the courage inside each of us and help humanity reach its potential. It ended in a dazed state of bewilderment, cringing each day as new horrors were delivered to our doorstep.
There was no hiding from the Sixties. It simply was not possible to pull the covers over our heads and find protection. Every single concept of normalcy was stomped on and tossed aside and for those of us who lived through it we will forever be branded by the events of those ten years. For better or for worse it was what it was, a rollercoaster ride that ran the entire spectrum of emotions.
Let us now turn our attention to ten events during the Sixties that served as a sobering reminder that for every light that shines there is a darkness and that no matter how far mankind has come since our cave-dwelling days we are still capable of returning to that darkness. The events that follow are in chronological order for the simple reason that when discussing tragedy it seems callous to give a ranking order. How does one distinguish the most tragic?
I also left out the construction of the Berline Wall, the beginning of the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. A purely subjective decision on the part of this writer as the word “tragic” did not seem to apply to those events.
Let us now turn our attention to the dark side of the 60’s.
The Kennedy Assassination
June 11, 1963
Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk in South Vietnam, disgusted by the continual persecution of Buddhists by the Catholic-dominated government of that country, took to the streets of Saigon and established a new standard of horror.
Calmly sitting down in a busy street he doused himself with fuel and burned himself to death. This writer will never forget the photograph of the fully-engulfed monk AND the look of serenity on this face as he died. It was then that my previous concept of sacrifice was quickly adjusted and my awareness of religious persecution was born. It is one thing to read about atrocities in a textbook; it is quite another to see the result of that persecution in living color.
November 22, 1963
Is there anyone who does not know what happened on that day in Dallas, Texas? I can tell you what happened for me that day. Mr. Jahner, my sophomore English teacher, came into our classroom and announced that the President had just been assassinated and my first thought was that it wasn’t possible. It could not happen in the United States! Those kinds of things happened elsewhere in the world but not here! Someone has made a mistake!
It was no mistake and in that act of hatred the hopes and dreams of an entire nation seemed to disappear. It was as if we had taken a ferocious body punch and the air just exploded out of our lungs. There was no knockout but there was definitely a mandatory eight-count as our legs wobbled and our heads tried to clear.
June 21, 1964
Philadelphia, Mississippi was the site of an act so vile as to leave most Americans stunned. Racism, which had silently infested the fabric of our country for centuries, finally was given a face and a voice as three anti-racism activists were lynched outside that sleepy Southern town.
We all knew, of course, that racism existed in the United States. We had only to walk down our own streets, north or south, east or west, to hear racial statements being made. It was by no means limited to the South in 1964 but it was relegated to the closet of American consciousness until those lynchings were made public. As a nation we could no longer pretend that it did not exist or hope that it would not be “a problem.” With the advent of television the nightly news would no longer allow us to hide from the truth.
August 11-15, 1965
Four days of rioting the likes of which we hadn’t seen in quite some time occurred in the Watts section of Los Angeles. Blacks took to the streets in protest of racism and poor living conditions and when the rioting had ended thirty-four were dead. What more could happen?
It turned out to only be the beginning of turmoil in the streets of the United States. By this time our collective virginity as a nation was lost, never to be regained. All thoughts of returning to the old days were gone as what was once considered the unthinkable was happening with a regularity that left many battle-scarred without ever leaving their livingrooms.
July 12-17, 1967
Racial riots again captured our attention, this time in Newark, New Jersey. When the fires had been extinguished and the pain and suffering had been tallied twenty-six had lost their lives. However, this was just the undercard of the main event that would happen six days later.
Pretty well captures those days
July 23, 1967
Detroit, in many ways, was the perfect setting for the riots that occurred this day leaving forty dead and thousands injured. With a heavy black population and a disproportionate income base that clearly reflected economic inequality, it was only a matter of time before this ugliness happened.
The summer of 1967 felt like the entire nation was burning out of control. Countless demonstrations were held, many of them violent, and the conflagration that was Detroit was mirrored in dozens of other cities not only in the United States but around the world. On practically any night of that long, hot summer our senses were pushed to overload by racial violence and scenes of horror from Vietnam.
March 16, 1968
In a little village called My Lai in South Vietnam we discovered the true horror of warfare. Between 350-500 villagers, men, women and children, were massacred and mutilated by United States soldiers led by Second Lieutenant William Calley.
As the days and weeks marched on and the facts became known it became painfully clear that principles we once held to be the bedrock of our society were no longer, replaced by the realization that war is not always the good guys versus the bad guys, that oftentimes the distinction between good and evil is so blurred as to be non-existent.
April 24, 1968
The King is dead! Martin Luther King, a voice of reason amidst a cacophony of hatred, was assassinated. For many of us, and this is in itself sad to say, the murder of Dr. King was not a shock. It was almost expected because our lives had reached a point where the unspeakable was the norm.
Yes, the man who had a dream had died. All that remained to be seen was whether the dream itself would die as well or would there be another voice of reason that would rise up and carry the banner of equality and peaceful protest.
Robert Kennedy spoke in tribute of King, calling on Americans to find common ground, lay down weapons and refrain from striking out in grief and anger.
The riots and deadly protests continued.
June 5, 1968
My passion for politics died in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968. The assassination of Robert F. Kennedy seemed to be the final straw. Where once there had been one last chance to get it right there now remained a very bleak outlook on the future and hope was seemingly lost.
The shining knights had all been slain and in their place stood hatred and mistrust guided by the desire to strike down anyone who dared to speak of peace and humanness. I wept that night as did millions of others around the world. Looking back I’m not sure if I wept for Kennedy’s death or if I wept for the complete loss of hope that his death signified.
August 6-7, 1969
Perhaps the worst of the worst happened on a hot summer night in August in Southern California. It did not happen because of racial inequality nor did it happen because of our ongoing conflict in Southeast Asia. In the quiet of that night, and the night to follow, a seemingly peaceful neighborhood was visited by pure evil in the person of Charles Manson and his followers.
When the bloodshed had ended, when the final letters of madness had been carved into human flesh, we were all left with a complete emptiness of spirit. I know of no other way to describe it. Human nature had sunk to depths we could not comprehend.
I can remember each of the aforementioned acts as if they happened yesterday, rather remarkable considering that four decades have passed. The Sixties held such promise only to see each and every promise crushed. It was a fun decade and it was frightening. It was a hopeful decade and it was despairing.
Looking back I realize that I loved those ten years. Looking back I realize that I hated those ten years.
In the final analysis it was simply life and all that it entails. We are, after all, only human and as such we all have the capacity for incredible good and yet, time and time again, we fall short of our higher calling.
So it was during the Sixties; human beings being human!
2012 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)