Two springs, 50 years apart: Reflections on then and now


It was the spring of our discontent.

America was at war in Vietnam. And Americans were at war with one another.

Although sharply divided opinion was the flashpoint, this domestic conflict was more broadly a battle between the established culture and an increasingly vocal counterculture.

It was the spring when societal tensions that had long been festering reached critical mass, heightened by a stunning and disorienting series of events that would define this time and help shape generations to come.

It was a half-century ago, the spring of 1968.

On March 31, I watched President Lyndon Johnson, waging a widely unpopular war and facing challenges to his leadership from within his party, dramatically alter the political landscape by announcing that he would not seek re-election that fall.

On April 4, I watched as the shocking news came that civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., had been assassinated, leaving the movement he personified at a critical crossroads.

On June 5, I watched in disbelief reports that Robert Kennedy, younger brother of an assassinated president — and now a candidate to succeed Johnson as the Democratic standard-bearer — was gunned down following a speech celebrating his victory in the California primary.

We seemed to be having a national meltdown. It was a tough time to be young, an emerging adult trying to find my way, when everyone else seemed to be losing theirs.

In the midst of all this, on April 23, a student rebellion erupted at Columbia University, where I was a sophomore. It developed into a seismic event that reverberated around the world, becoming a counterpart to a huge student uprising that started just 10 days later at the Sorbonne in Paris.

I don’t know about my French contemporaries, but 50 years later — in the absence of credible American leadership willing to constructively confront random gun violence, freshly ignited divisions over immigration and race, climate change, and other grave threats in a dangerous, “post-truth” world — whatever feeling of déjà vu I have regarding 1968 is eclipsed by what I see as a cri de coeur from so many of today’s young people trying to navigate this moment.

As they cope during this spring of our discontent, the moment seems familiar, but also profoundly different.

At Columbia in 1968, the protesters’ core issues were the Vietnam War and institutional racism, both seen as having the support of the university through its policies and project proposals. Student opposition was passionate and argued largely on moral grounds.

But most of us were experiencing and expressing our moral outrage in the abstract. We weren’t the ones fighting and dying in rice paddies half a world away, in a war we believed to be unjustified and unwinnable. And, it was only the black students among us — a distinct minority — who endured the reality of racism in a bastion of white privilege. 

In the spring of 2018, a generation of even younger students now faces coming-of-age crises of its own. But what for many resonates as their core issue is not experienced as an abstraction.

An epidemic of mass school shootings has made them fear for their lives. That fear is palpable. If their schools are not safe, they ask, what is? And most alarming, as their elders offer “thoughts and prayers” for the fallen, is that their pleas for something more have fallen on deaf ears.

Until now. Enter the kids of Parkland, Florida, survivors of one of the most recent tragedies. Their response, marked by eloquence and resolve — and the willingness and ability to take action — has forced us all to take notice.

I saw them help mobilize a march on the Florida state capital that was successful in getting the Republican-controlled legislature and the Republican governor, in a decidedly pro-gun state, to pass a bill which, among other things, raises Florida’s legal age for purchasing a firearm from 18 to 21. That would have been unthinkable without them.

And this spring they have played a leading role in the “March for Our Lives,” a nationwide protest against gun violence. I then watched as they helped commemorate the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shootings in Colorado. And I actually got off the couch to attend a “Town Hall for Our Lives” in my local community, with both the event and my participation inspired by Parkland.

It was hosted by a 16-year-old.

As I have watched these kids, I have had flashbacks. They remind me of 1968, but their idealism, unlike ours, is not absolutist and unbridled, a hallmark of our youth. They seem to understand that progress comes in increments, through a process that requires compromise.

We, on the other hand, were inclined to at least appear uncompromising. Today, we would likely be pushing for nothing less than repeal of the Second Amendment, ignoring the fact that repeal is politically untenable.

This Parkland generation would seem more inclined toward the pragmatic goal of amending the amendment, if it could be done in a meaningful way.

One of the hard lessons of 1968 is that to be uncompromising is often to invite unintended consequences. All the social upheaval and physical confrontation of that spring, at Columbia and elsewhere, spilled over into what became a tumultuous, violence-tainted Democratic convention in Chicago that summer.

And Richard Nixon exploited this to ride his so-called “silent majority” to victory in November.

In the age of Trump, that is not the kind of history we want to repeat.

Many in the Parkland generation will cast their first ballots in the midterm elections of November. Those of us who want the kind of world they want should get off the couch and join them.

And perhaps, when they reach the half-centennial of this spring in 2068, they will be able to look back and say they have left their kids a better world than we left them.

Sam Bromberg